By Salma Awwad
Arabian Business unveils the truth behind Dubai’s home-grown couture industry
Amongst the piles of voluminous organza fabric, breathtaking assortments of multi-tiered wedding dresses and bedazzled corsets sits Ezra Santos. Humble to the core, frivolous in his thoughts and talented down to the bone, he recalls the days when things were much simpler in the local couture scene.
“Couture ateliers in Dubai are like mushrooms that are sprouting every single day and in a few months these same outlets close shop,” he says. “Tailoring shops that call themselves couture places are a lot, I have really lost count of how many there are. There is a saturation in the market, but if I’m talking in terms of quality, there’s only a few.”
Couture is the highest and most exclusive genre of fashion design. Garments are often hand-made and conjured from the finest fabrics, with purest-quality seaming. An abbreviation for Haute Couture, the term is protected by law in France, with clear rules that define the craft; such as custom-fitting the clothes to a specific client.
The couture industry in Dubai is a relatively recent phenomenon. Only 25 years ago, both well-heeled locals and average housewives were accustomed to going to the souq, buying their own fabrics and getting their dresses made at a local dress shop. There were no malls in which to go shopping, and there were no brands, per se, available. You didn’t have designer names owned completely by the designers because they had to have partners and local sponsors. Couture designers that have made their mark today used to design for fashion houses that were owned by businessmen.
And that was exactly the case for Santos, who had to work for almost a decade at House of Arushi before opening his own atelier (workshop). Now, he’s a globally recognised local couturier, opening the doors to his own label in 2004 and currently running a million-dollar business with a team of 65 staff.
He somehow finds a way to stay grounded amidst all his success. Speaking to the shy, yet vivacious dreamer, one would never guess that he has worked regularly with the country’s top-brass clientele and has dressed a multitude of stars, including Haifa Wehbe and Britney Spears. His intricate and lavish creations can’t be considered as anything but true couture.
“Ninety percent of what I produce here is handmade, and ten percent is by machine, just to have the durability,” Santos says. “Every single piece of crystal, beading and embroidery is done by hand. Creating the dress and the moulage on the mannequin is all done by hand.”
A wedding dress takes about 15 days to make and another five days to do the embroidery, depending on how intricate it is. From the cutters to the tailors to the bead workers, between 20 and 30 people work on just one dress.
“To produce the wedding dress it would take a month or two, from the designing and sitting with the clients, to doing the beadwork samples and multiple fittings, which is all accumulated in the hours of what we do,” Santos explains.
So what is the real difference between what goes on in Dubai and the Haute Couture world of Paris? To earn the right to call yourself a couture house and to use the term Haute Couture in any way, a designer must abide by a set of predetermined rules put forth by members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
Ezra Fashion House meets all of the requirements, with the exception of just one: ‘Have a workshop (atelier) in Paris that employs at least 15 people full-time’.
“Paris has made a rule of what couture is, and I think it is wrong to put a rule,” Santos says. “If a single dress is 90 percent handmade, taking hours and hours of work to meet a customer’s specifications, it is couture.”
But not everyone in the industry deserves this title. After visiting over 80 self-proclaimed ‘couture’ shops around the city, only seven of them are truly deserving of the name. The rest are amplified tailoring stores with skills that are arguably dwarfed by the likes of Santos, Amato’s Furne One, Rami Al Ali and Michael Cinco.
The roads of Jumeirah, Al Wasl and Al Muraqqabat are packed to the brim with such tailoring shops. Add to that the wide array of offerings available in Satwa’s Al Hanaa Centre, and you end up with 100-150 stores in Dubai alone.
But the seven key players that possess a true couture calibre stand out in the market. They have a well-established following and a loyal client base, both locally and globally. Cumulatively, they rake in about $50m in profits annually and sell an average of 300 evening and wedding dresses a month.
It is not easy work, however. Unlike many other fast-growing industries that require the founder to simply submit a turn-key project, delegate operations and allow the business to flourish remotely, this is an ancient craft that requires a unique vision and rigorous follow through. Conjuring new sources of inspiration, creating runway collections, catering to the client’s personality and even the manual labour are all required on a continuous basis.
“There are a lot of upcoming designers,” Santos says. “They think that it is easy to put up an atelier because they have the money. They get a designer, get a tailor and leave them alone to produce. I think that’s what’s happening at the moment. But I do believe that every single atelier should have the original founder involved and [be] more hands-on.”
A deep understanding of design concepts, fabric behaviour and the art of sublime finishing is pivotal to this institution and financial backing alone will never be sufficient to keep a couture business afloat, according to those in the business. But raw talent paired with a deeply embedded drive and passion can indeed foster much-coveted financial success.
In fact, figures show the average return on investment on raw materials is a staggering 70 percent. However, once all the effort and time is taken into consideration, the return on investment goes down to a still-healthy 55 percent.
The celebrated designers of Dubai can command a hefty price for their creations, with an average price tag of $11,000. The most basic evening dresses start at $5,500 and custom-made wedding dresses have been sold for north of $70,000 to local clientele. A well-known fact in the industry is that the true home of couture buyers is right here in the Middle East.
“Couture in Paris is dead, but not in Dubai,” says Santos. “In the Middle East a lot of ladies want something that is really special. Some of the richest people can go and order Haute Couture, and I must say what’s keeping Haute Couture in Paris is that most of their clients are Middle Eastern.”
Bong Guerrero, another veteran of the couture industry in Dubai and the founder of Fashion Forward, echoes Santos’ sentiments.
“Really it makes more sense to show here,” Guerrero says. “I was having a conversation with one of the designers early in the morning today and asked ‘would you go to Paris to show there’? He actually answered ‘why would I go there? The money is here. It’s status over there but the market is over here.’ So why go somewhere else to sell back here? Your largest fashion consumers are in the Middle East, especially in Dubai.”
Fashion Forward is now an official Dubai event sponsored by the Department of Tourism. In Season 2, in October, 21 runway shows took place, which featured 23 apparel designers and 50 accessory designers. It is a platform where creations come to life in a heart-pounding and awe-inspiring line up.
“The couture market in Paris is alive because of Middle East buyers; this is something that everyone knows,” Guerrero says. “If you give them a reason to show here by just glamourising the presentation and magnifying the designers while making sure you get the support of the government, eventually, buyers will come because a good chunk of the couture buyers are right here.”
According to Guerrero, tastes are changing and a new wave of design sensibility to couture is emerging in the region.
“Up until ten years ago, the local clientele still demanded the heavily embroidered and embellished beaded gowns; I was very much a part of that,” he says. “Now you have proper couture that is taking place, and the need for embellishment is not the primary focus anymore.”
But with such a thriving and lucrative industry, only a handful of the seven key players are locally active. In this season of Fashion Forward, only three of the 21 runway shows were couture.
“If I put [on] a couture week, I know I will get 50 applications, I just don’t think there are enough high-calibre houses there,” Guerrero says. “There are some that are already showing abroad, I think for them to come back here and show will be a bit of a challenge. I think we will first have to gain a lot of history, credibility and accreditation from the international community, and then they’ll start seeing that it makes more sense to show here.”
He adds: “When I start really bringing the international community here, to buy and to comment, then it will happen. But right now, there is simply not enough to warrant a separate couture platform.”
Amongst the three couture designers that showcased their breathtaking collections this season was Amato’s Furne One.
The lusciously regal and wondrous universe created by Furne demonstrated the glamazon’s endless supply of creativity as he pushes the boundaries of the regional fashion scene and introduces his new Prêt-a-Couture line for the first time.
“Fashion is evolving; the new generation wants it simpler, sexier with fewer crystals,” Furne says. “There are still clients that want it full-on, but not as much. So, we are evolving also, we are trying to make it more mainstream.”
Even though he is one of the most coveted local couture designers in the region, Furne possesses a similar demure demeanour to that of Santos.
“Every day I am learning and as a designer I grow every day,” he says. “My involvement in the collection must be 100 percent. Every time I do a collection, I also think of the music, the make-up, the hair, the accessories. I always think of these things, not just the dress. I’m involved in every single aspect. Of course with a good team, but I’m always 100 percent involved.
There is no doubt that Dubai is the “in” place to be right now in the world of couture. The business is evolving, demand is soaring, and with government support through projects such as D3 (Dubai’s upcoming Design District), the industry is rising to a whole new level.
While most admirers of fashion and those in the scene love the glamour of Fashion Week, with its latest designs and trends, at the end of the day, designers want to sell. And that includes the need for international buyers in order to boost Dubai’s international couture status.
“You’ve got to fake it till you make it,” says Guerrero. “As long as we are in agreement that this is a long-term vision and nothing will happen overnight. It’s an investment from all the stakeholders, whether you’re the designer, or the buyer or large retail groups or the media or the government — we all have to pull in our efforts and be patient. New York didn’t happen overnight, you need to demonstrate consistency.”
That is certainly reflected in the sentiment of local designers, who all spoke of Dubai’s infinite potential and their drive to be part of its global success. As Guerrero says: “It’s happened to every single country. There’s always a sprinkling of local designers who wanted to make clothes for their followings. Then their business flourished, they got bigger and all of a sudden there was retail followed by glamourised fashion platforms. That’s what happened to Paris — Coco Chanel had a dress shop. So it’s really a natural pattern for any market and it’s our time now. It’s Dubai’s time.”