An interesting announcement was made the other day. Frederick’s of Hollywood would be opening its first retail space outside the US. Frederick’s opened to little fanfare in the Emirati capital last weekend and another store offering the chain’s racy curve-cinching corsets and provocative push-up bras is set to open soon in Dubai. It could have picked London, Rome, Seoul or Hong Kong but instead, the lingerie retailer chose a nation in the Middle East for its first international store. And it is absolutely brilliant, regardless of what our preconceived notions of the region might be.
The choice of its first overseas venture is revealing for a couple of reasons. The first is that it makes remarkably good business sense. In the last decade the Emirates have emerged as a retail hub for expats and UAE citizens. Wealth and a very open free market have produced a burning desire for a wide variety of goods. In addition to the basic transactional element of business, it also provides a terrific testing ground for retailers as they introduce their brands overseas. There is money and there is diversity.
Culturally, there are two very important aspects to the decision that emerge, both of which go back to the nature of the populations that swell the populations of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. First is the expat factor.
For expats, brands like Fredrick’s represent a little bit of home in a foreign land. As accepting as people may be when living in a place other than their homeland, it’s common to experience a degree of disassociative cultural overload – in other words, most people experience a degree of homesickness when abroad, particularly as their sense of a familiar culture milieu becomes more and more strained. Retail shops with which they are familiar present a sense of the “normal,” leading them to linger and buy. And in a place like the UAE, money in the hands of Westerners is plentiful once again.
And then there are the native Emiratis. Despite being an outwardly conservative culture, the Arab Peninsula is a very fashion-conscious market. And it turns out that there is indeed a significant demand for lingerie in the region. We often assume that because there is a cultural restriction on what people wear in public, especially women, that those practices carry over to behind closed doors. This is hardly the case. Add to that the fact that Western goods are associated with notions of modernity, status and power, and it is hardly surprising that a company like Frederick’s would gain traction in the Middle East, especially in a place as open and forward leaning as the UAE.
The Middle East is and will continue to prove to be a fertile environment for retailers. Provided companies and brands take the time to learn what matters on a local level.