Design District Dubai: Fashion’s latest great destination

“Work, live, play, and now learn,” is the mantra of Mohammad Saeed Al Shehhi, the CEO of Dubai Design District, or D3, the setting for Fashion Forward Dubai, the city’s main catwalk season, and the man in charge of very probably the biggest new fashion and design cluster in the world.


Dubai Design District, or D3, the city state's new creative hub


Al Shehhi traveled to Miami Design District, New York’s Meatpacking District and Shoreditch in London, during a benchmark study of happening creative fashion hubs. “We wanted to use the best of everywhere when we began making our own creative hub,” explains the CEO. The result is D3, a massive four-billion-dirham (950 million euro) project. Its next step includes creating the region’s first serious fashion and design college, built by Norman Foster.
 
All this is bankrolled by TECOM, part of Dubai Holding, the giant investment vehicle controlled Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of this global city state.
 
Phase 1 is made up of 11 buildings, where FFWD is currently being staged with some 20 runway shows (six of them D3 based brands), multiple presentations, a small salon of local designers, expert talks and an international graduate show of young students in a joint show space.
 
D3 already boasts fashion boutiques, ateliers and studios, furniture stores, architect firms, local social media influencers, innovation labs, wearable technology firms, art galleries and a series of chic restaurants. Some 400 companies have opened up in D3, 60% of them SMEs, often young designers from the region. But D3 also includes the Chaloub Group, a massive firm distributing some 40 Western luxury brands in the Gulf. Swarovski opened up a creative center here, while Miroslava Duma is considering installing the Dubai wing of her Buro 24/7 life-style platform.  Chanel has a management office in D3, and Christian Dior one for couture.
 
“Dior also trains its regional staff here in new products,” smiles Al Shehhi, over a plate of spicy shrimp served on L’Abitare ceramics in the airy Lighthouse, an experimental design concept store and restaurant that sells books, rock guitars and glassware. A mini Colette in the Gulf.
 
In a busy fashion moment, Vogue Arabia’s Editor-in-Chief Manuel Arnaut feted the first anniversary Vogue Arabia Men’s website here this week, while rival Esquire Townhouse staged four nights of dinners, debates and art performances inside luxury tower Volante in nearby Business Bay.
 
“The design industry in the Gulf is a very significant business. We value it a 100 billion dollars and the UAE has a big market share, $27.6 billion. It’s an industry growing at 7% a year; double the national economy, which grew 2.8% in 2016. So we want Dubai to become the hub for that. Our idea is to provide our young designers with the right eco-system and infrastructure so hopefully in the future they can set trends out of Dubai that will become international,” explains Al Shehhi, who speaks perfect English, fruit of a degree in electrical engineering in Leeds University.
 
Now, Al Shehhi is busy on Phase 2, due to be completed by the end of 2019, a creative community, which encompasses the Foster-designed Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation, or DIDI, which is collaborating with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Parsons School of Design.
 
“We always build on the basis of the feedback we get from designers and creatives,” says the CEO, who dresses in the bespoke white ankle-length Kandura all Dubai gentlemen wear.
 
Dubai Holding has also built a series of canals from the Gulf into the dessert, creating watery bays and creeks; reducing the ambient temperature and bringing flocks of exotic local birds – cranes, mynas and pratincoles.
 
Phase 3, seen in a giant model in Al Shehhi’s office, includes smart marinas, waterfront towers and boutique hotels. Al Shehhi’s latest visitor: Pietro Beccari, CEO of Fendi, who is mulling opening up a hyper chic boutique on the bay, modeled on the brand’s Fendi Private Suites of just seven rooms in the center of Renaissance Rome.
 
“We control 13 kilometers of waterfront property. So, I still have quite a lot to do,” says Al Shehhi, with the self-assured chuckle of all successful Dubaians.
 

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