Night view of Dubai. (Photo: VCG)
One evening in Dubai in November, a model dressed in a shimmering silver-grey gown with layers of luscious lace strutted down a runway for the Dubai Fashion Days of 2019, a prominent fashion event in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from November 21 to 28.
The piece showcased by the model is part of the pre-fall 2019 collection by evening gown and wedding dress maker Judy&Julia, one of over a dozen fashion brands originated in China that participated in the fashion event. In total, Chinese brands accounted for almost half of the brands being showcased.
"We presented our luxury collection to the Dubai Fashion Days, which includes a lot of embellished evening wear that caters specially to the Middle East market," Gao Wei, founder of the brand Judy&Julia, told the Global Times. Before the event, in October, Gao and his team visited dozens of evening gown shops and boutiques in UAE to survey the market, and the team is considering a visit to Saudi Arabia in the future.
The Arab world is no stranger to Chinese products, including Chinese clothing. Since at least the 1990s, traders from Arabian countries have been traveling to China to buy low- to middle-end garments and accessories from wholesalers in cities like Yiwu in Zhejiang Province, home to the world's biggest wholesale market.
But as China engages more in the Middle East through its Belt and Road initiative, China's fashion and e-commerce industries are also taking fashion to the next level, as the businesses hope to bring fast fashion and luxury clothing to the rising Arab fashion market.
The Chinese fashion brands at the Dubai Fashion Days are not the only Chinese element at the fashion show. The event is presented by Hala China, an initiative by two Dubai conglomerates with an aim of attracting Chinese visitors to visit Dubai and the UAE. Co-organizers of the event include JollyTrust, a subsidiary of Chinese e-commerce platform Jollychic that has over 50 million users in the Middle East. Organizers say the event is an attempt to connect China's fashion industry with the Arab world.
Zhang Qinghui, chairman of the China Fashion Association, said in addition to facilitating cultural exchange, Dubai Fashion Days will provide the perfect opportunity for the two countries to present their designs, expertise, resources and creativity.
"We believe this can be the start of a long-term partnership that will create exposure across both markets and support their growth," he told the Xinhua News Agency.
The Middle East is one of the fastest-rising fashion markets in the world, with young, wealthy consumers willing to spend money on clothing and accessories.
According to Statista, an online statistics and market research website, revenue in the fashion segment in Africa and the Middle East amounted to $4.4 billion in 2018, and is expected to show an annual growth rate of 10.5 percent over the next five years.
In recent years, many Western fashion giants have been trying to adapt to the Arab market. In 2016, Italian fashion label Dolce & Gabbana, for example, famously designed a hijab and abaya collection in an effort to lure Arabian women. American brand DKNY and Spanish fast fashion brand Mango also released Ramadan collections in 2014 and 2016 to attract local consumers.
Chinese fashion companies don't want to be left out. Founded in 2010 in Suzhou, dubbed as the wedding gown capital of the world, Judy&Julia had mainly targeted the evening and wedding gown market in the US and Europe. Now the brand is shifting to the Middle East market.
"The Middle East is increasingly powerful in terms of consumer buying power. In comparison, the buying power in the US is rather mediocre, where consumers have a relatively high sensitivity to prices. The European market, on the other hand, has too small a population. This is why we are eyeing the Middle East as our next target market," Gao said.
However, compared with Western brands which enjoy popular brand awareness in the Middle East, new Chinese brands have many challenges to overcome. One of them is to shift the locals' impression of Chinese brands, which Gao says is often associated with cheap prices despite their good quality.
"Their impression of Chinese clothing is that it's cheap even though it has relatively good quality. However, in terms of brand-added value, Chinese brands don't have an advantage. The same products by a Chinese brand may have to sell at a considerably lower price than those from a foreign brand," he said.
Judy&Julia's strategy is to market itself as a global brand with products all made in China. The brand is registered in New York and the company has set up local warehouses in the US and Germany.
"Marketing a brand as an inside-out Chinese brand may expose weaknesses. Localization is critical," Gao said.
Gao's view is echoed by David Ding, co-founder and executive president, a Chinese e-commerce platform that has achieved success in the Middle East over the past few years. "It takes time for the Chinese brands to be recognized by the Middle East market. After all, the foreign market isn't very familiar with them," he told the Global Times.
But Ding believes that as the quality of Chinese brands improves and as their prices remain modest, Chinese fashion brands will be better recognized by consumers in the Middle East.
The e-commerce platform now carries Chinese fast fashion brands like Heilan Home, Septwolves, Balabala and Semir, and has assisted many famous Chinese brands in entering the Middle East market.
Headquartered in Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province, Jollychic connects these brands to over 35 million users in the Middle East that have registered on the platform, and empowers them with local warehouses, call centers and fast delivery service. Currently it has 600 local staff in its call center in Jordan, and 350 staff members in Saudi Arabia. It provides a total of over 1,000 employment opportunities in the Middle East.
Jollychic is also empowering Chinese fashion brands with big data. "According to our sales statistics, plus-size clothing, fast fashion, long dresses and garments with shimmering accessories are most popular in the Middle East market. Through these statistics, our platform is able to forecast future sales. We will in turn provide these statistics to the Chinese brands on our platform, allowing them to manufacture what sells best," Ding said.
Following Judy&Julia's Dubai debut, Gao said the company received many queries from UAE's fashion key opinion leaders (KOL), who approached the company for commercial collaboration.
Just like in China, online celebrities and KOLs play a big part in building brand awareness and generating sales in the fashion and retail industry in the Middle East. For Gao, this is something the company has to embrace if it wants to take off smoothly in the Middle East. "We're also perfecting our Instagram and Facebook pages," he said.
A search for the company's name on Youtube, for example, generates dozens of pages of videos featuring fashionable Arab women, some wearing hijabs, showcasing their recent buys on the shopping platform and speaking Arab. Some videos are viewed over 600,000 times.