How UAE came to love preloved clothing

With attitudes towards circularity in fashion changing, a look at the preloved fashion market in the UAE

By Sujata Assomull

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Published: Fri 31 Mar 2023, 5:40 PM

Dubai is home to one of the largest malls in the world. It is known for its high spend on luxury and a penchant for anything new and shiny. However, as the world wakes up to the need to be more responsible about our consumption habits, circular fashion is the new buzzword in the industry. The size of the resale market globally is expected to double by 2026 and be worth a whopping US $218 billion in the next three years. Whether it is celebrities wearing vintage clothing on the red carpet, or luxury brands looking at ways to encourage consumers to resell their products, the way we shop is changing. This region has been slow to the call of circular fashion, but is now starting to catch up and learn that you can have a lot of fun with preloved fashion.

Rae Joseph, a Saudi fashion entrepreneur who spends time between Dubai, Riyadh and New York, started her vintage e-commerce platform 1954 By Rae Joseph in 2018. “The concept of circular fashion exists in our culture, but it was something that only happened within a close circle of family members. Commercialising the concept is what is new to the region,” she says. “For a long time, there was a stigma with the idea of wearing and using items that were once owned by someone else unless they are a family member.” However, the Arab circular fashion advocate adds that slowly but surely, the stigma is wearing off and you see more and more people wearing second-hand items. “It is changing and I’m glad to be part of it and witness it first-hand.”

While preloved is not a new concept to Dubai, and you find boutique stores that specialise in resale items in a neighbourhood mall, housed in a Jumeirah villa, or even pop-up preloved stalls in the city’s art district, Al Serkal Avenue, they catered to a niche set of clients. One such example is La Suite, a hidden gem in Umm Suqeim. Its edit includes sustainable, ethical brands from Paris and preloved items. Founded by expatriate Alex Bouvy, she saw there was a gap for preloved contemporary fashion and opened So Chic in 2014; it evolved into La Suite in 2019. “Little by little this region is slowly catching up,” she says. “Consumer attitudes have changed, particularly since the pandemic. We are noticing a huge shift in shopping behaviour towards purchasing preloved items.”

A few weeks ago, Level Shoes announced the launch of its preloved initiative, a clear sign that circular fashion was now gaining momentum. This is the first time that a regional player has offered such a service, through which customers can sell designer bags, shoes, small leather goods and accessories through the brand’s website and get rewarded with cash or store credit. Currently on The Level Shoes website, you can find pre-owned Hermes and Chanel bags, Christian Louboutin stilettos and Dior Homme sneakers. Elisa Bruno, managing director of Level Shoes, says, “It is important for us to be at the forefront of innovation and ahead of the curve, and I think the consumer here is now aware and interested in circular fashion.”

Level Shoes test-piloted their preloved project at the end of last year, and the reaction was encouraging. They have ensured to make the service as easy as possible and come to collect pieces from your home.

As brands look to appeal to Gen-Z clients, you can expect to see more players looking at offering resale services. An age group of clients, who have grown up when the climate crisis movement was gaining momentum and digitalisation was the new norm, have reached a tipping point. To them, extending the life of fashion items is something to be proud of, and they will share their preloved buys on social media with the hashtags #vintage and #preloved. “Older shoppers would most likely not share if an item were preloved,” observes Joseph. “There is still a stigma in that age group. As for millennials, I would say it’s 50/50. Millennials might only share the fact an item is preloved when explicitly asked. As for Gen-Z, I would go as far as to say that they make a point of telling their friends that they are wearing preloved pieces. It is a conversation starter for them.”

Among those to first see the potential of secondary shopping was The Luxury Closet (TLC), founded in 2012. Huda Beauty Investments (HBI), the private investment arm of Dubai-based cosmetics giant Huda Beauty, is one of their investors. An online marketplace that has invested in growing the preloved market, they worked with key regional influencers and hosted pop-up shops at key malls in the city. Maya Azzi, TLC’s chief brand officer, opines, “As the world is shifting to a more conscious-living lifestyle, the idea of buying preloved or the concept of thrifting is being normalised. Choosing to buy second-hand is an opportunity to avoid waitlists, score amazing pieces and extend the life cycle of those amazing luxury fashion items.”

The advantage of choosing a platform or retailer that is based in this region as opposed to an international player is that their edit is tailored to the tastes of Middle Eastern shoppers. Dubai luxury shoppers tend to prefer limited edition and more special pieces, says Azzi, “You can come to The Luxury Closet to sell and buy in-demand pieces, like the Hermès Mini Kelly or super-rare editions like the Chanel Water Bottle bag.” It is easier to find (though more expensive) coveted Hermes Kelly and Birkin bags on a resale site, than it is in an actual Hermes store. At La Suite, you also find many never-before-worn pieces that still have original tags intact, as these tend to be what the shopper here is looking for.

Joseph notes that the Arab consumers also enjoy buying vintage pieces. “Vintage is a reference to pieces that were made 20-80 years ago, so it is related to the age of the piece, not whether or not it has been used. So, while a lot of vintage pieces in the market are preloved, not all vintage is preloved and not all preloved is vintage.” Rae, who is known for her own closet that is full of vintage finds, says, “Putting aside the sustainability benefits they bring, vintage is unique and one of a kind. Having and wearing vintage pieces sets you apart stylistically.”

TLC recently initiated a programme called Celebrity Closet, where you shop for pieces that once belonged to a celebrity. It kickstarted the project with investors Huda and Mona Kattan. “My items listed on The Luxury Closet range from Gucci and Chanel to LV and Dior, to name a few. Many are new, and some are preloved. So far, the response has been positive. Knowing that the designer items I no longer use can get a second life, I look forward to adding more to my TLC collection. It is so exciting that I get to share my style and beautiful luxury pieces with other fashionistas,” says Mona Kattan.

Adding this tag of celebrity has added a glam factor to the concept of resale. “When Netflix’s Dubai Bling was released, our DMs were flooded with fans requesting a sneak peek into LJ’s closet. Caroline Stanbury’s closet is also one of the most popular ones, and now people also want a glimpse of her husband Sergio’s closet. We are working on it,” explains Azzi.

Expect to see more mainstream players like Level Shoes entering the preloved market as resale becomes a part of the fashion vocabulary of the region. “Consumers are also savvy and dissatisfied that the prices in this region are often set higher than other markets,” says Bouvy. “Contributing to the circular fashion economy allows consumers to shop even more frequently and rotate their wardrobe by reselling their un-worn pieces and using the money to purchase something new.”

For now, accessories are where the main traction is when it comes to secondary fashion. Says Azzi, “We like to believe that the market size for pre-loved fashion in the GCC is unlimited because of our love for luxury. GCC shoppers, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, truly appreciate craftsmanship and quality. That’s why there’s huge potential.”


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