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Building a fashion design district in luxe Dubai

Egyptian jewelry designer Azza Fahmy looks out over

Egyptian jewelry designer Azza Fahmy looks out over the Dubai business district on Nov. 7, 2013. She is part of the country's new effort to build a fashion district to compete in a global market currently dominated by the United States, Europe and Japan. Credit: AP / Kamran Jebreili

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -  Dubai and luxury are nearly synonymous. The city is home to the world's tallest tower, massive man-made islands in the shape of palm trees and a fleet of police cars that includes a Ferrari, a Lamborghini and a $2.5-million Bugatti Veyron.

Now, to boost its glamour factor and economy, the city has its eye on the multi-billion-dollar-a-year global fashion industry, currently dominated by the United States, Europe and Japan.

In the Middle East, Dubai is the powerhouse, raking in almost half of the region's market share of retail spending.

As people in other parts of the Arab world grapple with protests, violence and turmoil, Dubai's modern skyscrapers, over-the-top glitz and flair for opulence provide the well-heeled a seemingly endless supply of indulgence and distraction.

Real estate services firm CBRE ranks Dubai as the second-most important destination for international retailers, after London. About half of all major international retailers have outlets in Dubai, and a third of all luxury spending in the Middle East happens here, according to consulting firm Bain and Co.

But the city's officials want more. They want Dubai to evolve into a hub of creativity that attracts the region's best designers.

Construction has already begun on a massive project called the Dubai Design District, or D3. The site is dedicated to the fashion industry and will house design studios, boutique hotels, high-end apartments and, of course, a promenade for shopping.

The first phase of construction on the 18-million-square-foot site will cost around $1 billion and be ready by 2015, said Amina Al Rustamani, CEO of Tecom Investments, which is developing D3. She says the idea is to bring creative minds together under one umbrella.

With foreigners making up roughly 90 percent of Dubai's population, its designers say the city is great for new brands and entrepreneurs who want the world to take notice.

"Dubai is a melting pot. There are over 200 nationalities here, so there's always a different target audience to cater to without even leaving the country," said Shaimaa Gargash, one of three Emirati sisters behind the 3-year-old fashion label House of Fatam.

Local designers say there is a misconception that Arab women in the Persian Gulf region -- who traditionally wear long black robes over their clothes and matching black scarves over their hair and even faces -- are not daring when it comes to what they wear underneath and in front of other women.

"They are actually more adventurous than people think," said Lamia Gargash, one of the founders of House of Fatam.

Lebanese designer Zayan Ghandour says fashion is not merely a luxury, but a necessity in this part of the world.

One of three women who own Sauce, a highly sought-after brand of boutique stores with six branches in the United Arab Emirates, Ghandour says the majority of her customers are Gulf Arab women who are not afraid to experiment with bright colors, bling and the latest trends.

Saudi designer Lama Taher says her brand, Lumi, is selling out across the region because Arab women have learned to value locally made products, rather than only wearing international luxury brands.

"They love to flaunt their beauty, but there are different ways to do it and different platforms. It can be in public, or in [private] gatherings and parties and events," the 27- year-old said.

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