Fashion: A New Middle East?

What do you think of when you hear the term ‘Middle East’? Refugees, instability and violence are probably going to be among the list. Chances are, people like Big Bang Theory star Kaley Cuoco, Christina Aguilera, Halle Berry and Mila Kunis won’t be on the list. And yet these people have all made acclaimed appearances in Lebanese designed couture, a snapshot of a wider and potentially novel way of improving the world’s perceptions of the Middle East and indeed, a way of consolidating a regional identity.

Image courtesy Varun Shiv Kapur, © 2010. Some rights reserved.
Image courtesy Varun Shiv Kapur, © 2010. Some rights reserved.

There are good reasons why most of the information we get from the Middle East concerns conflict and suffering. Indeed, the region is plagued with conflicts, more specifically, ones that involve main actors in the international system and puts its pre-existing norms and practices under scrutiny – the Syrian conflict will remain a contentious case study years after its conclusion. That said, tragedies happen everywhere in the world, and that is no reason to overlook positive things. If anything, it should give us all the more reason to focus on finding kernels of beauty amongst images of mourning women, derelict buildings and bloody protestors.

The perpetual negative portrayal of these countries, in which they are more often than not lumped together in one inaccurate geographical concept of ‘the Middle East’, produces what post-structural scholars call an ‘imagined geography’. While such reporting does highlight human suffering and raises awareness about it, the way it is done (with a specific focus on people as passive victims needing our pity, usually with no direct eye contact from the subject of the photo or video) puts us in a detached and privileged position. This reinforces the dichotomies (developed/undeveloped, peaceful/violent, ordered/anarchic) that help sustain and perpetuate stereotypes about the region and obstruct genuine empathy.  Post-colonial scholars might go so far as to assert that these images lead to an objectification of the entire region as a people incapable of upholding the values of the ‘developed world’ such as democracy—one needs to look no further than reactions to the Egyptian coup in 2013[1].

The Middle East is in dire need of a re-branding to balance out the negative image of a region torn apart by conflict. This is not to say that we should stop reporting on what’s going on in the region altogether— what should be aimed at is a multi-dimensional, and hopefully more accurate, image. Lebanon is a prime example of a country trying to improve her image through, amongst other things, her fashion industry. Historically, Beirut has been described as the Middle East’s most fashionable city[2], and it seems that she wants to claim that title back in the aftermath of a scarring civil war and the ongoing spillover from Syria.

Names like Eli Saab, Rani Zakhem and Reem Acra have been making rounds within the fashion community. In Monocle’s 2014 soft power survey, Lebanon’s designers got a specific mention for their role in improving the country’s image abroad. Reem Acra is one such success story. ‘Three decades after escaping Lebanon’s civil war to fulfil her dream of making it in New York fashion, Acra’s client list reads like a who’s who of Hollywood’s A-list’[3]. In an interview she claimed that she wants to help ‘kickstart a home-grown fashion industry’, citing an ‘eagerness for it’, and expressing confidence that there ‘will be a Middle East fashion industry’.

There seems to be encouraging signs that this would be the case. Last October Dubai’s Emaar Properties launched a $100m fund ‘to encourage Arab entrepreneurship with a focus on fashion and retail, as the developer seeks to position the emirate as the Middle East’s fashion capital’[4]. In Lebanon there is understandably less institutional support for young designers, but according to a 2007 study on the country’s creative industries, authored by the School of Business at the American University of Beirut, the local fashion industry was worth more than $40m, with many of their clients from abroad.[5] The region has huge buying power as well—fashion executives say the Middle East is likely to remain the top couture client for the foreseeable future[6]. Other statistics tell a similar story- the region boosted global sales by 30% in 2012; personal luxury goods spending in the region has reached $8bil and approximately one third of the global Haute Couture clientele stems from the Middle East[7].

It is clear that Middle East has both the purchasing power and the local talent— it seems natural that this should be combined to build a fashion industry that would put local designers and aesthetics into the global spotlight. Indeed there have been attempts at organising structured fashion weeks based primarily on the works of designers in the region, such as the Muscat Fashion week in Oman[8]. The 2013 show was said to have opted ‘for a strong cultural touch, with an abundance of abayas, caftans, and millennial Arab savoir fair like traditional embroideries’[9]. Critic Hilary Alexander, who attended the show, wrote that ‘when designers tapped into the DNA of their own cultures (they) defined a new, international fashion language… signatures which have attracted the eye of major stores including Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Saks Fifth Avenue’[10]. All this is apparent when one goes through the catalogues of established labels such as DAS Collection[11], Dibaj and C’est Moi[12].

What the industry needs right now is institutional support, which, given the circumstances in the region, might not be feasible. However, while political attempts at finding regional unity have failed, developments in ‘lower’ aspects like fashion and cuisine might just succeed. Creating and exporting these trends towards the rest of the world would be a tough process, but the political dividends could be huge. One way of achieving this would be to export elements of Middle Eastern high fashion into mainstream popular culture (read hipsters). With its obsession with authenticity in all things exotic, it might become an unlikely ally– keffiyehs have already become a hipster staple. If hummus and falafels can make daily rounds on Instagram, why not caftans?


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