Dubai is quickly becoming a fashion destination, with luxury brands like Chanel hosting collection shows, and models and other fashion types frolicking there on holiday. And where there’s money and fashion, high-end beauty generally follows. (The Kardashians’ favorite hair styist, Jen Atkin and celeb colorist Tracey Cunningham, both jet to Dubai to take care of high-profile clients.)
With Western eyes and sensibilities trained on Dubai, coupled with a growing consumer desire for natural skin care, Dubai-based skin care brand Shiffa is poised for success. Dr. Lamees Hamdan, a Dubai-born physician who splits her time between Dubai and L.A., launched the brand in 2004 with an origin story that’s becoming more and more common lately. She was pregnant with her first child and couldn’t find skin care options, particularly anti-stretch mark oils, that she considered both natural and effective enough. So she whipped up her own pregnancy oil and the brand grew from there. Shiffa found success in its native Middle East, in Asia, in the UK (at retailers like Selfridges and SpaceNK) and then at high-end spas worldwide. The brand launched in the U.S. last summer, and is available at spas and on its website.
Shiffa’s products showcase a multicultural sensibility. Dr. Lamees (as she is known) was born in Dubai, raised in the U.S., and received her medical education in Dublin, where she met her husband, who is also from Dubai. She now has homes in both Dubai and L.A. “You have to understand that the locals make up only 11 to 15 percent of the population [of Dubai]. When you talk about Dubai, you’re talking about a very multicultural environment,” Dr. Lamees says. “I can empathize with a lot of cultures.” Her products were influenced in many ways by the traditional Middle Eastern beauty regimen she grew up with.
According to Dr. Lamees, using rosewater from Iran or Morocco as a facial tonic was very popular, something that’s seen a definite resurgence in modern skin care over the last few years. India also influenced the beauty routine of Middle Eastern women. Jasmine oil, sandalwood, coconut oil (duh, also popular now), turmeric and henna were all prevalent, as were DIY masks made with honey, yogurt, lemon and almond oil. Growing up, Dr. Lamees said women also were influenced by European brands like Dior and Chanel, and cleansing regimens were a mash-up of Euro-meets-hammam. The outcome of all these influences is a pretty unique line of products.
If you could bottle up an incense-infused, teakwood-embossed yoga studio helmed by a benevolent guru with long flowing hair, it would essentially be Shiffa. The products are yoga in a jar. And indeed, Dr. Lamees is of the opinion that stress is a cause of bad skin, so a lot of the actives in the products address the mental as well as the physical. “How do we get rid of stress? That’s what I think about when I formulate,” Dr. Lamees says. “Some of the essential oils I put in specifically because they act on your limbic system to relieve the stress that you’re facing.” She formulates with Iranian rose, South East Asian tamanu, Indian amber, Egyptian jasmine, Lebanese orange blossom, Tiaré flowers from Tahiti and African shea butter, to name just a few.
The brand’s best sellers include the Healing Balm, eye cream, and the body and hair oils. I used the Healing Balm over the holidays while in the frozen tundra that is Chicago and then again when I went skiing in Colorado. It’s a marked and chic improvement over the Vaseline my mom used to slather on my face in cold weather. All the Shiffa products smell divine, but like many natural products, the scents aren’t subtle. (The cold-pressed Arabian soap is also intriguing, mainly because it contains a good luck charm that you claim once the soap is gone.) The packaging is gorgeous -- bottles and jars are housed in paper boxes which are then wrapped with grosgrain ribbon. Prices range from $21 for soaps to $143 for a moisturizing facial cream.
The biggest knock against natural products is usually their efficacy, but Dr. Lamees says, “I formulate with a no-expense-spared policy. I never look at cost. It drives my manufacturers crazy. Anything I put in, it’s in a therapeutic concentration. It’s in a concentration where it’s been found to have results.” (To be clear, though, the products are not 100 percent natural. There are common cosmetic ingredients present, too. But the majority are plant-derived.) While some of her ingredients, like lavender oil and oregano essential oil have been studied pretty extensively, she acknowledges that not all are. “When I was studying medicine, we weren’t being taught about alternative medicine or naturals. Now the medical community is trained to integrate. I had to learn that on my own,” she says. “For some things, there aren’t any published reports, but they’ve been used for centuries in ayurvedic medicine or Chinese medicine or herbal medicine. But I do like to see data and now more is available and accessible.” Regardless, these products seem to stand up to mainstream brands.
Will Dubai become a hotbed of beauty? We'll be watching.