Viability director Guy Wilkinson questions whether the Middle East is ready for the Western enslaught of fashion-forward hotels and asks if local residents will care enough to pay them a visit
Are we cool, or what? I mean, now that we have the Armani hotel in Dubai, the city — and by association, the rest of the Middle East — is now officially hip, man! Apparently Tom Cruise and the rest of the cast of Mission Impossible 4 have been staying there during shooting (the film crew, who presumably are less fashion-conscious, were relegated to the nearby Dusit Dubai — in my view, an equally iconic building, although not quite as tall).
It’s this kind of talk, as though we were all Americans and routinely shopped on Rodeo Drive in Hollywood, which somehow seems out of place in the GCC. I guess the fact is that, far from being global travellers, we are more likely to be telly addicts who while away our spare time glued to the E! channel or reading Hello magazine, the result being that we know more about the Hollywood stars than about we do about our own neighbours.
The US-centric media is also full of advertising geared to make us want Western products. Although I do not speak Arabic, I can see that such companies as Unilever and Procter & Gamble simply have their global advertising campaigns translated — both linguistically and culturally — for their target markets in our region. Thus, we see delirious men in dishdashas, thobes or jallabiyas, demanding processed cheese, or delighted ladies in abayas convinced of the merits of biological washing powder. In our shopping malls from Dubai to Kuwait and Riyadh to Cairo, you will find all the great Western brands of fashion.
And yet the irony is that this is one of the few regions in the world in which the local population still favours national dress, which is defined not by the whims of international fashion, but by the solid principle of all Muslims being the same in the eyes of Allah.
I am happy to believe that there is a top stratum of the Gulf population which is both wealthy and well-travelled enough to be connoisseurs of international fashion (including international designer hotels), and whose members blend seamlessly into jet-set gatherings in London, Paris or Monaco — but I suggest that they are a relatively rare breed. While fashions change on a quarterly basis in the West, thus keeping the runways filled with emaciated models wearing bizarre clothes that few people would be seen dead wearing in any normal situation, in the Middle East, I would dare to suggest that we are only just getting to grips with the differences that occurred between one fashion decade and another.
How could lapel widths or hem lengths be important to us, when the key reference points are timeless garments like the dishdasha, the abaya, the sari, the kurta, or the shalwar qameez (that’s the national dress of Pakistan, to you and me)?
This brings me back to the Armani hotel. Are we in the Gulf ready for all that it represents? Well, in the sense that Armani’s fashion specialities (as far as I know) are classic — and relatively timeless — black suits and dresses, then this is probably the right fashion brand for us to start with. The hotel itself to me seems to offer such pristine clean lines as to lack some personality, but that’s just me. I am surely a Philistine when it comes to fashion.
I just think that the majority of people who will appreciate the full design and lifestyle implications of the Armani hotel in Dubai will be foreign guests and not local nationals or resident expats. And even then, I wonder if Tom Cruise is truly bothered whether he gets to stay at the Armani or the Hilton, as long as the bed is comfy, the food is good and he can escape to a little privacy.
In short, I believe that many, if not most, Gulf residents are probably quite baffled by international fashion. Therefore, we would possibly also be confused by some of the other fashion designer hotels that have been mushrooming around the world, which in reality are seeking ‘sophisticates’ and not country bumpkins as guests. Would we go wild upon seeing the zebra-striped carpet at Ralph Lauren’s Pineapple House at the Round Hill Hotel in Jamaica?
Would we ‘get’ the kitsch room themes of Diesel’s Pelican Hotel in Miami? Would we feel hip at Christian Lacroix’s Hotel du Petit Moulin in Paris (by the way, did you hear that he was bankrupt)? Would we resent paying more to stay in Salvatore Ferragamo’s Gallery Hotel Art in Florence (where the brochure instructs: “Contemplate the artworks. Dislike them, Adore them. That’s the point”)? Sorry?! I’m not sure we would be up to it.