UAE. Former New York-based designer, Kiran Sawlani opened her first signature store, Kraze, in Dubai last March. Explaining the challenges for a local concept, that is not readily understood by the mall operators, she is joined in this interview by Kumar Sawlani, President & CEO of Deepak’s, one of the first textile trading groups established in Dubai and owner of Kraze.
With its cosmopolitan diversity and meeting point for all things trendy, the cultural melting pot that is Dubai seems destined to become a fashion hub of the East set to rival anything found on the boutique lined streets of Milan, Paris, London and New York. But although the city has the buzz and spending power - even in these troubled times - when you go down to the level of the store designs, the merchandise, and the trends, almost everything that Dubai has to offer is imported off the peg from the big Western and Asian fashion brands.
The shopping mall operators say that they have to plan a shopping centre with about 70% to 80% of bankable retailers, in other words names that are already well-known with a track record. But increasingly local customers as well as travelling shoppers are calling for some points of difference and more local colour in Dubai’s fashion scene. This seems an important objective for the city, if it wants to carve out its own identity and keep refreshing its retail offer on the global stage.
Companies like Kraze are pushing the momentum of a small, but perfectly-formed fashion boom of a different and more innovative flavour. As a boutique, Kraze houses an eclectic mixture where the funky street wear of the urban inner-city icon overlaps with the elegant glamour of Milan's runways and Paris' finest restaurants.
The flagship boutique, currently located in Dubai Outlet Mall, is laid out as a crossover from day to night, like yin to yang , the front of the boutique is all day, street and funk, arrayed with embellished T shirts and accessories, while the rear is reserved for the glamour only ever found after dusk.
It's these attributes, the perfect site and the buzz of Dubai combined at the right time, which has brought the vision of up coming, ex New York-based, designer Kiran Sawlani to town to open her first signature store, Kraze. As Creative Director and Head Buyer for Kraze she says that the current shop templates being offered by the malls go only so far to satisfying what the Dubai’s highly sophisticated shoppers are looking for. Before Kiran's Kraze in Dubai, she earned a degree in fashion design from the world famous Fashion Institute of Technology, NY. After completing her degree she went on to work as a designer in New York with celebrity clothing companies the likes of Snoop Dogg, and New York-based young street brand Plugg.
Companies like Kraze – founded by husband and wife team Kiran and Kumar Sawlani – are showing the future of Dubai, which is crying out for more home-grown labels and more progress in the area of fashion education and supporting small designers.
Certainly the creative side and the buying role differs for a small brand, compared to a major fashion chain. Sawlani says she takes regular tours of the Kraze outlets, feeling the feedback from the shop assistants and moving the merchandise constantly on a rotation that would not be possible for a big company.
The buying process differs of course between companies but all fashion buyers are responsible for overseeing the development of a range of products aimed at a specific type of customer and price bracket. There are various levels of seniority within a buying team, ranging from small independent stores, which may have one buyer who also participates in sales and promotion, to a major fashion multiple which has trainee buyers, assistant buyers, buyers and buying managers, headed by a buying director. Members of a buying team need to be effective communicators, as most of their time at work is spent liaising with suppliers or internal departments. Kraze has none such issues of communication because the company says it can be in more close touch with the different nationalities and consumer groups that make up Dubai and it can be close at all times to the colours and the cut of the moment.
There are four in-house labels created to complement the chic of Kraze. Contempo is a casual street unisex brand of easy to wear casuals which include fun and easy shirts for men and causal dresses, skirts and tops for women. est 1981 is Kraze's funky day and evening clothing for men and women featuring one of a kind pieces embellished with unique designs. The line includes dressy designer sports jackets and designer shirts for men, as well as designer dresses, skirts and tops for those special occasions, or, crazy nights out around town. Crèm de la crèm consist of cocktail and evening dresses for women, this is high end couture, the likes of the Ellie Saab and Oscar De la renta at very affordable prices. Kimraina is an embellished range of designer kaftans and tunics that could range from casual to formal.
In her own words, Sawlani says, “Dubai is a glamorous city where everything goes, shopping is a huge part of the lifestyle and you can never be over dressed.”
She describes Kraze as a new age boutique concept store, a place for new and upcoming talent where lifestyle, accessories, glamour and street all have a home under one roof.
“We're targeting a very niche market,” she says. “Fashion conscious trendsetters who know what they want, who are up to date with current fashion and trends.”
“Dubai doesn't have too many boutiques yet, but with the constant influx of new arrivals, especially from Europe, people are becoming more and more aware of current fashion trends. As this awareness continues to develop, we'll start to see more of these speciality boutiques pop up as finally there is room for individuality.”
BI-ME: What is the history of Deepak’s and the launch of Kraze? What was the inspiration for the concept?
KS: Deepak’s started as a textile store in the Satwa area in the 1970s. It became a local institution, known for importing unusual fabrics at a time when no one else was doing this. It was one of the first textile trading companies that has branched out into garment manufacturing for well-known brands in the US and Europe, with buying offices serving those markets around the world.
I spent one year developing and perfecting the idea that has turned into Kraze. A lot of that time was spent travelling much of the world finding the right designers to bring back and introduce to Dubai through Kraze.
I was looking for labels which would evolve as Kraze does. Labels I could establish in Dubai before launching them in London and other cities, where Kraze wants to open stores. Apart from Kraze, Deepak’s has a factory outlet store in Ajman and its own mass-market to mid-market stores now in Al Ain, Ras Al Khaimah as well as Dubai. I joined Kraze in 2007 to oversee the launch of the first Kraze store in Dubai Outlet Mall.
We were a local concept and the malls didn’t understand us at first. It is different if you are a single designer store. The consumer is there to understand a store like this, but unfortunately the malls do not. The boutique culture is dying out before it has started.
BI-ME: So your experience from New York showed the fashion industry and a creative side of the business that is not supported in Dubai?
KS: New York was a really strong foundation to base my career off. The whole experience taught me a lot about the industry. I worked from both sides, first with the celebrity market, which is different to mass market, then on to Plugg which was a smaller company filling large orders.
With Snoop labels I was working for a very specific clientele, while at Plugg I learnt the business side of fashion. We were a smaller label in the very competitive garment district of New York. I was dealing with factories in China, making sales and designing, learning everything I would need to know to set up my own boutique.
New York's SoHo and London's South Molton Street are where a large part of my inspiration comes from. The trendy little boutiques mixing with the eclectic feel of the people and things found on the busy streets are the type of atmosphere I've incorporated into the Kraze store, brand and overall feel. But what happens in Dubai is that the key money and rents are at such a level that it kills your concept before it starts.
BI-ME: How difficult is it to be innovative in a market like Dubai which has so many famous brands, and malls which have a tried and tested formula?
KS: Our concept is about good, high fashion at an affordable price. It's not just a clothing store, it's a concept store with glimpses of art and lifestyle creating a chilled out lounge affect. It's where psychedelic meets pop art, technicolour meets trend and kitsch meets glam.
Kraze is all about creating your own style. Our clients are the type of people who can put pieces together to create their own look. Our slogan is 'Your Style Guide', fashion has no boundaries, it's all about creating your own style. We are saying to the mall owners that there is a place in the market for that and it is not currently being served.
To take the example of the newly-opened Dubai Mall, we had talks with them but the rents there would really have killed us. Rents at AED 700 to AED 800 per square foot are too high. Our evening gowns are priced at AED1,500 to AED 2,000, with the most expensive at AED5,000 (US$1,400). This is for a dress that is really out there and would cost AED15,000 to AED20,000 at one of the brand stores.
The malls understand one language only, which is ‘brands’. Although I have to say that they are slowly getting it.
BI-ME: You seem to be saying that for a small retailer, if you are not in the big malls, you are not really in the game. In that sense is Dubai different from other cities in Europe for example, where a retailer would have a choice of locations such as malls, high street, short-term rentals or wholesale markets?
KS: The leasing people at the mall operators are not willing to take a chance on the unknown. They would rather leave a unit empty and what they are about is filling the boxes. The result is that the malls become repetitive and when you go to different malls, you feel you are in the same place.
Every mall should have a speciality store or speciality area that could make them different. They are not doing that yet.
BI-ME: What are your plans for expansion of stores and new fashion lines, accessories, or other sectors?
KS: In the middle of 2008 we started Saville Row at Jumeirah Beach Residence, which was a first for Dubai offering bespoke tailoring in the English tradition. Again this is a new concept. This has been a great success with a great location, and people are really understanding it.
We are looking to expand with other units for Kraze and we are in talks with the malls. We need to be careful in choosing a location in Dubai, as the right mix has to be there.
BI-ME: You are quite critical of the mall operators. If the malls are becoming almost a catalogue of the well-known brands, what would you say to them? What do they need to do, to add this more creative element to the retail scene?
KS: If you go to The Dubai Mall you see the same merchandise at a higher price than other malls, or in the equivalent brand store in Europe. If you look at Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates, it’s all the same thing, there are not choices at different locations. You have the brands buying the same items from the factories in China and you even see the same items in different ‘brand’ stores. I would call it ‘cheating fashion’.
Wafi stands out as having all boutique shops, but we say to the malls it is about getting the right mix. At the moment there is nothing in between.
BI-ME: What is your buying and selection process? What is the philosophy of the company?
KS: When I was in New York I was used to that eclectic mix, getting the looks together and making a platform for up and coming talent. Kraze works with the smaller designers that don’t usually get much opportunity, making a funky mix under one roof.
Kraze is one-of-a-kind items. We don’t get a lot of repeats, only T shirts and so on. We also look at a higher quality. You might find a better article in a boutique store. It is personal and only you have it.
BI-ME: To what extent do you look at the different consumer groups, like Emiratis, Europeans, tourists and cater to these groups?
KS: A lot of our merchandising decisions look at the different groups, at different kinds of people who have their own taste. With an item you sometimes hit it bang on for some cultures, and not others. As a one and a half year old company we have got to know our client mix and our buying is based on that. The mix is 60% local, 20% European and 20% Indian and South Asian.
BI-ME: As a designer boutique (where you have an owner that expresses his or her own style) what are differences in the way you operate compared to a major chain?
KS: We sometimes have to be not so biased and not follow our own style, because we listen to what the customers are telling us. But there are differences in the way our floor moves around and in particular we get a lot of feedback from our sales staff. It is not just about my choices.
For the European brands, the store has to take 12 to 14 items out of a line of a total 20. Then they have to take every one in four or five colours. We don’t have any of these restrictions. We do find that we sometimes have surprises in what certain customers like, and we can respond to that.
BI-ME: Which Western brand would you say you admire and why?
KS: I personally like Selfridges in London which has a good mix of higher end and street fashion. I am a fan of Top Shop. They have many designers and they have the whole bazaar thing going on. But the very busy, colourful Top Shop experience you have in London is quite different from what the customer sees in the Middle East, which seems more sterile.
The leasing managers are very scared to sign a new brand. They are concerned with the look and fit-out of the store. But we also talk about quality. It seems they don’t believe in boutiques with quality. They have a tried and tested formula with these brands.
When you walk into a Kraze, we want you to see that New York SoHo vibe, where you have street culture, selling bags, shoes and vintage pieces.
BI-ME: What are your styles and colours that have been a hit this Summer 2008?
KS: We saw a lot of bright colours and neon. Our day dresses always do well, also prints and geometrics. The brands only turn their floors four times a year but with boutiques we don’t move the whole floor. We have add-ons every two weeks. This is why boutique shoppers come more to us than the brand stores and they like it. We definitely keep in with trends and we probably get them sooner because of the [smaller] quantities.
BI-ME: What are you working on this season?
KS: For Fall we have a lot of animal prints, and a lot of plaid and metallics, fur and feathers. We do street wear and glamour under one roof with different fits in different parts of the store.
BI-ME: How do you think we should define the essence of fashion in the UAE?
KS: Bling is always great for Dubai which is why we have a lot of items with Swarovksi elements, including badges and T shirts. Right now there is a lot of drapes, with flowing gowns in Grecian or Roman style.
BI-ME: Are there any other corporate changes, new investors or other changes on the horizon?
KS: There are no plans for new shareholders or other changes. We are a family company and as of now we have no outside investors. Meanwhile we are talking to some malls in Dubai and Abu Dhabi with a close eye on the positioning of Kraze. We are not, and we don’t want to be a mass market concept. We have to be exclusive, so we have to be in the right position.
BI-ME: Do you think the current slowdown in retail will give a pause for the mall owners to think differently? Do you think it will create new opportunities?
KS: A lot of brands made very big contracts with the big malls, this is well known. But now the market is expecting some store closures, we think there will be big changes in the market.
BI-ME: If you could define the city of Dubai and life in Dubai as an item of clothing, or a style, what would it be like?
KS: I see Dubai as a fine, fit-to-measure custom Italian tuxedo. Dubai is so glamorous and made to fit all of us. Italian, because Italian quality has always been the highest, and Dubai has never skimped on quality.
Now is a good time to establish yourself and down the road, Dubai fashion will get even more established.