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Dubai vying to be world's next fashion capital

Friday - 2/14/2014, 12:34pm  ET

In this Jan. 30, 2014 photo, Amina Al-Rostamani, head of Tecom Investments, presents the Dubai Design District master plan in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Dubai and luxury are nearly synonymous. The city is home to the world’s tallest tower, massive manmade islands in the shape of palm trees and a fleet of police cars that include a Ferrari, Lamborghini and a $2.5 million Bugatti Veyron. To boost its glamour factor and economy, the city has its eyes set on the multi-billion dollar a year global fashion industry, which is currently dominated by the U.S., Europe and Japan. (AP Photo/Aya Batrawy)
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AYA BATRAWY
Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- Dubai and luxury are nearly synonymous. The city is home to the world's tallest tower, massive man-made islands in the shape of palm trees and a fleet of police cars that includes a Ferrari, a Lamborghini and a $2.5 million Bugatti Veyron.

Now, to boost its glamour factor and economy, the city has its eyes set on the multi-billion-dollar-a-year global fashion industry, which is currently dominated by the U.S., Europe and Japan.

But in the Middle East, Dubai is the powerhouse, raking in almost half of the region's market share of retail spending.

As people in other parts of the Arab world grapple with protests, violence and turmoil, Dubai's modern skyscrapers, over-the-top glitz and flair for opulence provide the well-heeled a seemingly endless supply of indulgence and distraction.

Real estate services firm CBRE ranks Dubai as the second-most important destination for international retailers, after London. A little more than half of all major international retailers have outlets in Dubai, and a third of all luxury spending in the Middle East happens here, according to consulting firm Bain and Company.

But the city's officials want more. They want Dubai to evolve into a hub of creativity that attracts the region's best designers.

Construction has already begun on a massive project called the Dubai Design District, or D3. The site is dedicated to the fashion industry and will house design studios, boutique hotels, high-end apartments and, of course, a promenade for shopping.

The first phase of construction on the 1.7 million-square-meter (18 million-square-foot) site will cost around $1 billion and be ready by 2015, said Amina Al Rustamani, CEO of Tecom Investments, which is developing D3.

She says the idea is to bring creative minds together under one umbrella.

"So the idea was like, OK, why can't we create a SOHO destination for these designers to be in, one place where you have specific events and activities and promotion for tourists to come and see really what is special that Dubai could offer to them?" she said.

With foreigners making up roughly 90 percent of its population, Dubai's designers say the city is great for new brands and entrepreneurs who want the world to take notice. The port city's location links trade routes from east to west.

"Dubai is a melting pot. There are over 200 nationalities here, so there's always a different target audience to cater to without even leaving the country," said Shaimaa Gargash, one of three Emirati sisters behind the 3-year-old fashion label House of Fatam.

Of $7.6 billion spent in the Middle East on fashion in 2012, just under a third was spent in Dubai alone, according to Bain and Co.

Local designers say there is a misconception that Arab women in the Gulf -- who traditionally wear long black robes over their clothes and matching black scarves over their hair and even faces -- are not daring when it comes to what they wear underneath and in front of other women.

"They are actually more adventurous than people think," said Lamia Gargash, one of the founders of House of Fatam.

Lebanese designer Zayan Ghandour says fashion is not merely a luxury, but a necessity in this part of the world.

One of three women who own Sauce, a highly sought-after brand of boutique stores with six branches in the United Arab Emirates, Ghandour says the majority of her customers are Gulf Arab women who are not afraid to experiment with bright colors, bling and the latest trends.

"The lady in this part of the world takes her fashion very seriously," she said.

Saudi designer Lama Taher says her brand, Lumi, is selling out across the region because Arab women have learned to value locally made products, rather than only wearing international luxury brands.

"They love to flaunt their beauty, but there are different ways to do it and different platforms. It can be in public, or in (private) gatherings and parties and events," the 27-year-old said.

Capitalizing on the growing interest in local brands, D3 will be built up over the next decade to act as a gateway for emerging designers from South Asia to North Africa.

"We believe Dubai Design District will be different than what you hear about in Milan or Paris. ... We want to create our own identity," Al Rustamani said.

If Dubai wants to offer something unique and authentic, it will have to attract designers from outside the UAE, says Egyptian jeweler Azza Fahmy.

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