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Beyond the Burqa

The inner-workings of fashion in the progressive Middle East make it a complex world to comprehend unless you’re living and breathing it; which I have been this summer. The Middle Eastern fashion world and their customers want the best and only the best, the newest and the most expensive, and with this attitude they have become fundamental in the preservation of Harrods in the economic downturn. The biggest buyers of haute couture today are centered around the Gulf –Saudis, Kuwaitis, Qataris and nationals of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will quite happily spend £40,000 on a low-cut dress for an event they can attend sans males.

Fashion freedom in the Middle East is a serious subject with women often using it as a political statement. Laws on clothing were formulated by the countries’ religious practices and cultural customs which state that women must wear a daily uniform, commonly known as burqas, in public places. However, they are beginning to make their own choices; their appearance is no longer completely dictated by men. They buy designer burqas, changing the style from season to season and creating their own fashion hierarchy. Evidently making great progress, Middle Eastern women simultaneously hold a fascination towards the opulent, colourful extravagance of some Western/European designer brands.

The first half of my summer was spent working in the beauty and skincare departments of Harrods. I was to be at the beck and call of the wealthy, and their frivolous and extravagant buying habits left me in utter fascination. Described by Simon Mills of the Daily Mail as ‘bling-ionaires’, Arab customers rule over the Knightsbridge area and transform it into what he calls ‘Little Kuwait’. They love London for the fashion, and Harrods returns their love by fulfilling their every need. Harrods, in what they’ve jokingly nicknamed ‘Middle Eastern Season’, base their sales and opening times on their Middle Eastern customers. Every year they increase their summer target based on these big spenders. Flamboynt brand promotions to grasp the attention of the glamorous Arab women with use of the words ‘exclusive’ and ‘brand new’ are strictly imposed. Their tastes are very specific: they like the most extravagant, colourful brands, consciously or subconsciously defying the colour black. In equal defiance of the fashion tradition of classically French, sophisticated, monochrome or beige chicness, they prefer to be cutting edge; the Middle Eastern outlook focuses on the future and the prospect of what comes next. Part of the Harrods motto describes the store as ‘quintessentially British’, despite Intelligent Life magazine claiming it has ‘belonged to the Middle East’ since 1985 when theFayed Brothers took possession of it.

And now here I am, officially a ‘Jumeriah Jane’; a nickname for the multitude of Dubai’s ladies of leisure. Life is sunbathing and shopping in the fashion metropolis that is Dubai Mall. And by night, diamond-embellished bars, accompanied by copious amounts of free cocktails based entirely on one’s looks, height and most importantly, clothes. I’m now on the other side of the looking glass…

I asked luxury brand consultant and fashionista, Rosemin Manj for her professional perspective on the subject: “Middle Eastern fashion has evolved over the last 10 years. The majority of international brands have opened stand-alone stores throughout the Middle East, which allows the local clients to shop regionally rather than going to Europe/America.”

She also called my attention to the fact that international brands have taken into account their weather conditions to determine fabrics, and adapted to regional tastes, for example Tom Ford’s Arabian Wood fragrance, and Temperley London’s Abaya. Not only that, but despite the presence of fashion weeks, style blogs, and incredible designer brand-filled malls, many prefer to fly to Paris, Milan or London than shop locally so they can have more choice and see up-to-date collections. Demand is so high that luxury labels such as Dior have to avoid selling the same dress to members of the same circles attending the same event. For Middle Eastern women, couture is a symbol of social status and success.

The women of upper Middle Eastern society crave uniqueness, and it is this demand that has brought undeniable success to the home front. Middle Eastern designers such as Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad have enjoyed incredible success, and further progress is simply unquestionable. For now, keep your eyes out for Queen Rania of Jordan, and Shaikha Mozah of Qatar. Their sumptuous style proves there is so much more to Middle-Eastern women; a glittering world that is slowly revealing itself from underneath the burqa. And this Jumeirah Jane is proud of it.

Ashiana Pradhan

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2 Comments on this post.
  • shelina
    11 September 2012 at 15:17
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    great article!

  • Shemin
    8 October 2012 at 21:37
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    Beautifully written and well elaborated.

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