While our preconceptions of the UAE may be dominated by skyscrapers and oil magnates, the country is slowly establishing itself as a destination for both fashion and culture, the recent opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi being a case in point. But could you name one influencer à la Pandora Sykes or Pernille Teisbaek? Nor could we - until we came across Anum Bashir and her blog, Desert Mannequin.
Desert Mannequin is a documentation of the Qatar-born creative consultant's personal style. Colourful, eclectic and witty, Bashir talks about sustainable outfit choices, pens love letters to her favourite shoes and explains why a Prada dress has more lives than a cat. She's also on a mission to promote emerging local talent, marries fashion with art and touches on politics.
Born and raised in Doha, Bashir says it's a place she will always call home. Following formative years as a student in Pittsburgh and a young professional in New York, she now lives in Dubai. We spoke to her about the contemporary Arabic woman and finding a voice in a region where the blogging territory was basically untouched.
Desert Mannequin was one of the first blogs of this kind in Qatar. What was it like to start it?
Yes, it was unprecedented territory in Doha at the time. I was keen to start something fun and fresh that married art and fashion. I haven't looked back since and work every day to help it grow and morph into something far beyond simply sharing my outfits. Since day one it has granted me a huge amount of exposure.
Tell us more about your aims.
The plan for Desert Mannequin has always been the same - share the platform with women who have interesting stories and strong voices. I have always advocated an off-kilter, eclectic approach to style and hope to continue that. I would eventually love to offer fully fledged consultancy to emerging brands and designers.
How did the idea for Desert Mannequin first come about?
After moving back from the US in 2011, I started my career at the Qatar Museums. That job allowed me to get home around 3PM every day, so that I had lots of time to start something for myself. Working in the art world for over five years gave me a pretty sturdy leg to stand on. That's when I decided to start Desert Mannequin - mostly as a passion project to chronicle and marry personal style with contemporary art.
How would you describe your style?
Eclectic with a consistent effort to balance the masculine with feminine. Picture a cocktail dress with sneakers, or a tuxedo with dainty glitter stilettos. To me, it's about being observant and able to interpret what you see around you in your own way.
What pieces of clothing could you not live without?
I always joke that my shoes and handbags are my children; you can practically wear anything if you have a wonderfully outrageous pair of shoes on. I'm currently living in my printed silk Dries Van Noten shirts. They're maximalist in every way, and create this faux sense of being on a holiday which isn't a bad thing if you're actually constantly working. I also love anything created by Isa Arfen, one of my favourite designers.
What's always in your SUITCASE?
My skincare products, a pair of jeans, a coloured pair of trousers (be it red, khaki or black), a good blazer, two pairs of shoes, and a crisp white button-down shirt. Everything else can be improvised.
It's still very much in its infancy. We're growing and developing every day which is good, but the fashion industry here is always faced with the challenges of finding its voice and identity. I often critique that Dubai's fashion landscape can be quite homogenous and over the top in a way that's not always revered. Luckily, there are new and interesting people stepping in to debunk those views.
What impact do local culture and dress codes have on fashion?
Of course they are quite conservative and traditional. I'm typically a modest dresser anyway, so that fits in quite well. There are several designers who are deeply inspired by the traditions and heritage of Arabia, and that is highly prevalent in the pieces they create.
How would you describe the contemporary Arabic woman?
She's become quite the individual: highly educated and well-travelled, with a strong voice and a desire to stand out. She's often entrepreneurial, constantly learning more about the industry she's in and driven to create something successful.
In Europe, there can be a stereotype of Arabic women liking to shop A LOT. How do you approach that?
In my opinion, Middle Eastern women enjoy luxury just as much as the next girl. I'm not saying it's completely untrue - and since I live in a more affluent part of the world, I think that the stereotype comes a little easier - but with time we've seen an evolution in women's approach to business or style. We're becoming more diverse. As I said, the fashion industry is still very much in its infancy, so with that come teething pains. We hope to one day rival some of the most culturally established cities in the world.
Do you see yourself as a stereotype-breaking kind of woman in your region?
I'd like to think so. My time at the museum allowed me to approach things from a unique vantage point. I love discovering new brands and share an approach to style and writing that's unique in this part of the world.
Besides your personal style, you address topics such as Trump's travel ban. When it comes to politics or social issues, do you feel free to talk about anything you find important? Are there any taboos?
I can obviously only maintain a dialogue within certain confines, and I think that's okay. At its very core, Desert Mannequin is still a fashion-centric platform. Do I want to continue having more punchier discussions on there? Absolutely! It's part of intellectualising what I do, which I think is incredibly important. But yes, living here means that certain subject matters are regarded as taboo.
What does your work with emerging brands entail?
My work with emerging and local brands comes from a wish to nurture talent. It's fascinating to join someone on their journey. When a designer asks for your opinion on a collection, being able to give honest feedback is a privilege I take very seriously.
What role do influencers and social media play?
Dubai is currently riding the social media wave hard. Influencers are everywhere and brands are gung-ho about working with them.
What local brands do we have to know?
There's a lot of local talent that should be known globally. I've had the pleasure of collaborating with many people in different capacities - be it Bil Arabi by Nadine Kanso, Nathalie Trad, Bouguessa, Reemami, Matar. The list is quite vast and they're all doing remarkable things.
What's next for Desert Mannequin?
Lots of exciting things. We've just launched our beauty segment "Let's Face It". I'm also continuing my partnership with Tbilisi-based brand NDUO - we're already discussing the AW18 collection, which is crazy. On top of that, I want to venture into podcasts. Again, it's something that hasn't been done in the region and I'm quite passionate about it.