The differences between fashion sectors in the UK, Beirut and Saudi

As you may know MyCake spent a bit of time in Saudi in May delivering workshops about finance and marketing to creative entrepreneurs in Dammam, Jeddah and Riyadh. Apart from learning a lot about the nuances of abaya and thobe fashions and the similarities between a bad hair day and a bad hijab day we had the chance to discuss how the fashion sector works in KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) and how this affects the growth options for young Saudi designers.

The growth route for young UK designers is really all pret-a-porter and we’ve seen the substantial growth of mid-range fashion in the likes of LK Bennett and Reiss. This means that young designers are investing substantial sums in sampling their collections before they have any idea of the orders they’ll receive. It is a particularly risky business model but it dominates the UK market. Retail prices for young designers are higher than the price points for top end high street brands such as Reiss and are more likely to be £300 – £1500 per piece depending on the piece.

In contrast in Beirut the dominant model is for young designers to develop a couture atelier and produce ranges of dresses in the $6,000 to $15,000 range with an additional collection of wedding dresses in the $10,000 – $40,000 range. Whilst there are costs associated with producing the gowns for the collection the return on investment is substantial and all the production is carried out in the atelier rather than contract manufactured as is the case for UK pret-a-porter. This model enables a young designer to develop a profitable business somewhat earlier in their career. However this model is largely dependent on the proximity to the Gulf market which is where the demand for the couture dresses is coming from. Whilst there is some pret-a-porter in Beirut (for example Ronald and the designers that the Starch Foundation works with and to some extent the work of Lara Khoury) on the whole Beiruti women don’t buy local designers and key multibrand fashion retailers such as Plum and Aishti don’t stock them. Beiruti’s buy international brands by preference. The growth for young designers therefore is all based on export.

Saudi is different again. Whilst women wear an abaya in all public places and whilst there is a whole separate market for fashionable abayas there is also a thriving fashion sector for Western fashions and fashion adapted to the desire of a section of the market for ‘modest’ designs. The key difference however is the desire, particularly amongst young Saudi women, to have a more individual style. Unlike the Beirutis who wish to demonstrate their wealth by the brands they wear Saudi women assume that everyone knows they are wealthy and could wear Chanel if they chose to (and there’s certainly plenty of wealth display in the handbags they carry). As wealth display is not so important they can focus on their own individual sense of style and the social benefits of championing a young designer by wearing their work. Of course the social benefits give them the kudos of ‘discovering’ a designer and being part of the crowd that brought them to wider awareness and success. This gives young designers the opportunity to deliver a combination of couture work and pret-a-porter to what is initially a cluster of private clients but with the opportunity to expand into their own retail unit once demand increases. There are examples of retail units which stock say four or five young designers and sometimes these will be based on the designers coming together to share the risk, other times it is a visionary Saudi woman (usually it is a woman) setting up a retail unit. Examples include Sofra and Maison Bo-M (both in Jeddah). Multi-brand and concept stores stocking young designers are not yet common but nonetheless worth looking out for.

So as a young designer wondering what part of the world provides best fit to your design style also think about where in the world suits the business model you wish to pursue!

And for those wondering where the image comes from the answer is Souk al Haraj in Riyadh, designer unknown!


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