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Sat 19 Apr 2014 10:38 AM

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Design for life: Tecom's Dr Amina Rustamani

Dubai’s d3 – a district earmarked for the fashion industry – aims to draw in creative talent both regionally and internationally. Tecom group chief executive Dr Amina Al Rustamani explains how the $2bn plan will work

Design for life: Tecom's Dr Amina Rustamani

It’s a $3 trillion global market and Dubai’s next target. The Dubai Design District — marketed as d3 — is intended to create the most connected design hub in the world, and potentially spin the prestigious fashion industry as far east as it’s ever been on a significant scale.

The 4.7 million square metre mega project will be the emirate’s 23rd free zone and aim to attract international brands and local designers alike, across a world of creativity as diverse as furniture, art, architecture, technology and fashion.

Boutique hotels and residences and a plethora of trendy bars and restaurants along a 1km-long waterfront also will help forge what is essentially a business park into a hip destination for residents and tourists as well.

While the big names will help plant the roots, Dubai is promising to cultivate its own generation of designers by attracting up and coming talent from around the world.

“We are very aggressive in our plan,” Dr Amina Al Rustamani, group CEO of Tecom Investments, which is developing the free zone, says in her very first response to Arabian Business.

“The ultimate goal is to have the next global brand coming out of Dubai. Why not?”

Why not, indeed. The city is only eight hours from 90 percent of the world, making it well placed to draw together not only designers themselves - both internationally established brands and local upstarts – but the tailors and manufacturers needed to bring the products to fruition.

Dubai also has already established a relatively cosmopolitan culture, distinguished by its parallel Arabic influence, as well as its focus on luxury. With the continually growing relevance of the Arabic world and Islamic fashion and design making a headway, Dubai not only has the economic potential to join the likes of New York, Paris and London on the fashion stage but the distinction it is going to need to stand out.

“When you talk about fashion, you always hear of Milan and Paris and New York and London. Hopefully we’ll be at that level but offering something different,” Al Rustamani says.  “The strategy is not to repeat - bring the French designers here – [but to create] something that is unique for the region, and if we look at the Middle East, Dubai is really the gateway for both sides [East and West]; even for people coming from Europe, if they want to be exposed to or near the Asian market then Dubai can certainly be the gateway for that.”

Since the Dubai government announced plans for d3 in June last year, it has registered at least 500 expressions of interest in office, creative and retail space and already is licensing future d3 businesses and allowing them to operate in other free zones operated by Tecom, a member of the Dubai government’s investment firm, Dubai Holding.

More than 100 design-related organisations already operate in one of Tecom’s nine free zones, including Leo Burnett, Hermes, ESMOD, Nike, Puma and Harper’s Bazaar. Al Rustamani says the initial interest for d3 is coming from existing Tecom members and others in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Far East.

“We’ve received a fantastic response even from investors on an international basis to develop boutique hotels and different concepts that will be new and unique for Dubai,” Al Rustamani says.

“[That] tells you the concept is something people can relate to and they’re looking forward to seeing that.

“[Even] media companies called me up and wanted to move to d3 because it’s something unique, something that’s exciting.”

Design follows a string of industries for which Dubai has launched dedicated ambitions to excel at, including tourism and hospitality (particularly luxury), retail, finance, Islamic finance and trade. Through these sectors, it has proven its ability to develop credible industries at an international level, and fast. Design could just be the next one.

Dubai Technology and Media Free Zone Authority (DTMFZA) director general Ahmad Bin Byat (also the CEO of Dubai Holding) said at the launch of d3, the global fashion industry alone is worth more than $3 trillion a year.

With the growing demand for brands and luxury goods in the region - the Middle East luxury market grew by more than 10 percent in 2012, establishing the region as the 10th largest luxury goods market globally - Dubai is well placed to tap into the lucrative market. Al Rustamani says the industry has been on the emirate’s radar for some time but the global financial crisis in 2008-09 delayed its plans.

“We’ve been really monitoring the design segment for quite some time and we had some plans even before the [economic] crisis to do something, like a cluster or a district, although maybe not in the same shape or form that we have here,” says Al Rustamani, who has worked with Tecom since 2001.

“When you talk to luxury brands - we’ve spoken to quite a few of them – [they say] ‘yes we want to be linked [to Dubai]’. Luxury brands are always linked globally with art and culture because this is the source for their end product, it is a way they appreciate creative people in their field.”

Naysayers will argue Dubai has a long way to go to becoming internationally recognised among designers, or anyone with a deep sense of culture. For a long time it has lacked facilities for dramatic and musical performers at all levels; art galleries have struggled to make a name for themselves; and fashion has barely existed outside the city’s massive malls.

But things are changing. The Opera District in Downtown Dubai is well under construction and according to Tecom there are seven genuine couture designers in the emirate, including four that have registered to move into d3.

The Al Quoz industrial area also is organically transforming into a chic urban attraction, with new galleries and quirky cafes becoming destinations in themselves, as well as the occasional public art event.

The Dubai government last year launched Fashion 2020 – a clear strategy outlining its aim to make Dubai a fashion hub, including raising the profile of contemporary regional fashion and Islamic fashion. Closely aligned to d3, the strategy also includes boosting fashion training programmes and events.

Al Rustamani, an Emirati, “tends to disagree” that Dubai lacks culture but she concedes it has been wanting for attention in the past.

“It’s not about lack [of culture], it also has to do with demand and it’s maybe more about its visibility,” she argues. “There are a few [designers] but maybe some are more related to our [Arabic] culture and they’re hidden; for expats or tourists it’s not [obvious].

“[Also], maybe the support was not there but the population in Dubai is becoming sophisticated and the demand is different [now].”

Al Rustamni says she’s seen “a lot of interesting talent out there” and she’s keen to draw in new designers from around the world, in keeping with Dubai’s reputation as an expat hub.

“We have fantastic talent around, whether they are UAE nationals or people who are living here or from the region, from Beirut or Egypt or India or Russia,” she says. “So it’s there, it’s just you need to create the right environment for them, not only from an infrastructure perspective but also from incubation, regulatory support, and other support that they will need.”

The key to d3’s success will be creating a location that is instinctively for anyone creative — a place that not only harnesses designer talent but attracts residents and tourists with flair or who are interested in visiting somewhere unique.

Designers already in Dubai are usually tucked away in areas such as Al Quoz and Karama, where you often need to know where to go before you go.

“They will always say ‘we’re hidden somewhere, it’s very difficult for people to come and see us [and therefore] we don’t have that common place where the footfall will be high, like Soho’,” Al Rustamani says.

“Even you hear it from the tourists, they say ‘okay now we go to Dubai Mall’ but they always ask, ‘where do we go for something that is really special for Dubai?’”

The total cost of the project, located minutes from Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping centre, is unknown but is likely to exceed $2bn. Tecom is contributing an initial AED4bn ($1.2bn) and expects to reap the rest from investors. Its funding will be used for phase one, including the first 11 buildings, although their exact uses are yet to be determined.

“We’d like to reflect what d3 would be in 10 years in phase one so people could relate to what we have there,” Al Rustamani says.

Phase two of the development will focus on d3’s expansive waterfront area – twice the length of Jumeirah Beach Residence - and add an eclectic mix of food and beverage, retail and entertainment elements that will see the area remain active 24 hours a day.

There will also be a pop-up shop zone, niche hotels and a convention centre, with landscaping to include unique street furniture and public spaces intended to become an inspiring gathering point.

As a mega design district should be, the concept of d3 “will be different”, Al Rustamani says, but comparable to the New York Garment District where stacked warehouses see artists living on top – or in – their workshops and alongside suppliers, tailors and production facilities.

“This is what we’re trying to do,” Al Rustamani says. “This is the dynamic we’re looking into [but] it’s an early stage to really tell you how it will be.”

The development also will need to be affordable; emerging artists are known for living hand to mouth.

“We’re looking at it in two ways: we need to develop an affordable product for them, but at the same time we need to make sure that the footfall is there for them to display their product or have people see their product, so creating the right business environment for them that will bring them opportunities but at the same time be reasonable and considerate of what they will require,” Al Rustamani says.

“When you speak to [emerging designers] they always say, ‘just give us the basics’ and they can do wonders with that. And that’s really the idea.”

On top of infrastructure, the Dubai government also is considering a series economic and regulatory measures to support budding designers, including a new visa that could be based on the present freelancing category.

Investors will be approached to offer financial support during the initial stages of a designer’s business, while Al Rustamani says the government is considering “soft incentives” for start-ups, such as free or subsidised rent and forms of non-financial support such as training.

“We incubate them that way and we also mentor them, in terms of how to present their product, how to write their business plan or how to really package their product, or how to even have art galleries or areas to display their work,” she says.

“We also have a lot of networking events to match them either with investors or people who will appreciate their work.

“We’re doing a lot of focus groups with them to really see how we can package solutions for them.”

Small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) in Dubai have struggled to gain access to finance, particularly following the GFC. A stock exchange dedicated to SMEs, as part of the Nasdaq Dubai, was expected to launch last year but is yet to be implemented.

Al Rustamani says while she “100 percent” agrees SMEs need better financial assistance, she insists it’s coming.

“Dubai was build on entrepreneurs and people developing business here, right, so that’s something for sure that’s important.”

Also on the agenda is intellectual property [IP] law. The UAE’s IP regulations are up to international standards but Al Rustamani insists there will be further studies in a bid to keep up with the ever-evolving fake goods industry – one of the greatest nemeses for designers.

“Intellectual property is very important,” she says. “It’s not that we don’t have proper laws, it’s just making sure the compliance and implementation, is there.

“We have to make sure we’re up to the [world] expectation if we’re talking about global brands or we’re talking about new technologies or other new things we’d like to see there, so that’s important.”

d3 comes at a perfect time, as Dubai prepares to host the World Expo in 2020 – by far the largest international showcase of ideas.

“We’re very lucky, Expo 2020 is really all about innovation and creative industry so for me this will be a really nice journey [with d3] from a planning perspective and also when it’s operational,” Al Rustamani says.

“When you talk about such a huge event you need a lot of investment when it comes to infrastructure, in terms of marketing, other media events and design, and the event itself will really encourage people to participate one way or another in terms of innovating solutions, new products and new ideas, so Tecom will try to make the most out of it.”

Hundreds of new businesses are expected to join Tecom in the years leading up to the Expo, as well as existing businesses expanding.

In 2012, Al Rustamani told Arabian Business she was aiming for 7,000 businesses to be registered with Tecom within ten years. Today, there are well over 4,500. So does she still believe that goal is achievable?

“Yes, it’s a possibility, for sure. The growth is fantastic,” she says. “We’ve seen growth in some [free zones], like Dubai Industrial City, at 33 percent. For other free zones it’s 15 percent, so it’s showing very healthy signs.

“Occupancy wise, Dubai Media City and Dubai Industrial City are more than 95 percent full, so people are pushing us to develop more and we are.”

With growth moving so fast, Al Rustamani says Tecom may build its 11th free zone in the near future, but for now it is focusing on expanding existing developments.

“[Total] occupancy is above 80 percent, so [we need to ask] what other developments do we need to have, like we did with our prime locations Dubai Media City and Dubai Internet City.

“There, development is at 70 percent so the focus is on how to really grow the other zones to attract more businesses and investors.”

A significant proportion of Tecom’s businesses relate in some way to design, whether they’re in media, information and communications technology, or science. And Al Rustamani, an engineer, has always enjoyed “thinking outside the box”.

“It’s the Eureka moment,” she says. “It’s very nice when you come up with something that really adds value to people or to the society or to the business you’re in. The process of thinking, or the way you reach it, is unpredictable, that’s very exciting.

“So the Eureka moment is addictive, once you get into this. And learning from such people, I tell you creative people are quite interesting and it’s very nice to be around them, you get inspired.

“It’s unbelievable how people can be different and that environment and the buzz and the creativity around you is completely fantastic, you can learn a lot from that.”

Hopefully, this is exactly the atmosphere Al Rustamani and her team will create at d3, where the next Versace, Gucci or Elie Saab will launch. With a Dubai twist, of course.