Why Gulf Designers Fail to Make it Internationally: Some Tips on How to Improve

WARNING: If you are easily offended, please do not read this. I am in no way, shape or form trying to bash anyone. I have received much tough love myself and it really helps to grow. It was only when my professors in college told me my essays were "crap" and had me in tears asking where I received my (crap) education that I stayed up all night to write something really fantastic. It's only when someone told me I was terrible that I found it in me to try my hardest. I don't intend to make people feel bad, I am not a nasty person who wants to hate on innocent young designers. In fact, I would like to feel proud of the designers we have here, but I feel they have a long way to go and no one to say it to them. I just want to point out the obvious truth to help maybe someone out there realize that they need to try harder to reach the top. It is meant as an encouragement, not an insult. I am speaking from experience. 

This is not attacking brands that are do not follow my personal taste, I address basic requirements for luxury designs that are core values of the industry. 

It's such a shame. If you just glance at the Gulf in relation to design talent you will find 4 obvious facts:
1) We have a lot of money starving artists do not have to begin our own projects
2) We have no taxes.
3) We have a relatively small and encouraging retail environment for luxury brands.
4) Khaleejis spend money on luxury products and are always on the lookout for novelty.

Two questions:
1. Why isn't there a single Khaleeji who has made it/has the potential to make it at an international level?
2. And why do we have such a horrible reputation abroad for being "sack-of-money designers" with no taste, quality, innovation or longevity?

There are three criteria for creating luxury fashion goods:

1) Directional Design: This is NOT an option. If you are  fashion designer, you are a leader not a follower. You create trends, you do not follow them. That is what Zara is for. You need an idea that does not include cliches. Meaning you need to think about it.

2) EX-E-CUTION: FIT. CAPABILITY TO HANDLE MATERIALS. PERFECT FINISHING. This is the biggest problem Khaleeji designers have. Your local tailor shop guy does not have the capability to sew a 1000 KD garment.

3) Self-criticism and Accepting Criticism From Others: You are never as amazing as you think you are. If ten customers tell you dress sucks, it's not because they're jealous. Your dress sucks.

I was watching this talk from Fashion Forward Dubai and loved Caterina Minthe from Style.com. Guns out.
When the interviewer asked basically what the problem is with Khaleeji designers she mentioned that they cannot handle criticism and live in a very congratulatory environment. Every one claps, every one buys, and they still suck. TRUE.

Lets go in reverse:

3) We live in places where criticism is taken as a form of personal attack. I don't think I even need to say this, you all already know. Criticism cannot be taken as a valid complaint but a case of you vs me. Khaleeji leaders/politicians do it, Khaleeji parents do it (how many lazy ass kids in your high school had their parents blame the teacher for their bad grades), and our Khaleeji friends do it.

If you find something wrong with a designer, you can't mention them by name because everyone will be like "BUT HOW COULD YOU MENTION HER NAME... BLA BLA... REPUTATION... BLA BLA DONT BE A BITCH" ... and then you're the bad guy.

... Jeeeez guys, calm down! It might actually encourage the girl to change something! You'll never go to the gym if the mirror shows you a picture of Candice Swanepoel instead of yourself every morning.

If a store won't take your stuff because your stuff is BAD, then obviously it's the stores fault. The buyer is a huge bitch and really snobbish. Plus its probably because "shayfa nafsha and hates your friend" or something. Obviously not because your clothes are BAD. No way, man.

--BTW just because some celebrity wore your clothes doesn't mean your clothes are good, it means you paid your PR. That does not mean your clothes will sell--

2) FINISHING. I have never (and I mean this like 100 thousand percent from the bottom of my heart) NEVER seen good finishing on the clothes or accessories of a Khaleeji brand. The fit has always been wrong, the cuts have always been bad, and the finishing touches were completely inappropriate for clothes sold in the luxury category. Even the ones in magazines, even the ones who won competitions. Even the ones who participated in the Dubai Vogue Italia event. ALL.

The second reason for shoddy finishing is laziness. Khaleeji designers never feel they need to make their best effort because everyone is so easily impressed! Or fake-impressed.

Notes for my fellow designers:

A) You are making clothes for a body, not a giant hotdog. Your pattern-making needs to be top-level. Make sure the waist is in the right place and doesn't fall or gape, make sure the ruching doesn't accidentally make your hips look enormous, make sure your proportions are right, make sure the front doesn't fit too tight on the chest area, make sure your seams are in the right places, make sure the zippers do what they're supposed to, make sure the arm holes are well calculated, make sure the girl can WALK etc etc. If you are making shoes, your pattern-making needs to be luxury-level. Choose the right (luxury) lasts, make sure the toe spring is not too high the heel is walkable and dead center. Make sure you outsole is not bumpy, all your proportions are technically correct and that any straps you have were placed in the correct places so as to not create irritation. For bags, make sure everything is attached properly, functional, proportional and moves properly.

B) If you have embroidery, make sure it is done in the correct way on the right fabric. Not all fabric works with all types of embroidery. The final product is not the same as the sketch. If you do heavy embroidery incorrectly on delicate silks and organzas, it WILL bunch up (the fabric around will bend and pop out). And your stuff will look cheap.
C) Make sure you size properly.
D) Make sure your seams are properly finished. If you are doing raw edge because its part of the style, okay. Otherwise, be cognizant of luxury edge finishing methods. And do it well.
E) If you are using hardware, make sure it is up to the level of your product and make sure it will not destroy the balance of the garment/accessory.
F) You materials have to be sourced well. Going to the fabric souk won't cut it. You need to either do your research on international fabric fairs or source your fabrics somewhere special (where you can guarantee exclusivity and will have a constant supply. Your materials need to echo the prices you are proposing. This does not mean it should all be silk and velvet, but make sure the feel great, they don't fade quickly and offer something special for your customers. For leathers, you need to go to Linea Pelle to place orders and learn to differentiate between leathers and how to use them. Not all leathers are created equal and not all leather can be used for all products, technically speaking.
G) Make sure ALL components of your product contribute to making your product a LUXURY product, on par with other LUXURY brands from abroad in the same price range. Hold yourself up to high standards.

Production wise, you either need to have an excellent facility in your Khaleeji home country, or find a GOOD factory abroad (through trustworthy contacts familiar with the needs of a luxury label) to produce for you.

1) Do you have new and interesting ideas? Are you sure? If you say yes then go ahead, start your brand. If you are not sure (and are inspired primarily by Audrey Hepburn and your grandmother or Alexander Wang, actually) then NOPE. The fashion world is crowded and doesn't need more of the same.
Do you have a strong idea of the girl you want to dress in mind? Where does she shop? Where does she travel, what dos she do? What does she read? Who does she hang out with?
If you say "luxury-loving rich girl with a fabulous life", NOPE (or go join Philip Plein). Think about why you want to design. What do you need to express. Why are you so special and why should I spend my money on your stuff?

I have seen so many brands crop up in recent years that aim international but all are so derivative it's hard not to roll ones eyes. There are some with potential: not bad quality, great fabrics, etc but I have yet to see something that blows my mind like St. Martins or Antwerp graduate shows. I have yet to see someone who is willing to break barriers instead of adhere to traditional visions of femininity (whether the Hepburnesque or Beyonce-esque) or avant-garde-ism (traditional avant-gardism sounds like an oxymoron but it's not), someone who can channel the subversive to create a something truly new. You can say there is nothing new under the sun and every designer gets inspiration from something a predecessor has done. You wouldn't be entirely wrong, but these designers do not copy. They find an emotion that is uniquely their own and create a world for it through their design, even though they might use techniques or hemlines used in the past. I want to see one collection from a Khaleeji designer and be like WOW, that was different/that moved me. Never happened. I get it, pastels and feathers are in. Does not mean you need to give me a poorly-made and blinged-out reproduction of Louis Vuitton's Carousel collection. I get it, you love evening gowns and duchesse satin. Hello Ralph and Russo. You love print. So do Mary Katrantzou, Peter Pilotto and a million brands whose stuff looks better than yours. You need to start somewhere, so make sure that somewhere is your own. And that it's damn good. 

One more thing: just because you are an Arab designer does not mean you need to use chma8, Arabesques and Calligraphy. I think I will faint if I see one more collection "inspired" by any of the above. It's SO. BORING. Being Arab does not mean that you can't possibly find another source of inspiration besides your Arab identity. The world is a big place. Get inspired.

You need ideas. Fashion isn't about you. It's not about getting invited to parties or street style or being fabulous baby moon-cake kiss kiss instagram. Its about the product. Fashion runs on product and if you can't deliver, or if you are not motivated to spend most of the year up all night stressed out over every single detail of your clothes, accounting, pricing, trade shows, sales, PR, strategies, relationships with buyers, finishings, delivery windows, production delays, production issues, suppliers etc etc. then you are not cut out for it.
If you have doubts following this list of problems you will have, don't even try.

You have to love it with everything you have.

It is only if you satisfy these basic criteria can you come out with PRODUCT. This is saying nothing about actually selling the clothes, which needs excellent foundational planning, a great marketing strategy, contacts, luck and a lot of hustle.

Advantages and Disadvantages: We have many advantages (MONEY AND EASY LOANS ARE A HUGE DEAL) here in the Khaleej but we also have disadvantages. It is hard to get internships at foreign companies because of visa issues. The solution for this is to offer yourself to smaller brands for free and tell them you'll be in and out on a tourist visa so they don't have to do paperwork. You want the experience, not the documentation. It's hard to get the right tools to produce here. Okay, go abroad. Through your experience with the foreign company make contact with manufacturers who produce at your desired level. Don't think producing in Kuwait/Saudi/Qatar is gona cut it. It won't. Ever. Make sure you can translate your core idea/identity over several seasons and make sure that you are in it for the long run. How many rich-kid brands have you seen go up in a blaze of PR and burn down after 1-2 seasons? Don't be just some stupid rich kid designer. PLEASE don't be one more embarrassment in the graveyard of Khaleeji un-talent. We have enough of those. Make sure you are capable of magic before you go to Hogwarts.


The Most Interesting Shoe Brands Right Now (That I Like)

It's tough work being a shoe designer. Footwear is the most technical, labour-intensive, time consuming and difficult to sell of all fashion categories and so debuts are few and far between. Over the past few years however, we've seen a dramatic increase in the number of new shoe designers, obsessives with a clear design personality and obsession with their craft, and the hangers-on who survive a few seasons copying and pasting from other designers and designing based on "trend" rather than any distinctive point of view. Every second on Instagram there is someone going "OMG I DIE" over a total snoozefest pair of heels and i'm like really? Really? Because that's just a worse-exceuted mash-up of Jimmy Choo: The Mellon Years. Or some dumb gimmick that every single designer on the planet suddenly uses on their shoes to pass of as "quirky." Boring.

I'm a firm believer that if you have nothing interesting to say, don't open your mouth. If you don't have a clear point of view, don't call yourself a designer. 

So let's discriminate... I present you the ones who have something interesting to say.  

Walter Steiger:
His shoes always follow soft lines and are short on excess clutter. The gentle swoop and extreme simplicity of this upper with thick laces balance perfectly on an oversized and slightly off-place heel. On his lower style, a dainty mid-heel pump is touches by the magic of his severe swoops and a razor-thin, slotting ankle strap. Steiger always manages to seamlessly combine fluid lines and simple swiss cuts with more aggressive (but never obvious) elements. 

 A designer who never settles, Alessandra Lanvin doesn't do half way. Her bubbly toe shape is distinctive, as is her commitment to a graphic aesthetic that recalls dinosaurs drawn with large Crayola markers. Dainty low sandals heels balance thin straps with cartoonish shoes and ball-studs on the back. An alley cat caught in city lights. She never fails to find that something new that despite not having seen it before, you recognize as 100% Aperlai. Be its a blindingly bright high-throat pump in a distinctive over-large toe shape with Cruella De Ville pom poms or a vision of wavy dinosaurish glory, she gets you every time. She offers one of the few truly fresh perspectives in the market. She is committed to the value of no-compromise. Respect. 

Bionda Castana
To be honest, the first time I was exposed to Bionda I was like... eeeh. Then I was like ooooh. Their long points and relative conservatism may seem old fashioned but after  a few seasons, the brand's identity became very clear. It's all about this extreme delicacy. Biondas are the lace blouses of shoes. They combine leathers in precious easter egg colors with delicate panels of mesh. Their Maite mule was absolute perfection. Their extremely skinny straps accentuate all the right places, their delicate panels of mesh giving lightness and the illusion of the most delicate of casings on the foot. Giveaways are a nineties point, princessy lace and sweet little laces that tie into bows. Their conservatism and prissiness is a total plus. I'm such a fan. 

Charlotte Olympia: She ain't new but Charly gets them every time. Everytime you're like I can't look at another one, she makes you want more.  Every shoe is designed with a clear passion. Every elements is made to serve the design and after all these years, her shoes are still fun, happy and naive. She stuck to her guns aesthetic-wise and it made her a star. I salute you Charlotte. 

Chelsea Paris: 
Theresa Ebagua focuses on thick leather panels, color contrast, curves and folds. She'd balance a large, curving mule upper with a straight stuck-on heel and make it contemporary. Her lines are dramatic and recognizable and her materials She has a clear look and her contemporary take on curve and large uppers singles her out. 

Isa Tapia:
 It's hard to make Made In China work when it comes to shoes. Isa Tapia's focus on weird, elvish styles and a cartoonish look was a win. She managed to make the problems of non-Made in Italy shoes to her advantage. She developed her own strange heels and focused on thicker, bolder styles (easier to get perfect) rather than more delicate ones. Style-wise, she did not try to compete with other luxury footwear brands (which if made outside if Italy usually leads to what looks like a cheaper product with a large toe spring, bad finishing and an imbalanced heel) by offering the same thing at a cheaper price but created a fun, Irregular Choice-y style of her own that looks great as it is! I love people who don't sell out when faced with difficult circumstances. 

Jerome Rousseau:
Also no one new here but I have always admired his bordello aesthetic. This season saw the introduction of this really flamboyant high high Steampunk-y heel. Paired with his signature steep curves and (this season) giant Moulin-Rougeish net on top of a suede sandal boot, it's a whole new take on his fabulous Jessica Rabbit sexy. 

Okay mega-house here but no one gives their shoes any attention. They're pretty awesome. 


Super super late post. So you've probs heard of the former-Kuwait-resident plexi-sensation that's been Urania Gazelli (UG) and her fabulous card clutches this past year. And if you haven't... what? Gave her the full GQ this past summer when I was working at Vogue Talents. Here y'all are. Bam. 


Cat Cat Cat Laurent

Obsessed. Obsessed. Obseeeeeeeessed. As those of you who follow my instagram know, I've been a huge advocate of mid and low heels for a long time now (as I am an advocate of the mobile woman) and I could not be happier that even bloody Mr. 12-cm Brian Atwood has started making lows. But the BEST lows are shoes designed to be low, not modifications of a higher heel. 
Hello to the sexiest, most cutting, most Victorian-London-lady-meets-punky-sixties-youth situation that has ever happened. I am in love with the whole seasonal shoe offering at Saint Laurent with the high, rounded throats, and pointy 50mm spike heel but I am utterly, desperately, BESOTTED with the Cat. Slim ankle, lace-up, shiny patent, comfort (!!) and tons of attitude. Total classic. Total stunner. Total hole in my pocket. Waiting patiently...