Colin McDowell: Fashion's Grand Narrator

BY Harper's Bazaar Arabia / Mar 29 2016 / 14:43 PM

One of the world’s most respected fashion critics, Colin McDowell delivers his verdict on Dubai’s prospects for fashion fame and offers a road map for sartorial success

Colin McDowell: Fashion's Grand Narrator
Colin McDowell: Fashion's Grand Narrator
Pixeleyes photography
With thanks to Sabah Saqoob, Phaidon and London College of Fashion

I recently visited Dubai for the first time in several years. As the plane reduced height to land I wondered how much it had changed, if at all. My anticipation was high. My expectations were higher. Would I remember anything? Would there be anything to remember? Would everything be different?

Naïve thoughts. Major cities neither change nor stand still. But their basic DNA is theirs alone. We never go to Paris expecting it to be different from the Paris of our last visit. Same story with New York, London or even LA; that frenetic melting pot of all that is transitory.

But the people change. On this visit, I felt less as if I were in a huge supermarket, surrounded by people from all over the world, and more that I was in a community. In a place with an indigenous life.

And suddenly, on my first morning, sitting under the sun and watching the passing scene with a cup of coffee, I remembered what had struck me all those years ago. It was the women of Dubai. The way they moved. The way they stood. The way they commanded their space. Their abstract beauty. The unconscious dignity they had. Then I noticed the girls – those under 25 – and their movements, speech patterns and Western dress. They were new. I am talking only of Arab women and how they have adapted to being fashionable, looking attractive and feeling modern without breaking the conventions of their civilisation.

The fact that so many of them have successfully achieved this balance of indigenous and Western mores is, in my opinion, something to be celebrated because it is obvious that Westernisation was an add-on. A deliberate decision. A sign of looking out, whilst retaining cultural attitudes intact.

Colin McDowell

I chatted with women in Harvey Nichols. They all spoke English, of course, and they were entirely aware of the top international fashion names, from exclusive designers to the latest thing in trainers. But, when I asked them about UAE designers, their answers were less sure. Talking further, it was interesting that so many of them were familiar with design education outside their land but knew very little about fashion education in Dubai itself. And as the expected names came up – Saint Martins, Parsons, FIT and the Royal College.

"I realised to my disappointment that here in Dubai there was the sort of fashion approach that praises the foreign and ignores the home-grown"

This is an approach I often meet as I travel around the world. It always saddens me as it seems so sterile and unpatriotic. It seems as if the West creates a cultural cringe from many other regions. I find this worrying especially in countries and continents that were ‘civilised’ long before the West was.

Let me say my conversations were brief and random. Maybe I picked the wrong women – although I must say I have found the same snobbery (for that is what it is) in other countries and cities where indigenous fashion is fighting against travel snobbery. Shanghai, Mumbai, Bangkok, it seems to be everywhere. And it isn’t just about the right label; it is the right store or boutique, even the right city. Even the right street.

I am not decrying the fashion of the West. I hope that is obvious. But, to give courage to other parts of the globe, let’s look at the fashion history and what it offers us all. We start with Paris – the city where fashion was invented, rather surprisingly, by an Englishman. For over a hundred years its couture has been uniquely its own. No other so-called couture comes near it in quality and design, and even today there are many who believe that if all fashion disappeared and Paris alone remained, fashion would survive. When Italian designers decided to challenge the French lead, they knew who they were and what they were good at. They came up, initially, with leather goods (including shoes and bags), beachwear and knits. They were what the international market knew and admired. So, it was a good basis. But the Italians are a proud and confident people, especially in fashion, and they wanted the world to know that. In a flash of genius, somebody came up with the tagline ‘Made in Italy’. With that, the Missonis, Versace, Ferragamo et al pranced across the world like high-spirited Arab stallions. And they have never looked back.

New York, the great consumer city, looked at itself and decided that its designers could, and would, stake out their claim to create fashion independent of what was happening in Europe. And what New York designers – Calvin Klein, Halston, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and so many more – had was the confidence of big city chic. The world loved it, and still does for its modernity and urban sophistication.

London came late but it had a lot to offer; youthful rebellion, music and cheeky confidence. Zandra Rhodes, Katherine Hamnett, BodyMap and Vivienne Westwood – all were brave and bursting with energy. That energy gave the world the most daringly original and iconoclastic magazines and music the world had ever seen and with them the DNA of London – a DNA that fed the world and created, in punk, probably the only truly new cultural movement in that world, and one that still brings young people to the UK in droves. All looking for the magic.

Why am I telling you this? Well, the first thing any city does if it wants to step up to the starting block is to accept and identify its threshold – by looking at the thresholds the other cities have made their own.

So, let’s think now of Dubai. I see no earthly reason why it cannot be a major future fashion capital. But it must look honestly, even ruthlessly, at its own strengths and weaknesses, just as the rest of the world will. And remember, the fashion capitals of the West did not get their world status by copying what was already out there but by identifying what they could do better than the rest. And then doing it. I remember some 10 years ago being called in to consult and advise the designers of a particular city in Asia. I went there, visited the art schools and talked to the designers. It was a deeply depressing experience. The art schools were sterile, content to encourage the students to copy existing designs; the designers had absolutely no energy and spent the whole time complaining that nobody would give them help – especially financial. But who would give money to people who could not see that the first step – hard as it is – had to be made by them? Sadly, I knew I couldn’t help them because they didn’t want to help themselves.

Fashion is, of course, about money. But, as the old saying goes, money does not grow on trees. Money is engendered by self-belief, determination and hard work. By getting out of the seat and starting to move.

"If Dubai wishes to be a major fashion city, there is no generic reason why it should not be"

But the energy must come – as it always does – from the grass roots of the creators who want success so badly, who have so much self-belief, that they get up and go.

Let me finish with an inspiring story concerning Calvin Klein when he was just beginning and had no money. When a very famous fashion buyer at Bonwit Teller gave him his first major order, he had no way to pay for a cab. Instead of asking if he could bring the clothes next day, he and one of his staff put the clothes on a rolling rack and pushed it from the garment district to 5th Avenue and 56th Street. He saw his chance and took it. The rest is history. So, to designers, students and Dubai itself I say:

"Think Calvin. Be hungry. Take the world."

This article appears in the March issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia.