When Condé Nast International announced last July that it was set to launch Vogue Arabia, the news took off. The magazine, created in partnership with Dubai-based media company Nervora, marks one of the publisher's earliest forays into the Middle East (it already issues regional editions of Architectural Digest and Condé Nast Traveller), and media brands — present company included — were quick to bite, reporting on how the title would publish a dual-language website in Arabic and English first in the fall, followed by a print product come spring. A New York profile titled "The Anna Wintour of the Middle East" about Vogue Arabia's Editor in Chief, Saudi Princess Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz, went viral earlier this month. The magazine felt fresh, smart and elegant, and is also indicative of a larger movement throughout Dubai.
Amid the excitement, there was also much discussion about what, exactly, took Condé Nast so long. The environment in the Middle East, especially within Dubai, is ripe for a fashion media brand of Vogue Arabia's scale. The United Arab Emirates (where Vogue Arabia is headquartered) has ample spending power with the most diversified economy in the Gulf Cooperation Council and no shortage of high-net-worth individuals as residents. As of 2016, Dubai was ranked the 21st most expensive city in the world and the most expensive in the Middle East; according to a February WWD report, Arab consumers spent $320 billion on luxury fashion in 2016, and that number is expected to grow to $490 billion by 2019.
The broader region boasts one of the largest and youngest populations on Earth: "Over 350 million people are in the Arab world, and in most countries, more than half of the population is under the age of 26," says Shashi Menon, publisher of Vogue Arabia and founder/CEO of Nervora. "There's an extremely large long-term opportunity here."
Vogue Arabia hit a sweet spot with luxury advertisers, many of whom have spent years working overtime to capture millennial, and now Generation Z, buying power. Menon says Vogue Arabia's digital launch was "heavily subscribed," with both display and native campaigns from the likes of Chanel, Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana, Bulgari, Dior, Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Saint Laurent, Tiffany & Co. and more.
In line with the Middle East's youthful demographic is the rise of mobile and a wider interest in e-commerce in turn. To meet that demand, in November, Yoox Net-a-Porter Group revealed a joint partnership with Symphony Investments — an entity chaired by Mohamed Alabbar of the Dubai-based retail giant Alabbar Enterprises — to expand in the Middle East and open an office and distribution center in Dubai by the end of 2017. (The move had been in the works at least since last April, when together the two groups raised €100 million.)
It's a massive project any way you look at it: The joint venture will oversee all of Yoox Net-a-Porter's online multibrand stores — Net-a-Porter, Mr Porter, Yoox and The Outnet — in the Middle East and will operate within the GCC, though it may spread into other countries later on. But the company is embarking on this enterprise with numbers on its side: Arab consumers spent $320 billion on luxury fashion in 2016, as reported by WWD, and that's expected to rise to $490 billion by 2019. Meanwhile, Net-a-Porter competitor Moda Operandi began scouting for a showroom space in Dubai last April, also looking to hire 10 Arabic-speaking stylists to accommodate its customers; according to WWD, the Middle East accounts for 15 percent (and counting) of Moda Operandi's business.
Despite all of the recent attention Dubai has received from the high-fashion sector, it's nothing new; the Middle East has always sustained a luxury market, but only recently has e-commerce become a significant part of the equation. "Until quite recently, your average shopper still preferred to go to the malls and hadn't as yet developed the confidence to shop online," says Zayan Ghandour, designer of her own namesake label and co-founder and creative director of Colette-esque concept boutique S*uce. "But this is changing rapidly, and behavior will certainly continue to evolve."
For Vogue Arabia, the decision to introduce its website a whole six months prior to a print edition was largely driven by a need to cater to the brand's target consumer. "Globally, Condé Nast is investing heavily in digital, and recognizes that, particularly for millennials, the future of media is digital-centric," explains Menon. "Here in the Middle East, digital penetration is also extremely high. Launching Vogue on digital first is both a bold bet and indication of how seriously we take the digital medium and how much it's intertwined with our future."
It's not enough for media brands and retailers to make a play to Dubai's readers through digital channels alone; its insertion must feel organic to effectively connect with the local audience. Yoox Net-a-Porter's forthcoming Dubai operation will come complete with Arabic-specific customer services and local currency and payment methods throughout the GCC; the same is the case for Vogue Arabia, having put a premium on bilinguality from its launch. "Looking out at the region at large, Arabic is the most important language in the region, especially on digital," says Menon. "It's very important to us that Vogue Arabia is positioned as an indigenous brand, and not just as an import from the Western world."
Menon explains that the Middle Eastern fashion market has long been known as a vibrant market for fashion and luxury brands, but only in the past few years has it undergone a transition to become less retail-driven.
Just last week, Arab Fashion Week (which takes place in Dubai) announced that it shifted its dates to May rather than shortly following Paris Fashion Week in March as it had been timed in the past. The five-day event, now in its fourth season, will coincide with resort collections in order to to capitalize on in-season demand. "Roughly 75 percent of buyers' budgets are spent on pre-collections," Arab Fashion Council CEO Jacob Abrian told WWD. Abrian expects for Arab Fashion Week to host an estimated 20,000 showgoers this spring, a far cry from the 3,000 in attendance at its inaugural season.
The rise of digital has also put a brighter spotlight on local talent. Vogue Arabia is partnering with the Dubai Design & Fashion Council prize to help elevate fledgling Middle Eastern designers and give them a global platform. Moda Operandi also uses its platform to champion up-and-coming regional talent. Discussing its expansion into the Middle East last April, Mary Chiam, the retailer's vice president of merchandising & planning, told Dubai-based publication Savoir Flair, "one thing we find, season after season, is that when we launch somebody, they are able to easily reach a global audience that they wouldn't otherwise have access to."
Ghandour's S*uce has been on this beat since the beginning. Since Ghandour opened her very first store in 2004, the retailer has highlighted up-and-coming designers alongside your standard international contemporary brands in a way that hadn't been done before in Dubai. "Whether we're sourcing locally or internationally, we look for the same thing: that extra-special detail that you won't find anywhere else; things that make each piece unique and tell a story that brings it to life," says Ghandour. "We work closely with young designers to ensure that most of our collections are exclusive as we customize a lot of the pieces that we order." S*uce now ships to the U.S. and has nine locations throughout the UAE.
If brick-and-mortar venues are suffering in the Western world, with revenue dips and slowed traffic, Dubai experiences the opposite. The city's healthy malls and department stores are incomparable to what we’ve grown used to seeing in the U.S. Shopping malls are serious business, partially due to climate: Average temperatures tend to surpass 106 degrees Fahrenheit, with consistently hot, humid and sunny days. The weather creates a need for fun, air-conditioned indoor activity, and the city's investment in property development fills it.
There are malls, and then there are malls: Centers like Mall of the Emirates, BurJuman and The Dubai Mall certainly specialize in luxury shopping, but they also run the gamut when it comes to unique amenities. At the 2.3 million-square-foot Mall of the Emirates, guests can take advantage of a theme park, Magic Planet, as well as an acclaimed indoor ski resort, Ski Dubai. The Dubai Mall is the world's largest and most-visited shopping mall, clocking in at 2.9 million square feet and as of 2016, up to 80 million visitors; it also houses one of the world's largest aquatic zoos, Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo.
Though the in-person shopping experience remains lucrative, it's the digital and e-commerce developments that are drawing more international attention; they're what Menon calls a "megatrend." "From a brand and retail perspective, we're seeing the digital medium playing a much more central role for companies," says Menon. "The Middle East is one of the world's fastest growing e-commerce markets, and consumer demographics and digital penetration point to a bright future there."
Menon also notes that this growth is prompting a number of big retail groups to "invest big" in e-commerce. In addition to his work with Yoox Net-a-Porter, aforementioned Alabbar, the chairman of Emaar Properties (which operates The Dubai Mall), introduced online marketplace Noon.com this past November. Dubai-based Al Tayer Group also recently launched Ounass, the company's take on luxury e-commerce, which will serve the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Retailers aren't the only deep-pocketed groups betting on the Middle East: Last April, Etihad Airways, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, was named the official sponsor of the international WME/IMG fashion events, including fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Berlin.
Will Dubai's luxury goods industry continue to expand with such velocity? Ghandour expects so, but those changes — from the merchandise itself to how retailers approach potential shoppers — won't simply take place in the UAE; what's happening in Dubai is just a condensed version of what we're seeing elsewhere.
"[The market] all over the world is adjusting to a new norm, and that includes not just the changing behavior and spending patterns of the affluent customer, but also the introduction of a younger generation and catering to a wider section of the population," says Ghandour. "The offer will change and adapt for a wider audience, and I think we will see this everywhere."
Homepage photo: An general view of Dubai Marina. Photo: Rustam Azmi/Getty Images
Note: This story incorrectly stated that Vogue Arabia was Condé Nast International's first foray into the Middle East, and has been updated.