The Middle East is presenting itself as a major opportunity for global fashion brands.

Recent reports have highlighted this, attributing this unique moment to the region’s predominantly young (approx. 50% are under the age of 25 in many countries), digitally-savvy and globally connected population. Coupled with the fact that many of these younger consumers are affluent professionals (particularly in the Gulf region) who are facing relatively low taxation, this means that fashion brands are increasingly turning their attention to this high-potential region.

But, with mounting backlash over the perceived exploitation of the ‘modest’ fashion industry by Western brands, we ask the question of how international fashion brands can get it right to truly deliver to this consumer need in an authentic and culturally-appropriate way.

In this article, we explore the cultural nuances that make this region particularly challenging for global brands to navigate, and with the help of our Illume Guide, Dalia, we look at which brands are getting it right and those that are getting it wrong.


A region rich in culture with contrasting views and beliefs

Speaking to Dalia, the first thing we learn about the ‘Middle East’ is that it is a huge and diverse region, where each country has its own distinct set of traditions, beliefs and norms.

For example, in UAE, there is more of an acceptance of liberal ideas and values due to the large ex-pat community living there who represent about 88% of the population. This is in stark contrast to countries like Saudi Arabia where religious conservatism is prominent and still controls exposure to, and acceptance of ideas from the West.

A brand entering this region needs to understand that a single strategy may not be effective across all of these countries and a hyper-local approach may be more pertinent to truly engage consumers in a culturally-relevant way.


‘Brick and Mortar’ shopping is king, but e-commerce is an emerging force

Shopping is a key part of everyday life in the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf region where wealth often drives a need to ‘flaunt’ extravagant, luxury purchases.

Unlike other markets around the world, physical stores are still a key part of the consumer journey, driven in part by the presence of large shopping malls in countries like UAE and Saudi Arabia, that act as social ‘hubs’ for people living nearby. Mall shopping is also central to many festivals and religious holidays such as Eid Ad-adha, where shopping for clothes to wear at celebratory gatherings with friends and family is a tradition for many.

Despite this, e-commerce is set to grow astronomically in this region and is predicted to hit 400% growth by the end of this year. In a region where physical stores have dominated for so long, there are still obstacles to how much consumers are accessing online fashion retail in the Middle East. Dalia explains this being a result of “poor infrastructure which is frustrating for consumers who have to pay for an expensive, yet slow delivery service.”

Offline and mall shopping is still very much a culturally-ingrained behaviour, but brands also can’t ignore the increasingly affluent and digitally-connected consumer that is set to grow e-commerce exponentially in the region.

Fashion brands must develop a strong omni-channel strategy in this region to remain relevant.


Conservative fashion with a contemporary twist  

Driven by countries like UAE where there is more exposure to different lifestyles, conservative fashion in the region is increasingly becoming more fused with designs and styles from the rest of the world.

Dalia tells us that the biggest indicator of this is how the hijab and abaya are changing in certain areas of the region: “these items have traditionally been worn in plain colours, but people are now starting to wear bolder colours and are experimenting with different styles/shapes and embellishments, while still remaining modest.”

A recent example is the Dolce & Gabbana hijab and abaya collection which was designed with Middle Eastern women in mind. The collection blends traditional garments with nods to Middle Eastern culture, while also incorporating classic D&G fabrics and prints.

D&G first launched their hijab and abaya collection in 2016

This aligns with a global individuality trend, particularly amongst the younger generation, who are increasingly exposed to influences from social media and prominent style bloggers across the globe. Dalia explains that “more people are looking to the West for style inspiration that they can adapt. A particularly popular designer in this region is Ellie Saab, who truly understands the fashion needs of women in the Middle East, but fuses his designs with fabrics and styles from the West.”


The Lebanese designer Ellie Saab often blends Western and Middle Eastern styles successfully, which is increasingly being followed by global brands such as Nike (above) in their ‘What will they say about you?’ campaign.


For fashion brands to appeal to a Middle Eastern audience, they need to design ranges that allow people to express their individual identity in a way that still embraces and celebrates heritage and tradition.


Start by getting the basics right

With more global brands creating fashion edits and specific ranges to cater for consumers in the Middle East, there is a risk that brands can get this very wrong by not considering the essentials that conservative dressers seek.

For Dalia, there are a number of items that she considers to be key for brands to get right for them to appeal to this audience: “the essentials would be items of clothing that are not too tight to the body, e.g. long jackets, ¾ sleeve tops and long dresses that are made from flowy material that is also opaque. Also consider offering plus sizes for those who want to go up a size to ensure the right fit for them.”

When it comes to the abaya (long dress-like robe), Dalia tells us that she is seeing more innovation of this key garment through brighter colours, embellishments and different styles: “more women are starting to wear different versions of the abaya to evening events like parties, which shows how this item is becoming much more versatile, often taking women from a day to night look.”

As a global brand entering this region, there may be a temptation to assume that existing ‘modest’ clothes from the range are suitable for this consumer, however to be more culturally-attuned, special consideration should be given to sizes, cuts, materials and styles.


So, where do global brands get it wrong?

Dalia believes that “not selling the staple items of clothing or types of material that are essential for modest dress” is the biggest faux pas that a global fashion brand can make.

Second to this is a lack of authenticity around how the range is advertised in this region – “brands often style modest fashion pieces or looks in a way that isn’t reflective of the region, e.g. the models are Western or they don’t show models that wear a hijab, which can alienate those who want to still wear the clothes, but in a more conservative way.”

This perspective is reflective of feelings towards certain brands like H&M, Tommy Hilfiger and Mango who have tried to capitalise on the Middle Eastern market through specific one-off collections that are usually sold around Ramadan, but don’t feature models from that region.

Tommy Hilfiger and Mango have launched Ramadan collections in previous years which have been criticised for not featuring models from the region.


Similarly, for all of the positivity that D&G’s abaya and hijab collection received for acknowledging modest fashion, they received fierce backlash for not including Arab models in the campaign.

Global fashion brands should design and promote their collections more authentically with the Middle Eastern woman in mind. It should be less about trying to ‘adapt’ existing garments into one-off collections and more about creating beautiful, original pieces for this audience to wear in their everyday lives, not just at Ramadan.


How can global fashion brands connect with Middle Eastern consumers?

According to Dalia, the key to success in this region is diversity of both the range itself, and representative advertising – the biggest successes come from regional fashion and beauty brands who lead the way in terms of connecting with Middle Eastern consumers.

“Riva is a brand that consistently gets it right. They produce a range of clothes that offer options for those people who want to dress more traditionally, as well as offering more fashion forward styles and designs. There are plus-size options for those wanting to go up a size to adapt the fit of a certain style and they advertise their range with culturally-appropriate images. Another brand that get it right in my opinion is Huda Beauty. They understand Middle Eastern women and use a wide range of models to advertise their products.”


As well as offering traditional garments, Riva also collaborates with fashion bloggers and up and coming brands
Huda Beauty is the top-selling beauty brand in Sephora stores in the region


So, how can global fashion brands authentically engage with Middle Eastern consumers? In the last few years, there have been a number of collaborations between global fashion brands and home-grown designers, influential fashion bloggers and regional fashion platforms.

For example Farfetch & The Modist recently teamed up to offer an exclusive modest collection, while brands like adidas Originals and luxury German label Aigner have been working with Saudi designer Arwa Al Banawi and Kuwaiti social media star Ascia Al Faraj, respectively on exclusive designs for the Middle Eastern market.

While it seems as though global fashion brands still have a long way to go before they can truly understand and represent the Middle Eastern consumer, collaborations like these are one way of bridging the cultural gap between this culturally diverse and complex region and the rest of the fashion world.

Saudi designer Arwa Al Banawi teamed up with adidas Originals to launch a capsule collection called “P.E”.
Farfetch recently entered a global partnership with modest luxury retailer The Modist as part of Middle East expansion plans. Aigner collaborated with the region’s popular social media influencer Ascia Al Faraj, with the creative director describing her as “an inspiration, keeping traditions alive yet being open-minded towards modern ideas.”

The Culture & Trends team at Join the Dots delivers cultural clarity to help our clients make better business decisions in their local markets – get in touch for more information on how we can help you solve your next global business challenge.