From Dolce & Gabbana to Michael Kors, major brands are catering to lucrative Gulf markets during the holy month of Ramadhan, which is earning its own slot on the global fashion calendar. With Muslim spending on clothing on the rise, mainstream labels are courting the dirham, dinar and riyal in a region home to some of the world’s biggest buyers of fashion. High-end and fast-fashion brands in the United States, Europe and Asia have made an aggressive push to break into the Gulf, where demand for “modest wear” is skyrocketing, fuelled in part by the rise of social media influencers and Muslim lifestyle and beauty vloggers.
Holidays have long been high seasons for retailers around the world and Ramadhan, a month of fasting from dawn to sunset aimed at reflection and modesty, is no longer the exception.
The market for the abaya, a long, loose robe worn over clothes, in particular peaks during the holy month, according to Dubai-based designer Aiisha Ramadan, as women strive to avoid outfit repeats at all costs. But while attention to clientele interested in modest wear has been a long time coming, some say the move has brought the good, the bad and the offensive to shelves across the Gulf.
Muslim spending worldwide on clothing and shoes is projected to reach $500 billion (449 billion euros) by 2019, according to Tamara Hostal, the head of fashion marketing at design school ESMOD Dubai.
Ramadhan has turned into a de facto micro-season in the Middle East, with fashion brands releasing capsule collections exclusive to the region through May and June.
DKNY launched a Middle East-exclusive Ramadhan line in 2014, and other labels have since jumped on the bandwagon: Dolce & Gabbana, CH Carolina Herrera, Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger, Zara, Mango, Uniqlo and Nike, among others.
Dolce & Gabbana filmed a widely publicised 2016 campaign for their abaya robe and hijab headscarf lines entirely in Dubai — where the need to be “Ramadhan ready” is turning into a commercial, cultural and complex phenomenon.
Instagram is flooded with #ootd (outfit of the day) posts and the pages of Vogue Arabia filled with how to curate a wardrobe of festive, and generally modest, attire. Most popular in Ramadhan are evening dresses, particularly in bright colours, for the iftar meal to break the fast.
Like the long abaya robe, the maxi dress also provides designers with a versatile canvas for a diverse clientele.
Aiisha Ramadan, who has dressed American singers Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera and Zendaya, is both a creator and wearer of abayas and maxis.
“International brands are making a smart move by moving into the home of the Arab woman with kaftans and abayas,” Ramadan said at her atelier in the UAE emirate of Sharjah. “There are so many options.
You have the ready-to-wear, which draws in clients looking for a casual, everyday wardrobe.
“Then you have the haute couture abayas, which attract the client looking to stand out,” said Ramadan, herself wearing a deep pink kaftan and a gold necklace with Arabic calligraphy. “As long as it respects our culture, it’s a beautiful thing.”
The three-day Eid al Fitr holiday marking the end of Ramadhan is an occasion to go all-out for style-savvy, and image-conscious, Arab customers, and some designers are releasing separate lines for the occasion.
US-Venezuelan designer Carolina Herrera in May unveiled a Ramadhan line exclusively for the Gulf, featuring four styles of abayas with her trademark polka dot and bow motifs.
The house’s ready-couture line is separately releasing a Fall/Winter collection exclusive to the region in preparation for Eid — likely to fall early next week — with “long dresses in black, red lace and mimosa yellow that can be buttoned up or down for every woman”.
“This is a novel market. We are still collecting feedback on our first collection, but generally the client here won’t pay for simple or what would be seen as plain designs,” said Dania Fakhry, regional marketing manager for retailer CH Carolina Herrera.
“They appreciate design, even if it’s not for them. If they like it, they buy it”.
But the trend has its critics among some industry insiders who stand at the crossroads of identity and international marketing.
In gold and silver Dior sunglasses on a warm Dubai evening, one of the region’s social media influencers — an observant Muslim and self-professed “fashion victim” — spoke out against “the commercialisation without understanding” of her culture.
“You can’t just slap a pair of sleeves on a collection and drop the hem and voila, a collection for Ramadhan,” she said dismissively, requesting anonymity for professional reasons. “Frankly, it’s just offensive.”
But others hold that cultural and religious traditions inevitably spill beyond their origins.
“The abaya started as a tradition, as a form of modesty,” said Aiisha Ramadan.
“Culturally, it’s moved beyond religion, and beyond plain black in terms of design,” she added.
“I think it’s just a matter of time before we see women in the West incorporating abayas into their wardrobes.”