From Burqini to Birkin---
Luxury Brands in the Middle East
The desert wind sweeps through the swimming pool, distorting the reflection of palm trees and pointed arcs. Four tall arabesque pillars support an ivory pavilion under which a group of women are enjoying the gentle evening breeze. They are covered in colorful full-length wetsuits with a hood that covers their head, revealing only their face, hands and feet. Additional skirts are attached to the wetsuit, hiding the body curve underneath. In order for women to enjoy the pleasure of swimming, yet still preserving their modesty, fashion designer Aheda Zanetti created a special type of swimsuit called Burqini, which is a combination of “Burqa” and “Bikini”. The Burqini, made with light swimsuit material, quickly caught on in Arabian nations and provided women much more mobility in outdoor activities. Fashion magazines dedicated one cover after the other to Burqini fashion and women sports accessories, presenting the world the new side of Arabian women’s life that was never seen before.
The Middle East embraces fashion like no other. Even though women and men are mostly covered in solemn colored robes, they catch any chance they have to make a fashion statement through their shoes, sunglasses, watches or handbags. While the recession hit the luxury goods market, the Middle East and China were unscathed in the global slowdown, resuscitating luxury brands by pouring billions of dollars into the market. The biggest buyers of haute couture today are found in the Gulf region, which may come as a great surprise since men and women are mostly hidden under wraps. According to a business report, luxury brand buyers in this region would spend 50,000 euros on haute couture products for a fancy event. Middle class women in the Gulf area also keep their social calendar busy throughout the year. In the gatherings where no men are present, every woman looks like a fashion model who just came down the runway with this season’s new design. This scene may sound familiar to those who have watched Sex and the City 2, in which a group of women gather inside of a dim dry flower shop, wearing Louis Vuitton’s entire Fall collection under their black robe.
While luxury brands greet their new customers with the warmest welcome, they could not help but wondering how much compromise they are willing to make in order to stay sharp in this conservative culture. There is a great culture divide in fashion norms between the Middle East and the West. Women in the Middle East sometimes prefer items with prominent brand logo or vibrant design in order to break free from their highly restricted garment; these items, however, might be considered as tacky and gauche in the West. Some luxury brands are also changing their marketing strategy to accommodate the high demand for shoes and accessories. Based on the article by John Church, in 2011, the number of luxury outlets in the world increased by 14% while in the UAE (United Arab Emirates) the number increased by almost 50%.
Yet the political instability in the Middle East still presents a huge challenge to luxury brands. While in some area of the Middle East one may purchase an iPhone case studded with diamonds from a vending machine, in other areas one only wishes to find a piece of wall to shelter from bullets. Both innovation and sustainability need to be taken into account in the marketing strategy of luxury goods companies in order to conquer the desert and find the oasis safely.
The Culture Columnist, Asheley Gao:
My name is Asheley Gao and I’m a junior at Cal, majoring in History of Art and minoring in French. I grew up in Asia, the land of dragons and jasmine green tea, as a kid with too much imagination. Indulging myself in exploring different cultures and what they have to offer (art, movies, cuisine, you name it!), I’m on my way to becoming a woman whose country is the whole world. Along with all the excellent writers at Unleashed, I would love to share with you my adventure and take you all around the world.