Dubai is having a fashion moment. Towards the end of 2021, Chanel and Armani held shows in the city, and last month Hugo Boss unveiled its global rebrand in the dunes of Dubai. It is not just the European brands that are getting attracted, though. Indian fashion brands are eyeing the city as well. And it makes sense. With most major Indian designers having stores in the main metros, the Middle Eastern city seems to be a good fit for the “next fashion city of India”. One in four people in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is of Indian origin, and many of them are high net-worth individuals. If you go to Emirates Hill, many of the plush sprawling villas are owned by wealthy Indians who have made Dubai home. But it is not only about the Indians. Arabs are also known for their love of shopping and have the highest per annum spent on fashion in the world, and with South Asian and Middle Eastern dressing cultures having an overlap, there is certainly a local market for Indian clothes. Mukta Shahdadpuri, a fashion stylist who hosts pop-ups for Indian designers and has worked with Tarun Tahiliani and Shantanu and Nikhil, among others, says, “There isn’t really much of an offering in terms of Indian designer wear apart from the periodic trunk shows and pop-ups that take place locally, so there is a real opportunity here.”
As Indian fashion is looking to get global, they realize the need to have their own flagship. Pakistan’s Faraz Manan, one of the few South Asian designers to have opened a flagship in Dubai, has a suggestion: “I think you need to take baby steps when looking at this market. Pop-ups are wonderful to get to know a market, but I think the time is now right for more designers from India and Pakistan who have been present in the market to make that investment and open a store in this region.”He adds, “There is an appreciation of South Asian craftsmanship from our region here, and more representation can only help that grow.”
Bollywood’s favourite designer Manish Malhotra, who has a loyal following in Dubai, had a store in Dubai for many years, with a local partner, but it was closed due to an economic shuffle in the city at that time. He is itching to get back to retailing space in the city again. Malhotra says, “Dubai is truly one of the most multicultural cities in the world and is ready to take on Indian fashion.”
Other designers who have an eye on Dubai right now include Rahul Mishra and Tarun Tahiliani. Sabyasachi Mukherjee recently opened a store-in-store at multibrand fine jewellery store Bayt Damas. Shahdadpuri believes the Indian designers “looking at this market need to mix up their offering to include designs and silhouettes that appeal to the local Arab aesthetic such as kaftans, gowns and more modest wear to capitalize on the market at all times. It would also make sense to house fusion and resort wear to cater to the large segment of holiday-goers and well-travelled expat community.”
It seems Indian accessories brands might be making it to the city before the clothing labels. The founder and creative director of Nappa Dori, a handcrafted leather label, Gautam Sinha is opening a store in Al Serkal Avenue. “Logistically Dubai makes sense, it has a diverse population, many of whom are aware of the brand. Other markets like America are an ocean and need a lot of investment,” he says. Amrapali’s Tribe, a fashion jewellery line, is also looking for space in Dubai. Its CEO Akanksha Arora says, “Dubai is definitely next on the list for us.”
The interest in the city is not new. In the early 2000s, some Indian designers did try and open stores here, including J.J. Valaya, but many had to shut stores soon for several reasons. Arora sheds some light: “In a span of just over two decades, Dubai has managed to transform itself into a thriving metropolis. It has also developed into one of the most attractive tourist destinations. But in the early 2000s, the city was still in the development phase. Today, it is a global city of fashion.”
It is important for Indian designers to remember that the competition is strong in this market. Dubai is home to over 65 malls. They house stores that have scale (Miu Miu’s largest store in the world can be found in Dubai), service (most luxury brands offer home shopping services) and competitive pricing (with many HNIs having a second home in Paris, London and Los Angeles, they are well-versed on global pricing). With every international brand spending on activations in this market, the customer expects to be pampered, so you need to have deep pockets and smart marketing strategies in place before you look at Dubai. As Manan warns, “A store in Dubai requires a much larger investment than it does in India or Pakistan.”
However, if Indian brands take a long-term view on the market, Dubai not only opens up a new customer base for them but gives them access to the high spending Indian and Pakistani community who live here.
Sujata Assomull is a journalist, author and mindful fashion advocate.