“A longing for escapism the world over has given birth to creative culture”
A few weeks ago the event Sole DXB now running for several years took place out in the soon to be finished Design City. Dubai is split into a few free zones which enable International companies to function without local sponsorship. These are imaginatively named after each sector; Internet City, Media City and such forth. Out past the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall, a warren of intersections leads to a desolate plot near the airport which is seeing plenty of construction work take place. The Dubai Design District will be open some point in the next year or so and will function as home for creative businesses, primarily Fashion centric. As a part of the promotion of the forthcoming hub, Sole DXB took residence for the course of one weekend. A freshly tarmac plot of sand, saw a Box Park like structure built to celebrate street culture and style. Your usual brands took residence - Puma, Reebok, Ray-Bans all had big visibility amongst pop-up food eatries and it was very much like being back in Shoreditch. It’s interesting to see how the major brands function in this environment here and there were some glaring missed opportunities. In a city which lacks independents and with a thirsty set of punters on the hunt for shoes and clothes; very little was on offer to actually purchase.
The investment from brands and sponsorship enabled the likes of ALIFE to be flown-in as a part of a recent collaboration with Puma, Walé Adeyemi, Xzibit and others were here for the event also adding credible voices to the conversation. Some friendly faces of home attended and I sat alongside Kish Kash, Brad Farrant and Dan Greenpeace on a panel over two days. We talked about our personal relationship to street culture and how that’s now a multi-million pound industry which each of us have been a part of on a work level. The purpose of the talks were to take our knowledge as firstly fans and participants alongside experiences working in the industry to offer some point of view on the opportunities here in Dubai.
The biggest success of the event was the enabling of connections and fostering of community, both two key elements in helping grow scenes and creativity, the exchange of ideas and resources is paramount and it did this in ample measure. Dubai lacks a centre so to speak. In many ways it’s ghettoised and much like cities such as Miami you navigate from the safety of the car from point to point. With Sole DXB now a permanent fixture on the calendar, it can only be of benefit to the creative classes as a physical destination for the exchange of ideas and business cards.
Such as with many things in Dubai you have to look beyond the pink elephant of authenticity because this is a place that will never escape its short history and you can’t expect established scenes to have gained traction just yet. But there is a great deal happening here and with night life ushering in line-ups more akin to Dance Tunnel, the glossy sheen of sparklers and champagne hides a furore of passionate fans who are working towards better outlets for friends to enjoy the pleasures of whatever city they previously called home.
The last two months have really opened my eyes to many of the cultural hues I took for granted in London but in equal measure it’s made me realise that scenes such as London’s are hindered by arrogance. An overall sense of greatness and entitlement that isn’t really befitting of largely insular conversations between the same audiences saying the same things. We hold street culture in such a rose-tinted light in London. On the whole it’s a sanitised world which has turned bastions of individuality like trainers and t-shirts into nothing more than check-lists from the style supermarket. Everyone can have a piece without it really meaning much and as such cities like Dubai can spawn a litany of brands that could easily sit comfortably on rails in Size?.
Street culture or Youth Culture in its broadest form are traditionally driven out of angst. So it’s quite the quandary when posed questions on how Dubai can build a thriving scene. When you look back at the scenes that have emerged to dominate popular culture in cities like London and New York, it’s hard to fathom how the same hot bed of creativity could manifest itself here. But with the white-washed, globalised nature of it all, the benchmarks for success for new brands representative of the youth are easily attainable and need not be rooted in the same cultural cues as before. I’m not agreeing with this as a way forward and this is largely at odds with my own view point but it is the lay of the land right now. The Middle-East however, can offer something quite fresh, if you look at Dubai as the media centre for the Arab peninsula then it can provide a commercial home for brands and movements much more exciting than the t-shirts and five-panel brands which are adorned on the Shuffling dance floors of Brick Lane.
Cultural tension is arguably the most exciting stimulus for creativity. The Middle East and rebellion are two things which go hand in hand, a whole history of uprising largely define the region but in the Gulf young Arabs find themselves in a unique setting. Forced into Adulthood much earlier than anyone in the West, from pre-adolescence questions are imposed on what their career will be, marriage and family bookend dinner table conversation. You may have ambitions to be a fashion designer, a photographer, a skater but these will soon be marginalised by stigmas to follow the family line of professionals. The disparate cultural identities imposed by regional conflict, a fear strewn across cities like Beiriut force people to embrace hedonism. These all provide the hallmarks for truly interesting youth brands to articulate. A longing for escapism the world over has given birth to creative culture and this represented in the right way can give meaning to cultural exploits here. Much more valid than the litany of Millennial t-shirt brands whose identity is largely driven by Tumblr Rebores and How To Make It In America aspirations.
Now in a period in which popular culture is largely driven by commerce many movements aren’t organic, yes, there is the anomaly, Palace for one but with pre meditated commercial entities adopting the “lifestyle” motif, they pander to and quench a thirst for a World perpetuated through Instagram and the like. The Hundred’s generation of Tumblr creatives who aspired to be propelled to the front of guest-lists, can be the same audience for a Dubai based t-shirt company. Is it completely unfathomable that the next Off-White or Been Trill couldn’t come from here?
Sole DXB saw a diverse range of attendees but in a city as flash and young as Dubai, people with money will always lean towards the Kanye-canon of style. Largely on show were the Lanvin clad, Jeremy Scott toasting, Big Sean listening Spizike wearing Hyepbeasts. All style-cues taken from music videos and the wealthy young Arabs really are about that life. The sanitisation is global, and much of this can be traced back to early 2000s London. With JD Sports hungry for tier zero Nike’s they set forth to conquer the high-street with Size? but with the heralding in of old Nike style’s morphed into hybrid Frankensteins, it’s interesting to see how brands like Nike with their Energy Marketing teams are fostering authentic communities the world-over. This role of brand as incubator is something very important to the marketing mix of the Middle East. They now have an ability to help a new generation attain their creative goals and build off the back of these new markets. Sole DXB is just the starting point.
Puma, Nike, Reebok and others can help foster this creative response to the tensions plaguing life of young-people here, they’ll reap dividends in the process. Dubai’s biggest issue for young people is place and space. There’s no independent stores, the retail scene is monopolised - you can’t just open up as a foreigner without sponsorship in places like Dubai Mall and young people live in a world where Creative expression is largely subverted. You can’t graffiti on the street, there’s few skate parks, the street spots are there to be shredded but the consequences are huge. If venues like Sole DXB can be produced and provided more regularly by large multi-national brands, they can reap the dividends.
So in terms of answering the questions posed to me on the panel at Sole DXB there isn’t an easy answer for fledging street-wear brands. In one way you can tread the path of meaninglessness toed by many across the globe, or you can seek to transcribe the tensions endemic to life in the Middle East. Above all, if you can find a way to bring people together, to share and elevate those around you, then there’s opportunity aplenty to represent the kids of the Gulf who at present, seem to have nothing to rally behind beyond the American rhetoric of Money, Cars and Clothes.