Pretty things have to make commercial sense too

The UAE, particularly Dubai, boasts a dynamic and growing fashion market that’s also fiercely competitive. Any brand or designer – local or global – seeking success in such an overcrowded market has to offer some uniqueness to click among a set of target audience. The beauty about this market lies in its cosmopolitan crowd – fashion savvy locals and expatriates coming with their own fashion sense. Hence, the fashion market offers a chance to every single player dabbling in this sector – be it globally known luxury brands, niche ateliers, mid-to-high-end concepts as well as value fashion retailers.

We speak to the UAE-based Lebanese fashion designer Aiisha Ramadan, who recently made a transition from couture to ready-to-wear, about her experience of being part of the highly dynamic Middle East fashion fraternity

What makes the regional fashion market so lucrative?

The UAE, more specifically Dubai, is akin to that ‘American dream’. People come here to make their dreams come true. And most people do it, somehow. That’s because the UAE welcomes entrepreneurship, innovation, creativity infused with commerce, offering chance to every globally known brand, home-grown concept as well as up and coming designer gain a foothold. However, the market is also fiercely competitive, requiring every such concept to quickly develop their unique selling proposition to survive.

Over the years this market has undergone large-scale transformation. Initially it lacked identity. There was a huge gap for designers to set the right standards. When I was starting my business there were hardly any fashion designers around. Today the UAE offers a lot of support to budding fashion designers and creative entrepreneurial concepts through the likes of the Dubai Design District (D3) and the Dubai Design and Fashion Council, among others.

How will D3 nurture emerging local talents and the region’s creative thinkers?

Just like Dubai Media City brought together all the media companies, D3 also seeks to bring together creative individuals and businesses to foster creative thinking and innovation. It seeks to push the bar up high, eventually attracting regional and global buyers looking for local talents.

There are globally known designer labels as well as local talents like yourself. What is your point of differentiation?

I stay true to my DNA, which is a huge differentiating factor. It really is all about self-discovery, which reflects in every line, pleat and stitch that I do. I use distinctly different stitches. My fabrics are pleated in a unique way. And finally the silhouettes, embroidery techniques are also very unique, making duplication extremely difficult. They all fall within very refined lines. My creations are elegant, simple, effortless yet timeless, season-after-season. I like designing pieces that offer continuity, ones that will look good even after five years.

From couture pieces to ready-to-wear, why did you make this transition?

I always wanted to make ready-to-wear pieces. If you look at my archives and old collections, you’ll find a ready-to-wear appeal. But ready-to-wear is an incredibly difficult and different market for someone like me who had no commercial guidance. Fashion schools in the Middle East teach couture, but not commercial aspects related to ready-to-wear. And couture, despite intricate design details, is easier to sell than ready-to-wear. In ready-to-wear, you’re trying to penetrate thousands of homes, which is very challenging.

Of course couture is very close to my heart – something I dealt in for almost close to a decade. However, I was always on a look out for consultancies, for someone who could guide and teach me. And finally I met Asil Attar – a global fashion industry expert who has established Est2014 to scout, mentor and support young designers from the region and beyond.

For almost 18 months her team and I worked on restructuring my business, literally down to every piece. It was such an epiphany. Rebranding meant everything had to change. I’d to choose between being a couture designer spending a lot of money to participate in fashion shows and establishing a brand to leave a legacy to last for years. And I chose the latter option. The experience is truly incredible. It has changed me not only as a designer but as a person.

Your experience of designing the first ready-to-wear collection

The first collection I developed post rebranding was City Lights Autumn/Winter 2015. Through City Lights I attempted to break the cliché around my previous collections and set the expectation right. There will be more complex designs and cuts, moving on to core silhouettes. It is very interesting. In the couture world we’d introduce some 50-to-55 designs per collection. In ready-to-wear we introduce five silhouettes, 20-to-25 designs or looks. It is, therefore, more focused and commercial.

I received remarkably constructive feedback for City Lights AW 2015. A lot of them were shocked and equal or more extremely happy. It was really a mixed feedback, quite in line with what I was expecting. It was such an enriching and overwhelming experience at the same time.

What are the dominant colours and trends in fashion this season?

Like every fashion designer, I also consider the colour trends reports. But when Asil and I saw the colour prediction for this season, it seemed rather washed out. And for me spring is all about fresh colours. So we’ve used some of the most elegant off white shades, watermelon-like fuchsia, hot pink, purple and mustard hues too.

Tips to budding regional fashion designers

  • Learn to perfect your product

  • Sell it at an existing store rather than building your own boutique

  • Don’t overspend on fabric; it has to make commercial sense

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