Arab women, world’s biggest buyers of haute couture

They are rarely spotted on the front row of a fashion show and favour discretion when placing orders, yet women from the Middle East have become the world’s biggest buyers of high fashion.  The trend may surprise given that many Arab women, particularly in the Gulf region, are traditionally kept under wraps.

But their social calendar, which usually consists of 15-20 weddings a year and private parties every month, creates much bigger demand for couture than the occasional charity ball and high society party in Europe and in North America. And wearing the same dress twice is not an option.

The biggest buyers of haute couture today centre around the Gulf — Saudis, Kuwaitis, Qataris and nationals of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) who do not hesitate to spend 50,000 euros on a low-cleavage lame for an event where no men will be present.

"All the royal families of the Middle East are our customers," Catherine Riviere, head of haute couture at Christian Dior, told Reuters at the brand’s show at Paris Fashion Week which ends on Wednesday. Middle Eastern customers have also recently shown growing support for Lebanese designers such as Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad.

Fashion executives say the Middle East is likely to remain the top couture client for the foreseeable future if the economic environment deteriorates in Europe and North America. The luxury goods industry has not yet been hit by the global slowdown but many analysts fear it will not come out of the downturn unscathed, particularly if China’s growth starts to slow down.

Generally at weddings in Gulf countries, men and women are split into two separate groups, attendees say. Thousands of women gather together in one big ball room — all wearing haute couture — and some are not afraid to wear provocative and revealing outfits.

Valued at 700 million euros ($930 million), designer clothing is by far the biggest segment of the luxury goods industry representing 42 percent of overall luxury goods sales in the UAE, the biggest buyer among Gulf states, with women’s designer dresses and skirts leading the way, Euromonitor International said in a report published in June.

"For us, with China, the Middle East is the market that is growing the fastest," Hermes Chief Executive Patrick Thomas told Reuters at Paris Fashion Week. "These markets for a long time preferred a more ostentatious type of luxury and now want a more refined and discreet style," he added. Thomas said the Middle East only started to pick up strongly two to three years ago and now generates 30-35 percent in annual sales growth a year.

With weddings lasting three, and sometimes up to seven, days, each client needs at least 5-10 different outfits — good news for fashion companies but complicated to keep track of. 

Dior, Chanel and many other major luxury brands also stage private shows at hotels in the Middle East or in the comfort of the home of their most regular customers. The shopping season usually starts in Italy in June. In July and August, it tends to concentrate around the Riviera, where many Gulf women spend holidays, and it finishes in September in Paris and London.

Qatar, the world’s richest nation per capita, is one of the few economies in the world enjoying strong economic growth with a GDP growth forecast of 19 percent for this year, according to analysts. Qatar is organising its first fashion week with a target date of March 2012. One of the biggest supporters of the fashion event is Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, the glamorous wife of the emir of Qatar who regularly features in Gulf tabloids along with Queen Rania of Jordan.

adapted from Reuters