The Fashion Trail | 36 Hours in Qatar

DOHA, Qatar — Just before the madness of fashion week season began, I couldn’t resist accepting an invitation from Lama El Moatessem to visit Doha, the capital city of the tiny nation of Qatar, to attend the opening of the Peter Marino-designed flagship for Toujouri, Ms El Moatessem’s three year old fashion brand. How did a little-known Middle Eastern brand get Mr Marino, the go-to architect for powerhouse brands like Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Céline to design its first store? I was intrigued.

At first, driving through Doha doesn’t feel so different from driving through Dubai, the Gulf region’s major international hub. Both are cities with gleaming skyscrapers rising from the desert, in areas which were virtually empty less than a decade earlier, and both have drawn foreigners from all over the world to execute on ambitious economic development plans.

Indeed, in the last six years, Qatar’s population has almost doubled, growing from around 900,000 people in 2006 to almost 1.7 million today. During my 36 hour visit to Qatar, I met people from Spain, the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Nepal, the United States, and Egypt, all of whom had chosen to settle in Qatar to work in jobs ranging from manual labour to executive positions in major Qatari companies.

The 300,000 Qatari nationals have a high propensity for acquiring luxury goods, but until recently the vast majority of these products were bought abroad. In 2010, the investment arm of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund even bought Harrods — yes, I mean the entire landmark luxury department store — from Mohamed Al-Fayed for an estimated £1.5 billion.

The engine for Qatar’s fast-growing economy is energy. According to Wikipedia, “Qatar has the world’s largest per capita production and proven reserves of both oil and natural gas. In 2010, Qatar had the world’s highest GDP per capita, while the economy grew by 19.4 percent, the fastest in the world.” This has brought in more than $100 billion in investment from international oil companies like ExxonMobil and Shell.

But the ruling monarchy recognises that the energy sector will not sustain the country forever and that when oil reserves eventually run out — something which is not expected for at least another 40 years — Qatar will need additional pillars to build its “knowledge economy,” hence the presence of satellite campuses of international universities including Cornell, UCL, and Georgetown, and efforts to build out other economic vectors including finance and international transportation, with the country’s ultra-luxe airline, Qatar Airways.

But Qatar is more conservative than Dubai and doesn’t seem to be seeking out the tourist trade. There were many more women wearing the Hijab in Doha, and alcohol was banned in large swathes of the city, which does not necessarily make Doha a magnet for international visitors. In this way, Qatar is closer to its only bordering neighbour, Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative countries in the region.

Doha has also learned from Dubai’s mistakes, especially with regards to urban planning and development. The city seems more human-friendly. For example, residents can go for a run along The Corniche, which curves around the water like Ipanema in Rio or Marine Drive in Bombay. This is in stark contrast to Dubai’s concrete highways and gridlock traffic.

In Qatar, there has also been heavy investment in culture, both local and global. Just off of The Corniche, we visited the striking I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art (MIA). Our guide was a trilingual Chinese woman who learned Arabic at Peking University in Beijing. Earlier this year, the Qatari Museums Authority unveiled a 24 metre soaring sculpture by Richard Serra nearby in the MIA Park. It is the American artist’s first public commission in the Middle East and said to be a beacon for the arts in Qatar.

The MIA museum was impeccably presented, with perfect lighting and enough space to explore the ancient Islamic artworks. It made me wonder why that same attention to detail hadn’t been translated to many of the luxury and premium fashion brand stores at the shopping mall we visited at The Pearl, an unabashedly luxurious lifestyle residential development on 985 acres of reclaimed land just off the Arabian Peninsula, where Toujouri’s new store was opening. The Pearl is Qatar’s answer to The Palm in Dubai, boasting three marinas with capacity for 700 boats, three 5-star hotels and 2 million square feet of retail, restaurant and entertainment space, which is slowly filling up.

Designed specifically for consumers in the Gulf Region (but also targeted at the international jet set who touch down in resorts like St Barts, Saint-Tropez and Sardinia), Toujouri’s evening dresses boast modest silhouettes with jewel tones and embellishment, produced in India using age-old handwork techniques.

“I don’t think [people here] have yet been given something that is of high-quality, that is also proud to be associated with the Middle-East,” said Ms El Moatassem. “Toujouri has a real Middle-Eastern essence, but in a modern way.”

Ms El Moatassem said she was lucky to have secured the support of Peter Marino given the small scale of her business, but that it did not come without some hustle. She pursued Mr Marino for over a year, finally winning him over in person by showing him one entire collection, piece by piece.

The benefits of Mr Marino’s participation, apart from the star power of his endorsement, which drew a pack of international journalists from Dubai and London, were clear. Toujouri’s studded facade and bright lighting stood out in a sea of drab, poorly displayed, poorly lit stores nearby. A few of them had clumsy-looking “Sale” signs hanging in the window, something I haven’t seen since a visit to Bermuda a few years ago. No wonder Ms El Moatessem was beaming all evening.

The store-opening coincided with the launch of Toujouri’s collaboration with Atelier Mayer’s magazine, part of the content strategy for the growing vintage e-commerce start-up founded by Carmen Haid, a former communications executive at Céline, Yves Saint Laurent and Tommy Hilfiger.

“I like to go into these countries myself to better understand their culture and their societies, and also the taste of the customers,” said Ms. Haid when asked why she would choose to launch her magazine in the Qatari capital.

So what has she learned about the market for luxury goods in the Gulf countries? Mainstream bling is not enough. “Everybody is trying to be luxury today. It’s kind of boring so you have to really go to the core,” she said, “especially for people who are wealthy, in these regions. They can buy anything they want.”

Taste levels, in the region are rapidly evolving. Ms. Haid recounted a story of carting all of her prized vintage Hermès pieces to nearby Bahrain, only to find that all of the women had “super-bespoke” Birkin bags and were more interested in items from lesser-known brands, and even garments without labels.

“If you go four years back, everyone just cared about Chanel, Dior, Versace, and that’s it,” said Noor Al Thani, co-founder of Haute Muse, a Doha-based lifestyle and fashion blog that morphed into a fully-fledged magazine one year ago. “Now people are open to Topshop and H&M. You can mix and match really high-end brands with [low-end brands],” she said, speaking in a perfect American accent and idiom and demonstrating that the younger generation here are as switched on and logged in as their peers in other parts of the world.

Looking back at the skyscrapers in Doha’s central business zone as we zipped back to the airport, there was also a whiff of the Pudong district in Shanghai, with its futuristic skyscrapers twisting in post-modern statements of steel and glass. But while Qatar may not have the scale of the Chinese market, nor the tourist Mecca status of Dubai, for the luxury sector, this is still a country to watch.

Imran Amed is founder and editor-in-chief of The Business of Fashion