Middle Eastern designers share how they've adapted to the increasing demand for demi couture during the pandemic
With longevity the new buzzword on the fashion industry’s lips, an increasing number of couture designers are looking to demi couture to bridge the gap between creating one-of-a-kind pieces and easily accessible collections that customers can effortlessly purchase off the online rack; ultimately, the goal being to ensure survival in the post-pandemic world.
Demi couture is not a new phenomenon – Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen has dispersed her RTW collections with ornate, intricate pieces that are only produced in miniscule quantities for almost a decade, and Givenchy and Balmain have revived their couture roots in recent seasons by revisiting sharp tailoring and timeless dresses during Clare Waight Keller’s three-year stint at the former; and all the intricate, ornate embellishment that has been part of Olivier Rousteing’s vision for Balmain since he took over the French fashion house in 2011.
In the region, an increasing number of Middle Eastern dedicated couture designers are embracing all the limited-edition exclusivity demi couture has to offer to bolster both their eco credentials and give their existing couture customers a (slightly) more affordable alternative to mass-produced, trend-driven prêt-à-porter pieces. So if fashion truly is a reflection of our times, what does the rise in demand for demi couture tell us?
For Syrian-born, Dubai-based designer Rami Al Ali, the decision to launch a demi couture line, Rami Al Ali White, has been a long time in the works, and felt like “a natural next step for the brand.” However, in light of the global pandemic, the launch date of the collection was accelerated to meet the needs of his customers. “This line reinforces our commitment to producing forward-thinking fashion that prioritises longevity and condemns overproduction,” he shares. “At the moment there seems to be an oversupply of products in the market. This pandemic has caused us all to reassess what we were producing and to look at the real demand in order to cater to it in the best way possible. For now, we are producing less while also diversifying our offering. The majority of people want to buy something really beautiful and be able to wear it more than once. For this reason, we continue to create timeless styles that can be worn multiple times for several different occasions.”
This sentiment is shared by Beirut-based Gemy Maalouf, who initially decided to launch a demi couture line, Édition Gemy Maalouf, to make the couture look more accessible to a wider customer base who “had the dream to wear it one day.” “Fashion is very much about change – our designs keep evolving towards timeless forever pieces in order to reduce wasteful production. We are starting to use ecofriendly fabrics as much as possible; our creations and looks are getting simpler by decreasing the volume and avoiding a high consumption of fabric. Added to that, we are producing on demand to limit the waste in our stock,” she explains. “Timeless pieces, simpler and trendy looks are a matter of style and personality. What we noticed is that our customers are going for lighter fabrics, simpler cuts and less volume since events became smaller and more exclusive. Therefore, we made sure that our 2021 collections met the general tendency,” she adds.
While RTW collections have always espoused a speedy approach to ever-changing trends, couture has always championed the slow burn, and George Azzi and Assaad Osta of Lebanese brand of Azzi & Osta share this sentiment. While the design duo don’t have plans to launch a dedicated demi couture line or capsule collection in the immediate future, their RTW collections tap into their haute couture sensibilities, and already bear the hallmarks of demi couture. “We have a business model where we only produce collections with a limited number of looks, production on demand, buying fabrics only on demand, and revisiting our archives constantly, contributing to conscious fashion, which is a core value of the brand DNA, both in haute couture and ready-to-wear,” they explain. “We think clients are more and more looking for the ‘story behind’ – quality for value, craftsmanship, slow fashion and timelessness. Customers are very aware now of the impact of wise buying on the world, and those really are couture values – to cherish every moment, go have an experience.”
Arab American designer Zaid Farouki has a similar approach and last year launched his demi couture line, Zaid by Zaid Farouki. “Since our inception we have been a limited quantity, seasonless brand. The old structure is unsustainable – showcasing multiple collections a year, and what do you do with countries with a season all year round like the United Arab Emirates? The trend of overconsumption is over; many of us had to face the reality this year,” he reveals. His collections, which are based on a concept or theme, are produced in limited quantities in the UAE. “In short, we don’t carry stock. The piece is produced once ordered, limited quantities are produced; we are a seasonless brand as well. Moreover, everything is produced in-house so we reduce transportation and we know that it’s ethically produced,” he adds.
In November 2020, Lebanese couturier Rami Kadi was named Regional Goodwill Ambassador for sustainable fashion and has been adapting his couture approach to not only incorporate more responsible production, but also push more responsible behaviour from conception to consumption. His latest AW20 collection ‘Dessiner le Vide’ was a capsule collection of just 20 dresses. “Couture has always been timeless; having a couture masterpiece can live forever,” he says. “This is what I call sustainable fashion.” Five years ago, Kadi also decided to try and fuse the worlds of couture and technology by offering his customers a virtual design service. “It was a service in addition to our appointments with the designer service. The only difference now is that we mainly depend on online communication for the time being.” But longevity doesn’t just apply to the lifespan of the clothing itself. With more consumers looking for unique designs, expert craftsmanship and exquisite detailing without the haute couture atelier price tag or the bespoke face-to-face fitting process, couture designers are being forced to think up new ways to stay relevant, readily accessible, and most crucially, visible to their clients. And with so many fashion brands increasingly taking their collections online to provide a direct-to-customer sales model, demi couture hits the style sweet spot in that it allows designers to showcase couture-quality pieces in off-the-rack standard sizes via e-commerce sites and social media.
Dubai-based Yasmine Yeya of Maison Yeya believes demi couture is a reflection of the need for smaller, more frequent releases that respond to “the need of the fast pace in today’s world.” “Demi couture is half couture, half ready to wear in execution, so it’s also faster to produce and therefore more cost efficient, which also answers to the need of budgeting the cost of operation of the fashion industry,” she explains. And this convenience also applies to how shopping behaviour has changed. “Nowadays clients don’t have the luxury of time to go back and forth for so many fittings for a full couture fit,” she suggests. “Since Covid, we are selling couture on the phone. We have made customised garments for clients as per their unique measurements without ever meeting them.” “Customers want the convenience of online shopping now more than ever before, so we are continually looking for ways to better cater to our clientele”, Rami Al Ali says of the new e-commerce element to his existing website. “This is a move that will improve our service and the convenience of shopping our pieces,” he adds.
That’s something Azzi & Osta are also planning to do to enhance their customers’ shopping experience. “We definitely have developed several practices from video-call consults to ‘how to’ videos and are adding additional steps to our couture process for the client to get a full experience virtually. With buyers of RTW we have adapted to provide detailed videos of all looks, virtual showroom calls, and as much visual aid as possible to transfer the spirit of the collections.” The brand also has plans to launch an e-commerce site. “Being able to translate the brand spirit and identity through digital platforms is our daily challenge,” adds Gemy Maalouf.
And with an increasing number of couture designers tapping into RTW sensibilities to meet their existing customers in the middle – while also attracting a lucrative new fan base – it’s clear to see why demi couture could be the business-savvy no-brainer that saves haute couture ateliers in these unprecedented times and also ensures their survival.