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Sizing up opportunity: Arab women propel haute couture

Sizing up opportunity: Arab women propel haute couture

They’re rarely spotted on front rows of fashion shows and favour discretion when placing orders, yet women from the Middle East have become the world's biggest buyers of high fashion.

October 6, 2011 12:15 by

The trend may surprise given that many Arab women, particularly in the Gulf region, are traditionally kept under wraps.

But their social calendar, which usually consists of 15-20 weddings a year and private parties every month, creates much bigger demand for couture than the occasional charity ball and high society party in Europe and in North America.

And wearing the same dress twice is not an option.

Traditional buyers of exclusive designer clothes tend to include members of rich industrial or royal families and expatriates.

The biggest buyers of haute couture today centre around the Gulf — Saudis, Kuwaitis, Qataris and nationals of the UAE who do not hesitate to spend 50,000 euros on a low-cleavage lame for an event where no men will be present.

“All the royal families of the Middle East are our customers,” Catherine Riviere, head of haute couture at Christian Dior, told Reuters at the brand’s show at Paris Fashion Week which ends on Wednesday.

Middle Eastern customers have also recently shown growing support for Lebanese designers such as Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad.

Fashion executives say the Middle East is likely to remain the top couture client for the foreseeable future if the economic environment deteriorates in Europe and North America.

The luxury goods industry has not yet been hit by the global slowdown but many analysts fear it will not come out of the downturn unscathed, particularly if China’s growth starts to slow down.

“Women from the Middle East are our top buyers and they are likely to remain so,” said Jeffry Aronsson, who became chief executive of Emanuel Ungaro three months ago, having run Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta and Marc Jacobs in the past.


Reem, the daughter of a major construction tycoon in the Middle East, spends much of her time flitting between Paris, London, Dubai and Beirut and is a regular buyer of couture. She has also started to design some of her own jewellery.

“I want to be different from others,” she said in an interview at her Paris flat in the leafy 16th arrondissement, asking to be identified only by her first name.

“What I want is unique pieces, extravagant and chic. I do not want to pay 5,000 or 6,000 euros for a dress, as it happened to me with a Pucci outfit recently, and see it on somebody else the same evening.”

Generally at weddings in Gulf countries, men and women are split into two separate groups, attendees say. Thousands of women gather together in one big ball room — all wearing haute couture — and some are not afraid to wear provocative and revealing outfits.

“Some women go for deep cleavage or even transparent fabrics,” said Reem, who regularly attends such weddings and buys between 30-40 designer dresses a year. At a royal wedding, the dress code calls for more restraint in terms of style, neckline and hemline.

Valued at 700 million euros ($930 million), designer clothing is by far the biggest segment of the luxury goods industry representing 42 percent of overall luxury goods sales in the UAE, the biggest buyer among Gulf states, with women’s designer dresses and skirts leading the way, Euromonitor International said in a report published in June.

“For us, with China, the Middle East is the market that is growing the fastest,” Hermes Chief Executive Patrick Thomas told Reuters at Paris Fashion Week. “These markets for a long time preferred a more ostentatious type of luxury and now want…


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