4. Tailoring in Abu Dhabi

By Sophie Arni

        Between Pre-Fall, Fall/Winter, Spring/Summer, Cruise, and countless other seasonal variations, the luxury ready-to-wear industry has been functioning under a “more is more” mantra for this past decade. More fashion shows, more followers, more it-bags, more store openings, and more pop-up activations have allowed conglomerates such as LVMH or Kering to increase their sales quantities while retaining or increasing their profit margins. Fast-fashion giants such as Zara, H&M, Topshop, Urban Outfitters have also contributed to the sentiment that clothes are part of a collective rush to consumerism and instant gratification.

1. AUH cropped abaya. Designer: Sophie Arni for GAD x abu dhabi F/W 2017. Styled and produced in Abu Dhabi, UAE

COVID-19 seems to have put a break to this frenzy. At the top, Gucci has declared it would change its current production cycle. Other luxury giants might follow. While retail might come out stronger after the pandemic — taking other shapes and forms and highlighting “experiential” elements — production cycles for both luxury ready-to-wear and fast fashion might resurge with different schedules and supply chain priorities.

Twenty-first century global circulation has permitted many brands and designers to produce garments cheaply and quickly, but it has also diminished the experience of face-to-face engagement traditionally associated with the textile industry. Tainted by stories of overworked laborers, crowded factories, and pollution, the fashion supply chain has lost much of the magic of its precious craftsmanship.

However, some recent developments have highlighted a surge towards more sustainability and personal connection. First, with vintage fashion. Resell websites have skyrocketed over the past few years, up to the point that buying “pre-loved” is the new way to shop for luxury handbags. These initiatives highlight a desire for sustainability and conscious shopping. Knowing that we can resell our clothes or bags once we get tired of them helps process a decision to buy a piece that will survive throughout years, if not decades. Recent Tik Tok and Youtube videos have also propelled “DIY fashion” to Gen Z teenagers, evoking an appetite for a genuine personal connection to clothes. Cutting, sewing, replacing a button, or a broken zipper may have become rare skills for our new generation, but that is perhaps about to change.

2. GAD x abu dhabi F/W 2017 campaign. Creative Direction: Sophie Arni. Photo: Ev Zverev.

Another way to gain back the precious connection to our garments is to produce our own clothes. This was my personal journey in Abu Dhabi, about three years ago. Tired of saggy sleeves, short pants hem, and other odd fittings synonymous with fast-fashion purchases, I decided to start buying fabrics and work with local tailors to produce a capsule collection. Creating ready-to-wear pieces in the exact color, fabric, and shape I wanted was empowering. Amazed at how affordable the process was, I kept going back to the tailors month after month. I would like to share some tips and tricks I learned along the way. Hopefully, I will inspire our readers in and outside the United Arab Emirates to start thinking of tailoring as the new sustainable fashion alternative (once pandemic restrictions are lifted of course).

Jumping from a fashion consumer to producer was eye-opening on many levels.

Jumping from a fashion consumer to producer was eye-opening on many levels. First, I realized the complexities of a garment: how easy it is to make t-shirts compared to a suit jacket for example. It seems obvious, but it is not until I saw the process of constructing pockets and shoulders that I understood the value of straight stitching. Second, I learned about how a particular fabric would age, wash, and shrink by seeing reluctant tailors react to my requests. Linen, for example, is a tricky fabric: it creases easily and is not so flexible. Creating a pair of oversized linen pants seems like a good idea until you receive the garment back.

Abu Dhabi was a perfect city to start this tailoring experience journey. The United Arab Emirates has a long history of textile trade with India and the rest of Asia. The local fashion of abaya and kundura favor long cloak silhouettes, and tailors make up an important part of the local fashion economy. In Abu Dhabi, tailor studios and fabric shops are concentrated around Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre, the oldest mall in the city. Fabric shops range in their history and quality. Some have been there for decades, others come and go as business flourishes or shrinks. 

Abu Dhabi’s fabric shops have nothing to envy to the ones in New York City’s Garment District. They propose an incredible selection of cotton, silks, velvets, silk blends, cashmere, linen, and high-quality rayon and polyester. While fabric such as denim may be more difficult to source, materials for flowy silhouettes are plentiful. Most fabrics come from South Korea and Japan, which are considered to be excellent quality and appreciated by local clientele. Embroidery is another asset of Abu Dhabi’s tailoring scene. Many skillful embroiderers from neighboring India have set up shop in the Madinat Zayed area and, for a just price, will make your wildest embroidery wishes come to life with Swarovski crystals, faux pearls, and other gems. Below is my step-by-step guide to produce a silk t-shirt in the UAE’s capital. 

1. Pick your fabric

My top 3 fabric shops in Abu Dhabi, in no particular order, are:

  • Malik & Shaheed Store: this corner shop is a staple of the neighborhood. It is famous for providing tailors with the necessary tools and accessories needed to produce their pieces. Elastic bands, ribbons of all kinds, pins, needles, buttons, Swarovski crystals counted by the dozens, and zippers are just some of the gems you can find in this shop. I would go there if I needed something extra holding up my shirt, perhaps buttons, or an embroidered pocket sleeve. They also have a second floor dedicated to a small selection of fabrics.

  • Al Omara Textiles: right next to Malik & Shaheed, opposite Madinat Zayed back entrance. This is one of the biggest fabric shops in the neighborhood. Prices are acceptable, and you can always haggle prices down if you buy more than one fabric. They have two entire floors of pure silks, silk blends, cotton, linens, see-through mesh, stretchy velvets, jacquards, and corduroy. The list goes on. Color selection is also impressive. I found the perfect brown taupe pure silk for about 20 dirhams a meter (about 5 US dollars). You will need approximately 2 meters of fabric for a t-shirt.

  • Al Omara Textiles inside Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre: on the ground floor of Madinat Zayed mall, opposite Co-op supermarket and across from the Etisalat counter. A good friend of mine introduced me to this shop in 2016, and I was happy to revisit it in March 2020 right before the coronavirus lockdown. At the time, the shop was still open and operating. This is a small shop inside the Madinat Zayed mall but don’t let its size fool you. The selection is pretty extensive for the space they have. They also have a secret ceiling trap, which I was always curious about, leading to a hidden stock of fabric. The advantage of shopping in a smaller space is the customer attention you receive. Someone will take care of you, from start to finish, and guide you through your purchases. I cannot praise Al Omara’s shopkeepers enough. They will recommend specific fabrics with color books and swatches and will cut the material for you. They will also always discount the final price depending on the quantity of fabric you buy. If you are running short on time or it’s your first time shopping for fabrics, I would go there over the larger Al Omara Textiles.

3. Al Omara Textiles inside Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre, Abu Dhabi, 2020. 

2. Decide on your preferred silhouette

I would recommend a couple of preparations before going to see a tailor. First, I would think of a concrete silhouette idea. In this case, it would be a simple t-shirt. You need to know how you want it to fit: tight or loose, cropped or long. How do you want the collar to look? It is often easy to dismiss these details when buying ready-to-wear pieces, but asking them is key in the tailoring process. Second tip would be to bring your favorite t-shirt to the tailor. This is an almost fool-proof way to be satisfied with the final result. Handing over your existing garment to the tailor alongside the cut fabric will give tailors the exact dimensions to work with, and will make cutting patterns easier for them.

3. Go to the tailor

Once you have your 2 meters or so of fabric — in this case, pure silk to make a simple t-shirt — with your master garment, head over to the tailor’s studio. Since a t-shirt is an easy garment with no extra frills, I paid about 30 dirhams [6 US dollars] to have it made and it took about a week to finish.

There are plenty of tailors both inside and outside the vicinity of Madinat Zayed mall, and you can ask the fabric shopkeepers directly for their recommendations in the neighborhood. I personally worked with two tailors before settling on my preferred tailor, who unfortunately closed his shop a few years after I left Abu Dhabi.  

From my experience, the ideal situation is finding a tailor who is kind and enthusiastic about his craft, but most importantly someone with experience who can showcase their previous designs. It is always a good idea to check the tailor’s previous work for the quality of stitching on the garment. Look at the studio as well. You want to find a clean, well-presented space that also has good working conditions.

Another tip is to trust the tailor’s specialty. Particular tailors are skilled in making menswear pants, jackets and suits (rare in Abu Dhabi). Others might be very skilled with abaya and kaftans (most tailors in Abu Dhabi). Trust their specialty and do not ask them to go beyond their usual skillset. Or do, but at your own risk. Usually, the finished garment will end up halfway between a client’s wishes and the tailor’s expertise. 

There is always an element of risk and luck associated with tailoring. Trust me, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes. But think of the upside. Getting a pure-silk, hand-made piece that you have designed to your preferred measurements and color palette, for the modest price of 10 US dollars, is a total steal. Three years later, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve worn my silk taupe shirt. Sure, the collar is a little off. It was copied off a men’s XL cotton t-shirt. But that quirkiness adds charm to the piece. After many washes, the fabric quality still stands the test of time, and I will probably keep this piece for the rest of my life.

4. Silk taupe t-shirt, modeled off a men’s XL cotton t-shirt, designed and made in Abu Dhabi, 2017.

Unless otherwise stated, photos were taken by the author of this article.