Tanja Beljanski: How does Arab Fashion Council (AFC) work into promoting peace through fashion?
Mohammed Aqra: The Arab Fashion Council, the world’s largest non-profit fashion authority that represents 22 Arab countries members of the Arab League, promotes peace by aligning its strategies to the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which mainly focus on quality education, gender equality, decent work, and economic growth, innovative industry and infrastructure, responsible production and consumption, peace, justice, and the strong institution as well as partnerships for the goals. Since its inception in 2014, the AFC has worked on many initiatives to empower women through Brides do Good, providing quality education through scholarships, innovative industry through Arab Fashion Week, responsible production and consumption through AFC Green Label, peace, justice through Sew for Syria, Fashion 4 Development and Beirut Fashion Relief Initiative and partnerships for the goals through a strategic alliance with giants such as Microsoft, Samsung, and the Dubai Health Authority.
TB: Please tell us about the AFC’s long-term vision to establish a fashion pipeline in the Arab world.
MA: The AFC’s vision 2030 is to build a robust creative economy with the strategy to develop the Fashion Pipeline of the Arab World. The AFC divides the Arab Fashion System into three main clusters. The first cluster locates the North African Arab countries under the Raw Materials and Textile cluster, whereas the second cluster located the Levant countries under the Manufacturing and Production cluster, and finally the third cluster locates the Arab Gulf countries under the Marketing, Retail, and Export cluster. This would enable us to create over 20 Million job vacancies in the creative industry.
TB: And how do you help designers and fashion businesses to innovate and commercialize their creativity?
MA: The Arab Fashion Council has been the first to discuss sustainable development in the region by adopting the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals and working on building a holistic value chain that will not only benefit and foster the growth of regional talent but also energize all sectors that serve the industry being it factories, hospitality, or marketing. Since 2015, the AFC has established and coordinated Arab Fashion Week which is now the only official fashion platform in the region that is recognized globally and known as the fifth most important fashion week. This has enabled our talent to showcase their creativity on a prestigious calendar alongside the world’s most renowned brands and sell their collections globally through our network of over 160,000 buyers on JOOR. The AFC also through its partnership department continuously collaborates our regional talent with giants and multinational companies such as Microsoft, DHL, BIC...etc. This year the AFC has coordinated the launch of the luxury marketplace Bytribute.com which enables designers to sell their collections worldwide through a cutting edge omni-channel.
TB: The AFC has redefined the terms of the current luxury market by defining a new term in the fashion dictionary, Ready-Couture. What does this mean in comparison with Haute Couture? What exactly does Ready-Couture bring to the end consumer?
MA: In today’s world which are governed by social media, digital platforms and competitive offering, the same consumer who used to be able to spend on the Haute Couture garments heavy numbers that would reach a million dollars, is no longer in possession of the same budget, and let’s blame it on the social media. For example, 20 years ago, the Haute Couture client was able to order an expensive gown and wear it perhaps to different events of a different audience. However, with the introduction of social media, this is no longer possible when everything became public. Hence, a new market has surged, and this market started in the early 2000s to witness the creation of Ready-to-Wear black labels, capsule collections, and exclusive pieces that would still be exclusive but at a lower cost; prestigious Haute Couture brands found themselves in need to launch a couture similar ready-to- wear lines, go into perfume and accessories to compensate the shrinking numbers of haute couture clients. Still, the same former haute couture clients are still seeking customization and attention in more affordable ways which is the answer to defining a new fashion category which is the “Ready Couture”, it is the midpoint of Haute Couture and Ready-to-Wear which would account for over 70% of the current luxury market.
TB: 1422 Dubai concept store has been launched in 2019. Do you see it as a success story?
MA: 1422 Dubai, which means “1 Council for 22 Countries” has become the physical address of shop-the-runway and designers acceleration hub offering clientele an in advance offering of the runway collection at least 6 months prior to finding it in other stores. It saw a noticeable success since its launch which was then interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic like all major retail stores around the world. However, it was able to continue and today it is witnessing a sustainable recovery thanks to Dubai’s success in curbing the spread of the virus. Today, 1422 Dubai is proudly receiving requests to franchise in major fashion capitals and within the UAE itself.
TB: The initiative “Arabs in Paris” is set to highlight the Arab designers’ talent on a global level and to connect them with international media and buyers. Did the Covid-19 global crisis have an impact on these plans?
MA: I would be able to actually confirm that Covid-19 has impacted positively our plans and enabled us to reassess our previous achievements and business models. It also has proven our ability for fast adaption to the market’s changes and risk by innovating our platform and reinventing the fashion scene.
“The Arabs in Paris” initiative is part of Paris Fashion Week’s official calendar. Thanks to the partnership with FHCM, The Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, listing the selected designers on the official calendar has enabled them to receive remarkable support from the media and buyers visiting the showroom at the prestigious and historical Parisian fashion street rue Saint- Honoré.
TB: Tell us about your cooperation with other fashion councils and fashion chambers. What are the most significant achievements by now? And what are the future plans in this field?
MA: The first Chairman of the Arab Fashion Council is His Excellency Cavaliere Mario Boselli. He has governed the Italian National Chamber of Fashion for over 15 years and positioned Milan on the global fashion map. This has enabled Arab designers to be part of the Italian fashion scene and connect with some of the best factories in the world. In 2020, we strategically partnered with FHCM and built the bridge between Paris and Dubai to enable our talent to explore the European and Global market and the Parisian talent to explore the Middle East Market. We plan to continue strengthening the ties with our counterparts and ensure alliance in all fields to advance the industry locally and globally.
TB: How do you see men’s fashion trends in the Middle East?
MA: If you asked me this question 5 years ago when Arab Fashion Week launched, I would have answered the Men’s fashion trend in the Middle East is absent. Today, our opinion is different. The scene is charged energetically by the growing demand for more creative and daring menswear that witnessed the birth of creative menswear labels that could compete in the international arena. The time has finally arrived to coordinate the region’s first Men’s Fashion Week which is set to kick-off from 28 to 30 January 2021.
TB: Do you hope that Arab Fashion Week-Men’s will help men in the Middle East to embrace a more adventurous wardrobe?
MA: I do hope so, but precisely I know so. The first Arab Fashion Week - Men’s is going to introduce truly creative menswear brands to the market dominated by adventurous styles. We are certain of a successful outlook and thanks to the buyers demand to offer a more creative selection of menswear. I would say that Arab Men have always been waiting for this moment and the journey of the adventurous men has started in 2021.
TB: What is this long period of turbulence likely to mean for the future of the regional fashion industry?
MA: It would mean competition to stay in the market and the scene. It is exceedingly difficult for the retail sector and big brands, but less difficult to emerging talent. We will witness more innovations and creativity which will set rules to who is going to be the next big label of this century. It is overly critical period that would filter, clean up and introduce new future giants. When it comes to fashion retail it would be difficult to sustain the business without reinventing the in-store retail experience and dive completely into the world of omni-channel and e-commerce. The good part about it is that it naturalizes’ the market, enabling emerging start-ups to exist amongst big industry players.
TB: What are your thoughts about how the industry will have to rebuild and reinvent itself post crisis?
MA: The pandemic’s crisis has strongly created the habit of appreciating the moment, working remotely, and carefully assessing each step we take. This habit will remain at least with our generation and the industry will have to adapt to such changes. The industry will have to completely adopt technology and make its DNA and unique selling point (USP) unique and experimental. Mergers of saturated common offerings will take place and only creativity will stand out.
TB: What can we expect from AFC in the near future?
MA: You can rest assured that AFC will continue working around the clock and be on the forefront of innovation, changes, and technology. Our platforms will increase, diversify, and lead the way for designers to be backed by a system that is designed to grow our economy and market our production globally.