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From Liberation to luxury-fashion finds its Mecca in the Middle East

by Anjori Grover Vasesi

28-March-2018  |  7 mins read

In a recent ‘Thomson Reuters State of the Global Islamic Economy Report’, Muslim consumers spending on apparel topped US $ 243 billion in 2015, with an expected increase to over US $ 368 billion by 2021. Also significant is the findings of the Pew Research Center, according to which Muslims are the fastest growing religious group in the world, estimated to increase the population of Islamic Faith by 70 per cent in the next 40 years.

As a result, brands are increasingly recognizing the huge scale of opportunity that could stem from better connecting with such a prosperous consumer segment. But as is the case, while studying any other country or region – nationality, age, economic structure, culture and educational levels – all play an essential role in understanding how this market behaves.

Age and location make a big difference when it comes to clothing in the Middle East, the largest region of concentration for the Muslim community. The way a certain set of people dress reveal not only their personality, but also the region and social class they belong to. Today, in the Middle East, local traditions and Western fashion mix together to pave way for a new market which designers and brands are now eyeing with interest.

Today in the Middle East local traditions and Western fashion mix together to pave way for a new market.

When comparing the variables of age, economic class, and education, not all Muslim consumers have the same spending habits or fashion preferences. Millennials and Gen Z consumers in the region are increasingly tilting more towards westernized clothing concepts, reserving more traditional styles for ceremonial and religious occasions, while the older generations continue to be embracing more of traditional garments.

The Islamic population is experimenting with westernized fashion concepts

Within the region itself, from Morocco to Oman, the concepts of modest dressing and traditional garments change from one country to another and the clothing is also hugely dictated by the climatic conditions prevalent in that area. Many women in Lebanon do not cover their head, but majority of women in Saudi Arabia still have to wear a niqab. People living in the cities are more attentive to the latest fashion trends, while those in smaller towns and rural areas are still conservative, following traditional norms.

It is also a stereotype that all Arab women wear hijab. With increased awareness, emphasis on education and the blurring boundaries between cultures owing to easier travel, many Muslim families are embracing unconventionality. Recently, Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, who is a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, and also a senior member of the top Muslim clerical body in Saudi Arabia, stated that women need not wear the loose-fitting, full-length robes symbolic of the Muslim faith known as the abaya.

Some Muslim countries have followed Western footsteps in terms of fashion, namely Lebanon, Dubai, Jerusalem and Jordan. In Lebanon, women have little in common with the fashion preferences of Muslim populations based in Saudi Arabia and UAE. The mindset is very open to experimentation and westernized fashion concepts. Women prefer more revealing clothing with shorter hemlines and longer necklines. In countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and Yemen, the emphasis is more on the traditional dress.

Multi-brand retailer BASICS’ store in Jeddah

The younger cohort (people under the age of 30) in the UAE, Saudi or Qatar makes up more than half of their entire population. There are some 350 million people in these countries who are still below 26. While a bigger purchasing power unquestionably lies with the older generation and indulgence in shopping is a common thread throughout.

On the luxury side of the UAE market, with the country boasting of a wealthy consumer base in terms of GDP per capita, and where Dubai and Abu Dhabi alone touch US $ 43,605 and US $ 71,580 respectively, the opportunities are huge.

It is a stereotype that all Muslim women wear a hijab.
With a boost in awareness and education, many families are embracing unconventionality.

Mainstream international brands have started to expand their clothing lines into the Modest Fashion segment, launching across the Middle East and also stocking Modest Fashion products in western markets. Brands such as Dolce and Gabbana, Burberry, Nike, and Uniqlo have introduced exclusive Modest Fashion ranges.

International designers are expanding into the modest wear segment

There has also been a spike in Muslim designers at International Fashion Weeks, and all this when put together, signals the dawn of a new era in fashion which is set to challenge the conventional norms set by society over ages of oppression, and signals the advent of modest dressing.

The current retail climate and shopping experience is fundamental to the lifestyle and spending habits in the Middle Eastern market which enjoys a greater rate of disposable income. In such a scenario, the touch and feel of a product has become vital, giving rise to many multi-brand fashion retailers as well as individual designer stores.

Changes are also afoot to garner international recognition towards home-grown designers, in order to promote the design talent prevalent in these countries.

Observing the success enjoyed by designers such as Elie Saab, Zuhair Murad and Rami Al Ali, who initiated their careers from the Middle East, there has been a growing emphasis on nurturing and developing younger designers, which Middle Eastern retailers have been taking an active interest in developing.