Dubai still has a reputation as being a city limited to big malls occupied by designer and high street brands. To those who have not delved deeper, the retail scene lacks a little edge, the characterful enclaves of, say, London or New York. But, that is changing. Dubai is a melting pot of influences, the transient and multicultural expat population meeting with resident Emiratis. Where once there was a preponderance of bling occasion wear, now there’s ever-growing diversity. Events like Sole DXB showcase an irreverent street style scene which, coupled with the emerging art world in Al Quoz and studios of the Dubai Design District (d3), adds to an increasingly rich creative subculture and adventurous sense of style. Reflecting this, and perhaps encouraging it, is the rise of the alternative multi-brand concept store, mixing avant-garde international and regional designers with design, art and lifestyle products. They sell a way of life, shopping is an experience; in the age of anonymous online shopping, this appears to be the way forward, an edited selection of designers with a specific customer in mind.
Of course, the concept store isn’t a new phenomenon; in the face of competition from big malls, high rents and low footfall, others have come and gone. But perhaps, along with the opening of neighbourhood malls and greater consumer appetite for niche retail, conditions are now more hospitable to the small boutique. Here, concept store founders talk about their motivations, changing tastes and how their personal style feeds into the aesthetic of the store.
Mariam Al Hashemi, 25, Emirati
Mariam Al Hashemi used to work in a bank. Now she has brought the Parisian concept store LE66 to a cavernous new space in City Walk 2, all cool concrete walls, offering brands from the French original such as Sandy Liang, Maison Kitsuné and Golden Goose.
“Dubai is consistently transforming, not only as a fashion capital but as a hub for many industries worldwide,” says Mariam. “With the establishment of d3, designers’ creativity is being developed and nurtured, drawing from diverse nationalities and backgrounds. This has affected people’s style and has made them more open to edgier fashions.”
LE66 bears strong influences of the Paris flagship, where Mariam fell in love with the “simple aesthetic and selection of denims and plain tees.” She worked with the Paris team to ensure the collection remained on brand while reflecting her own style, which mixes minimalist, neutral basics with a love of playful accessories, such as the Iphoria iPhone cases.
Mariam’s default look is “ripped jeans and a comfortable T-shirt,” boosted by her investment shoes and bag. Inspired by her favourite pieces in her own wardrobe, she has brought some designers previously hard to find in Dubai to LE66 such as AKS (a local GCC brand), Erika Cavallini and Carolina Ortiz.
Next, Mariam and her siblings plan to open ROUX, a café adjoined to the store, a space where “people can step away from the busy existence that Dubai demands to relax and feel a sense of community.”
May Barber, 31, Syrian
Photographer: Ausra Osipaviciute. Stylist: Samah Elmeri. Shot on location at The Cartel Boutique
May Barber started The cARTel with business partner Peter Richweisz in 2012 in the burgeoning artistic hub Alserkal Avenue. Conceived as a photo studio and publishing house for the cARTel magazine as well as a concept store, it was a reaction against mass offerings and typical luxury products.
“In a world heavily consumed by mega grand shopping malls and flavourless internet shopping, I believe that the personal experience of a boutique or concept store is vital and multi-sensory, offering customers a unique experience that builds for a longer loyalty.”
People in Dubai, she thinks, are now “more open towards accepting and embracing more alternative and edgy styles” as a way to express their identity. Given her former life as an architect, May’s own style “is a balance of an architectural style with a geometric silhouette, mixed with a feminine touch and a final accent of a dark or red lipstick.”
That is reflected in the store through its concentration on asymmetric cuts and “focus on technology when it comes to 3D printing and glass blowing techniques.”
Her favourite pieces in store? “The current Gareth Pugh collection is beautiful, especially the backless dress with the stars print” and she’s “in love with the coats of Henrik Vibskov, with their cuts, soft fabrics and colour palette.”
She also loves regional designers such as Bint Thani, “more of a design label, mixing architecture with fashion and design” and the structural bags of Rula Galayini.
Right now, May is “all about the colourful coats, the hanging shirts, the dresses with high slits. Combining socks with open shoes and bold accessories.” As for spring/summer, stripes are “coming back very strongly,” alongside balloon tops and cut outs.
Nadia Sallustio, 40, Belgian
Photographer: Ausra Osipaviciute. Stylist: Samah Elmeri. Shot on location at Le Den Boutique
As an artist, Nadia Sallustio takes a painter’s approach to both interior design and fashion, led by colour and composition. Her new design concept store, The Den on City Walk is a “total reflection” of her own style. The collection is, she explains, “eclectic and imaginative but harmonious, as I like pure lines and warm colours which is why I am a huge admirer of designer Sarah Lavoine.”
Nadia arrived in Dubai 10 years ago and witnessed tastes in everything become more experimental, thanks in large part to the rise of social media, “It’s now so easy to discover a niche brand, an inspirational artist, or home stylist on the other side of the world. My mission is to identify them and bring them to Dubai,” she says, citing the 1970s party scenes of photographer Serge Anton, who she first discovered on Instagram.
Nadia’s own style is casual – she’s an Isabel Marant woman – her choices dictated by “how I feel when I wake up,” like pairing “a very tailored dress with tennis shoes.” She’s also a fan of the young French label Jamais Sans Rouge à Lèvres and local designer Madiyah Al Sharqi, for her classic pieces in soft pastels and off-whites.
The concept of The Den is inspired by her favourite stores – Boutique 1 in Dubai and Mise En Scene and Couleur Locale in Belgium – which “only stock niche and special pieces which you would buy and own for a lifetime.”
That longevity is key to Nadia and she is most attached to her old clothes. “It is sentimental to me, they are like souvenirs.
I think about what I am going to buy and choose them very carefully. I have pieces for many years as I don’t believe in buying disposable clothes.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia