Jazia Al Dhanhani is possibly the most important person in the development of Dubai’s design industry. The Emirati was appointed CEO of Dubai Design and Fashion Council in February this year, taking over from Nez Gebreel, who had been in the role since the council was formed in 2014. Jazia had previously been working for the council as executive director of industry development and marketing.

For those who don’t know, the Dubai Design and Fashion Council (DDFC) was created by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, with the aim of raising the emirate’s profile as a regional and global destination for design. It doesn’t just focus on fashion, but also on graphic design, architecture, products and interiors. ‘I think everything we do in Dubai is somehow related to design, whether it’s an iconic tower or a fashion show,’ says Jazia, ‘so it really is one of the most important things we have here. The challenge is there and I’m excited to take it on.’

There are so many new brands starting in the UAE that the council is something that is welcomed by the industry. ‘I think so many people choose to start their brands here because the industry is still growing and they are looking forward to being part of the future. I think it is easier here to become a successful designer because there is not as much competition as there is in some of these cities. Now we have the DDFC that will hopefully be a big attraction for upcoming designers as they know they will have the help from us.’

Education, nurturing and supporting local talent are pillars of the council’s role, which has most recently seen mentorship and internship programmes, which provide direct learning opportunities and business access to creatives from all over the region, giving them experience with those who are already successful and working in the industry, allowing them to have a platform to develop and hone their skill sets. There are now 38 students in mentorships, connecting them to people they wouldn’t have otherwise had access to.

‘They all have a very clear objective of what they want to learn from their mentor and meet them for one hour every two weeks for five months, sometimes more depending on what each person needs,’ says Jazia. The progamme isn’t just for fashion creatives but for anyone interested in any aspect of design, be it interiors, graphic, product or of course, fashion. When the five-month programme is up, Jazia hopes to recruit new professionals to the programme. 
‘We don’t have a preference of who we want to help, we want to help everybody within the region, and Dubai in particular. This is their home, so they deserve to be nurtured by us,’ Jazia says.

When it comes to internships, the DDFC is working with local universities to place students within companies to give them the experience they need. ‘We are connecting the universities in Dubai to the industry and finding placements for students in relevant companies,’ says Jazia.

Jazia was also in charge of organising (and judging, as part of a panel featuring Lebanese design star Reem Acra) the collaboration between DDFC and Fashion Scout that saw UAE-based designers Deborah Henning and Shaika Amal Al Maktoum present their collections in London (turn the page to meet the two designers). ‘We wanted to choose an Emirati designer, and an international designer who is based here. These two both shone through. Their designs are unique and different for this region.’ Jazia told us. She continues: ‘I have heard from them that it was a great experience. Being an international platform, I think it was a very different experience for them, but it seems to have been a great success. Of course it was fantastic for Dubai, but mostly for the designers, who got to show their collections.’

And while UAE designers are looking to show their collections internationally, could we expect to see international designers presenting their ranges on Dubai catwalks? ‘Dubai welcomes anybody and if anybody were to approach us to do their show here we would definitely be welcoming them to come.’ Paging Demna Gvasalia...

Looking to the future, we already know there are big plans for Dubai’s fashion industry – this was why the DDFC was set up in the first place. ‘Dubai is in the vision of His Highness [Shaikh Mohammad] and that is what we are working towards,’ Jazia explains. ‘Our aim is to promote the industry and Dubai as a place where people can sustain their business. It is of course a growing industry and there are many challenges, but with helping to develop all of the elements and the eco-system around that, I think we will achieve the vision.’ 
The new vision for the city’s design industry began with Dubai Design District, aka D3, which was opened in 2015. That’s where DDFC’s ultra-modern offices are, and where we met Jazia.

‘The great thing about D3 is that you come here and always meet people who are working or interested in design of some kind. We are trying to develop the area as the design hub of the city.’

When I met Jazia in D3, it was day one of the biannual fashion event Fashion Forward (FFWD). FFWD is now in its ninth season and acts as a starting point for upcoming and local designers to show their collections on the catwalk. FFWD attracts big-name regional designers, including Michael Cinco and Furne One, and as a result sees industry experts flying in from around the world to watch the shows. 
 ‘We at DDFC heavily endorse Fashion Forward because it is the only platform that is regularly happening twice a year and has been for a number of years now,’ says Jazia, ‘It’s important to be sustainable and constant, which Fashion Forward is, and that’s why it’s been a success.

‘Honestly all the shows are important for us, as they are all regional designers, but I would love to see some of the shows of designers that we at the council have helped – there are many taking part.’

Fashion Forward has the monopoly of local fashion weeks at the moment but once, Dubai Fashion Week was the go-to fashion event. There have been rumours of a return this year but so far nothing has been confirmed. ‘I can’t comment on that now, but you never know what surprises are around the corner.’ Jazia says.

Of course fashion shows are an amazing platform for successful designers, but not everyone can afford to do this. The DDFC also looks at other ways to help smaller brands, explains Jazia: ‘We are trying to help as many designers as we can in various different ways. The London Fashion Scout partnership was one of these ways, but we also have local showcases like Market OTB that happens twice a year and we are looking to endorse more regular events in the future that are smaller and less expensive as a starting point for new designers.’
 One of these initiatives is the DDFC Membership, which launches this week. ‘This will be a bigger programme to develop talent of a larger number of people. For those signing up to be a member there will be talks, workshops and experiences that they can participate in over the year.
Anyone can sign up.’

The membership programme is the
first of many initiatives launching this
year, she adds.

‘You can expect to see a lot of changes.’ And when asked if we can ever expect Dubai to be recognised up there with the likes of London, New York and Paris? ‘With the vision of His Highness [Shaikh Mohammad] anything is possible!’