I’ve been coming to Dubai almost annually since I was 15 and my grandfather set up home here. I have to admit the fond memories were only family memories. Besides long nights watching Friends on TV and guzzling Coca Cola (neither of which had arrived in closed-market India), and the occasional trawl at the once-posh Al Ghurair mall, Dubai had little to offer me.
The only time I absolutely enjoyed Dubai was during its terrible recession. The sales were akin to daylight robbery. Designer handbags from the snobby Mall of the Emirates were a steal at 80 per cent discounts.
In less then five years, with a little help from friendly Abu Dhabi, Dubai has bounced back to being the Mecca of moolah. If earlier people who loved it would offer sensible reasons for enjoying the city (shopping and, well, shopping some more), Dubai is now being spoken of as a seriously cool place. Ask Karl Lagerfeld, the king peacock among designer big daddies, who picked opulent Dubai as venue for his last fashion show.
The Emirates and Saudi Arabia have always been a big market for European designer labels, each one compromising on their aesthetic to please the bling-loving Arab. A walk through Dubai Mall’s Shoe District is an eye-rubber with Chanel sandals spilling over with pearls, Mademoiselle Coco’s elegance-is-refusal mantra can take a break here. Dior’s crystals are so large you can touch up your lipstick looking at your feet.
The abaya has always been the luxury label’s bugbear. Sure the Arab woman is dressed head-to-toe in European goodies, but they are shrouded under the long black gown, a cultural must-do. In 2009, John Galliano for Dior, and then Carolina Herrera, Alberta Ferretti and Blumarine presented a line of couture abayas to lure in their most moneyed mesdames. They cost as much as US$10,000.
The abaya is as much a fashion tool as it is a political one. Much of Europe is patronising toward the abaya, France has even banned it if it covers the face. And yet Muslim women are showing no interest in giving it up. Instead they prefer to modernise it, adorn it, glamorise it and wear it as a symbol of absolute elegance.
The abaya’s long flowing silhouette is feminine and mysterious at once. The sheela — or the head scarf — is at its most chic when worn up high. The women often wear a basket woven with fake hair, resembling a large bird’s nest, and can take their up-do a foot high. They’re all Marie Antoinettes.
Lamya Abedin is one of the more popular abaya designers in Dubai. She presented a fashion show earlier this week at Dubai Mall’s Galeries Lafayette. A single row of chairs was lined up along the aisles, with a little table in the front, for virgin Mojitos, Pina Coladas and some kebabs and tiramisu. Across me sat an astonishingly beautiful woman, a local and successful entrepreneur I was informed, in the most stylish abaya I had seen — all black of course, with ivory lace roses appliques.
Abedin’s presentation could have been a couture presentation anywhere. Her abayas were all set in black, but with lace or crochet details, some with full batik motifs, many worn with a sash. Each piece from the collection could have been owned by any woman anywhere in the world, and worn as a long black dress or the most elegant overcoat.
The Arab woman — and her chosen dress — are symbols of modernity in a cultural paradigm. Something the rest of the world needs a little more of.