Retailing in the UAE
Grand designs like these don’t tend to pause for a temporary blip. Even when demand for oil, the lifeblood of the Gulf, goes down globally – and local consumer spending with it, as is happening now – or when all the signs are that the retail market might already be oversupplied.
Some 1.5 million square metres of mall space is currently under construction in Dubai alone – that’s 50% of the total amount of retail property open today. Just one of the projects in the pipeline – the Deira Mall, opening in 2021 – will offer almost half a million square metres across 1,000 units.
With so much space coming through, landlords will be pulling out all the stops to get their malls filled. Sweet deals are always tempting, but with the combined factors of the introduction of VAT at the beginning of 2018, an extended era of low oil prices, the shift in the UAE’s demographics, and the digitisation of retail, quality – not quantity – will be the key to the next phase.
There is plenty of space in which to grow your business. The big question is, what about the brand? And how do you stand out in such a huge crowd?
Simon Parkes, creative director at London-based design and branding agency Public, which has just completed a successful multiple-store retail launch in the region, says that as the UAE market grows and gets more crowded, maintaining a strong, distinct identity is crucially important.
“The received wisdom in this market is often for brands to follow the same trends,” he says. “But we’d argue that they need to stop being followers and start leading. Retailers should offer more of an experience and better services; they need to be bold and innovative, and to stand for something.”
Leem, the brand that Public recently launched in the UAE, is part of the burgeoning global modest fashion sector (see boxout). The brief: to create beautifully crafted physical spaces that reflect Leem’s unique identity in a growing area of women’s fashion. With their long, slim uncluttered rails and display tables, elegant curved glass frontages and partially transparent cocoon-like timber structures, the six stores now trading in the UAE and Saudi Arabia are unique spaces in the market.
The brand’s stores and graphic identity have been designed by Public and built entirely around the customer, with the future in mind. Reflecting the brand – and the wider sector – the 150-200 square metre stores are comfortable, calm, tasteful boutiques; oases in the world of fast fashion and shiny retail interiors that have become ubiquitous in the UAE.
Simon makes the point that the project revealed some fundamental truths about doing business in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, where Leem is now trading.
He says: “There’s an opportunity for modest fashion brands to be bold in their brand direction and really own the market. Too many retailers are trying to do a bit of everything and be everywhere. The key in this sector is to be specialist: develop a clear proposition and communicate it; focus on the customer; establish a strong brand identity and maintain it across all channels of the business.”
The UAE is a promised land for retailers. The developers creating millions more square metres of space will hope it remains so. Setting up shop is the easy part; maintaining quality in the face of such sheer quantity is how the smart retailers will keep their businesses, and their brands, on top.
Leem is one of the newest names in a global phenomenon in women’s fashion. With style-conscious women all over the world espousing their choice to dress in a way that reflects their values as well as their love of clothes and accessories, and huge multinational retail brands from Nike to H&M getting on board, modest dressing continues to be one of the big news stories in fashion.
Public’s work with Leem came from a starting point of getting into this mindset. To some, modest fashion might sound like nothing more than a synonym for conservative dress. In reality, it’s a way for women to express their personal style on their own terms; to dress in a way that celebrates their values, rather than bends them to an accepted fashion aesthetic.
As the UAE and the wider Middle East opens its doors to the West, fashion brands pour in with their home-grown looks. Modest fashion brands like Leem offer women a way to blend traditional Middle Eastern clothing with fresh, contemporary styles: to keep their identity in a changing world.