Deborah Henning had an up-and-coming fashion brand in London before she packed it all in to move to Dubai with her husband. Seven years later, she’s got another brand, and life has come full circle: In February, she was one of two UAE-based fashion designers chosen by the Dubai Design and Fashion Council (DDFC) and FAD Institute of Luxury and Style, a fashion school in Dubai, to show at London Fashion Week.
Deborah and Emirati designer Shaikha Amal Al Maktoum, were chosen by a panel of expert judges to show their collections at Fashion Scout London, an incredible international platform that has seen the likes of Peter Pilotto, David Koma and Felder Felder showing their collections to huge audiences before going on to even bigger catwalk shows. The DDFC and FAD together assisted with every step of the show from the organisation to presenting the collection on the day.
UK-born Deborah started at Alexander McQueen and Sass and Bide in London, and she’s known for her geometric monochrome designs; a trademark style that is minimalistic and functional and unusual for the region. Perhaps this is what made her stand out from the crowd? We caught up with her at her office in Dubai to find out about the experience, the challenges of running a fashion label, and what’s next.
How did you come to win the prize?
I was invited by DDFC to go and pitch to have my show at London Fashion Week. I had to explain what I would do and show them the collection I would present at London Fashion Week. My brand is very minimalistic with monochrome colours, so I told them I wanted to introduce prints and embellishment for London Fashion Week to take it to the next level. I actually found out on Christmas Eve that I had been chosen – which was nice.
How was that experience?
Fashion Scout is a really great platform for emerging designers. The Freemasons Hall that they have their catwalk shows in is the most incredible space, so it was all really overwhelming. I used to work in London; I think this was just the perfect entry for me to get back into the city where I started.
Have you had much feedback from the show?
On the day, there were a lot of interviews and people coming up to me to say they loved the collection. The energy is really high after the shows, but it’s once I get back to reality and orders start coming in that I will really be able to tell the impact the show has had.
You mentioned that you incorporated print into your designs for the first time – what made you decide to do this?
I just wanted to take my designs to the next level. I have a very distinct style, but sometimes it’s nice to switch things up and make people realise there is another level to the brand. I have a vision of what I want for the brand and this is just step one of getting it there.
How do you think the DDFC has helped you expand your brand?
They were unbelievable. They have a really good support network and what they are doing here at the moment is incredible and exactly what Dubai needed. They are such a nice set of people working there and I really feel like they have the best interests of local designers in their minds.
You are originally from the UK and your designs have Parisian influences. Why did you choose Dubai to start your business?
I moved here because of my husband’s job seven years ago. It was really hard for me at first because I already had a brand in London that was doing really well; I’d even been featured in British Vogue. But when we moved here I had to give all that up and start from scratch. I started lecturing in some of the universities here so I could also suss out the industry. I always knew that I wanted to re-start my brand again so I just took my time and did it properly.
Lecturing students must have been a great experience?
It was. The main thing I took away from it was how much things like the DDFC were needed, because seven years ago there was nothing to support young designers here.
Do you think being in Dubai has affected your brand?
My set style of geometric shapes and minimalistic designs is very different for this market. It’s interesting to see how it would be perceived and so far the reaction has been great. There’s no way I would have had some of the opportunities that I’ve had here back in London. Things move so fast here, which is fantastic for me.
What happens next?
The aim would be to continue to show at Fashion Scout to keep up the traction, but the worry is having the funding to do it. It’s not cheap to put on a fashion show, especially one of that scale, which is why this was such a fantastic opportunity.
Would you ever show your collection here in Dubai?
I have been approached by Fashion Forward [the biannual fashion showcase in Dubai] a number of times but it’s hard to say yes because it is such an expense. Having a fashion show anywhere is very costly but if I’m going to spend the money, for now I would rather keep it for the international cities to get the biggest impact. Don’t get me wrong – I would love to show in Dubai – but if you are only going to show once a season, it has to be a business decision.
What do you think is the future of fashion in Dubai?
I think location-wise Dubai is a fantastic place to be for fashion brands – you can connect to India to get fabrics, Asia for textiles and it’s really easy to have shows in the Europe. It’s much less saturated than some of the other cities so it is a really place to be as a designer. Things really seem to be happening now and it almost feels like London 20 years ago so only time will tell.
What would be your message to young designers just starting out?
That’s a tough one! I think you have to have a very clear vision of what you want and everything is about your story. People don’t buy into products they buy into stories so one you have that clear vision in your head you’ll be able to sell it to others.
Deborah will be running a fashion workshop, How to Start a Fashion Label, on April 28 and 29; sign up at deborahhenning.com/course. Her collection is stocked in Harvey Nichols Dubai.