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Dubai: A second home for Indian fashion designers

With a large south Asian population and growing appetite for India’s traditional yet global designs, Dubai has become the place to be

Considered the fashion capital of the Middle East and the commercial capital of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is a cultural melting pot
Considered the fashion capital of the Middle East and the commercial capital of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is a cultural melting pot (iStockphoto)

When it comes to fashion, the relationship between Dubai and India is set to become stronger this year. Late last month, designer Manish Malhotra opened a 5,000 sq.ft store in the Dubai Mall, one of the world’s most sought-after destinations for luxury brands. Situated above Valentino and Cartier, it is the first South Asian store to have a space in the mall’s Fashion Avenue, a section dedicated to international luxury brands. Despite having a long relationship with Dubai, staging fashion shows and retailing in the city, this marks Malhotra’s first standalone flagship here. It’s also his first store outside India.

“My entry into Dubai was not just strategic but also deeply personal,” Malhotra says, talking about the store, designed by Gauri Khan. “My advice (while zeroing in on a location) would be to delve into the intricacies of the city, its people, and the ever-evolving landscape, ensuring creations resonate with the people’s spirit while staying true to the brand’s roots.” His store houses wedding lehngas and saris, besides evening gowns and kaftans, with some pieces made exclusively for the cosmopolitan Dubai market.

Designed by Gauri Khan, the Manish Malhotra store in Dubai has a private salon and jewellery room.
Designed by Gauri Khan, the Manish Malhotra store in Dubai has a private salon and jewellery room.

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Like Malhotra, several established Indian designers, like Tarun Tahiliani, Masaba Gupta, and Rahul Mishra, are now aiming to expand internationally in the hope to become a global brand—and Dubai seems to be an obvious port of call. “The region’s recent growth trajectory has made it an enticing retail destination,” says Yash Dongre, the business head at Anita Dongre, a designer brand that opened its first store in the city earlier last year. The 1,600sq.ft Dubai store, the second international address after New York (inaugurated in 2019), opened its doors just in time for Ramadan.

“We always knew our second international retail outpost had to be in Dubai,” says Yash. “There has never been a better time to test and explore international waters as a brand of Indian origin. It was a moment of pride to be the first Indian designer to open in the Dubai Mall. Dubai’s ability to reach a large south Asian population enhances its appeal for brands. There are many cultural similarities between India and the UAE, especially in terms of silhouettes and embroideries. Plus, there’s an increasing sense of respect for our people and our crafts in the global landscape across arts and culture, a long time coming.”

Considered the fashion capital of the Middle East and the commercial capital of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is a cultural melting pot, with Indians accounting for over 27% of the population and Pakistanis, over 12%. With Emiratis making up around 11.5%, the south Asian influence is substantial. From what Dubai watches (read Bollywood) to what it eats (biryani seems to be among the most popular dishes), South Asia’s influence is evident. Small wonder then Indian fashion strongly influences dress codes in Dubai, for both local residents and European expatriates.

Last year, influencer and entrepreneur Masoom Minawala Mehta moved to Dubai, after having spent most of her life in India and Europe. She says, “For Indian designers considering a venture beyond their home country, Dubai is undoubtedly an intelligent first step—it’s accessible and offers a gateway to an entirely new customer base.”

Besides fashion names, other luxury brands are also eyeing the high-spending Dubai market. Good Earth, for instance, is set to open its store near Mall of the Emirates in the first quarter of 2024.

Opening a store in Dubai, especially in one of the better-known malls, however, is an expensive affair. Nappa Dori, known for handcrafted leather goods and accessories, opened its space in Al Serkal Avenue, the city’s art hub, about two years ago. With a café within, its founder Gautam Sinha aimed to offer an immersive experience. “We chose Al Serkal from the start as we wanted to integrate with the city’s cultural fabric,” says Sinha.

But for independent brands, it’s better to enter via a local retail partner to help with the high costs, he suggests. Indian creatives should not depend too much on the diaspora market when entering Dubai, he says. “Arab communities appreciate Indian design sometimes more than Indians do.”

Till recently, many Indian designers have catered to the Dubai market with pop-ups, as it doesn’t require a high investment. It does, however, limit a label’s ability to create a brand experience and be seen as a global player. Sinha says, “I believe in permanent stores and am not a big fan of pop-ups, as both require similar effort. Once you establish a consumer base, having a permanent space helps build trust between the brand and the consumer.”

As growing number of Indian designers now aim to be global players, having an international store has become a logical step. Leading local e-commerce destinations such as Ounass and multi-brand stores like Etoile already include Indian designers in their selections, as Gulf-based retail players have realised the growing appetite for Indian fashion in the region. What’s more, with many Indian designers now being backed by corporates—Reliance, for instance, has a stake in Manish Malhotra, and US private equity firm General Atlantic, in the House of Anita Dongre—they are able to invest in the market. Minawala Mehta says, “Dubai is often perceived as the fifth city of India due to its strong connections and a strong Indian diaspora.” Though, she suggests, “It is crucial to be locally and culturally relevant. Respecting the local surroundings is key.”

As a designer who has been coming to the city for years, Malhotra is already well-entrenched in Dubai’s landscape. He says, “The genuine affection for Indian craftsmanship in Dubai comes as no surprise, as the local audience has embraced us wholeheartedly.”

It seems Indian fashion has its eyes closely on Dubai as the second home for Indian fashion.

Dress Sense is a monthly column on the clothes we wear every day.

Sujata Assomull is a journalist, author and mindful fashion advocate.

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