“It’s exciting and challenging to be a fashion designer in Dubai”

Over her five years in Dubai, fashion designer Katya Kovtunovich fell in love with the desert and changed the way we look at traditional Bedouin fabric Sadou, in the Middle East and beyond

19.12.15, 00:18

I was living in London and working as features contributor to Vogue, Elle and L’Officiel Russia, when I received a totally unexpected offer from Dubai. It was an assistant’s position at Kenzo marketing department with Chalhoub group. The decision came very spontaneously: it was a freezing December in London and +30 in Dubai. First, it was just that and a joke that one day my grandchildren will be proud of their grandma who lived by herself in such an exotic country. In terms of career move, for me it was more of a downshift – the idea to work as an assistant after my 4-page special features for Vogue was hurting my pride. But luckily curiosity and constant desire to learn new things prevailed. The more I thought about it – the more value I saw in this opportunity: to learn about fashion industry from a completely different marketing angle at such big and recognized brand, to meet great professionals from all over the world, to embrace a new culture of corporate work (I had never worked in corporate environment before), to leave alone the excitement of experiencing the new country, culture and language. 

It turned out to be a fascinating journey indeed. Within just 2 months at Kenzo I got a chance to go to Paris to work at Kenzo’s showroom selling collection to the Middle Eastern buyers, travel to Kuwait and organize events from Dubai to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

The quintessence of my first 6 months in Dubai was meeting His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid and Crown Prince Hamdan at the opening of an art exhibition. They were just walking by and very personally greeting each person, smiling to them and looking into their eyes. I travelled the world and lived and worked in Paris, New York, Milan but would have never even imagined meeting or having such kind and very warm welcome from the royals, governors or presidents of any other country. The fact that Dubai ruler is such a strong respected leader, but at the same time such an approachable and humble person, who you can simply meet in the street, makes you feel so personal with his city. Makes you feel very welcome, even if you are a foreigner.  

Katya Kovtunovich (Катя Ковтунович)

Dubai felt like a dream. It made me believe that nothing was impossible here and it was the place where I could realize all my talents and open doors to worldwide opportunities. 

I simply fell in love with this energy and did not feel like going back to London.  

The things I love about Dubai

First of all - freedom. Freedom of dressing up or dressing down. You can wear the most glamorous evening gown and go for a cocktail with a friend on a Tuesday or wear shorts and flip flops to a meeting on the same day, if you feel like it. No one would look at you and judge. (Unless you visit a government institution or a mall as, of course, it is not advisable to wear shorts in those places). Freedom of moving around at any time of day or night and feeling safe – if I finish work in my studio at 1 am, I can easily walk in the street without fear. Freedom to not worry about your belongings at all times – if you forget your laptop or your phone somewhere – taxi drivers or shop assistants will return it to you. Freedom of starting your own business with no regard to the color of your passport and what country you are coming from.  

Second – beautiful roads and high speed limits! 

Third – amazing, driven, ambitious, kind, caring and inspiring people. I love that everyone in Dubai takes care of themselves and looks good and groomed, even if they are going grocery shopping. It is pleasant to see how Emirati style is changing, how abaya from being purely black is embracing different colors, ornaments and every Emirati woman starts expressing their own personalities.

What I find disturbing? It is when a Western or American celebrity comes to town – the whole Instagram feed is filled with pictures of people with that celebrity.  

Katya Kovtunovich (Катя Ковтунович)

My style is practical and Inspired by how I feel every day. There are days when you feel like being a diva and drawing everyone’s attention and there are days when you just want to contemplate the world and not be approached by anyone. I used to feel that I can’t go out unless I am dressed to impress from head to toe. Now I am free from that. I know I can impress with things I say and do and I do not need to dress up to prove who I am anymore. If I had a full day in the studio or at a desert shoot, wearing flip flops, shorts, no make up and I absolutely have to go to an urgent meeting – I will go directly to meeting, as I am. I love to dress up, but I am not afraid to be real. Now for me it is more important how many things I can accomplish during the day and what clothes help me to use my 24 hours in the most effective way. I became a bit like Mark Zuckerberg who can wear the same grey T-shirt and jeans every day and not care.

It’s great to be a fashion designer in Dubai! You meet a lot of amazing people, you find inspiring fabrics from all over the world, your team at photoshoots or fashion events often consists of 5-7-20 people of different nationalities. We learn from each other and have a great creative time. I had a student from a German fashion school interning with me over the summer – she still sends me messages from Germany saying how much she misses the traditional “Dubai builder’s food” – Indian bread “poratha” and masala tea, that she was introduced to during one of our multinational shoots. It is indeed a lot of fun. 

As for strange moments, at the beginning I did have a lot of them. I could not imagine that a tailor can have a completely different way of thinking and different standards of quality – because he comes from a different country. You can ask him to put the zipper in the front and he would put it in the back, because he thinks it looks better! Eventually you learn to understand each other and adjust. But you do need to invest at least 6 months in training your team.   

Dubai has been also setting us some financial challenges in the last 2 years. Rents are going up, expenses are rising, so you have to be smart and find new creative ways to grow your business. The good thing is that Social Media is very strong in the Middle East and a lot of business is done online, with no overhead expenses involved.

Katya Kovtunovich (Катя Ковтунович)

The signature of my brand is my work with Sadou, the traditional Bedouin fabric widely used in the Middle East for upholstery on the sofas and tents. No one has used it in high fashion before. But I simply fell in love with its bright colors and stand out patterns when I first saw it in an Arabic souq. I bought a few yards and made a winter coat for myself. When I wore it in London, Moscow and New York I was overwhelmed with the attention and compliments that I received. That is how the idea of a Sadou collection was born. It was great to take something that everyone steps on and give it a new life. I love seeing the beauty in the unseen, it makes me feel so excited, like Columbus when he discovered new lands. This collection became my signature and that is how my brand became known in Dubai and Middle East.

Today our Sadou jackets are ordered by ladies from UAE government – to wear them on their business trips abroad and represent the heritage of their country. In October I was invited to be a part of the official UAE delegation at Expo Milano 2015, showcasing my heritage-turned-fashion collection to the world. Last summer our Sadou tunics sold out at Ibiza’s famous beach club Blue Marlin and we received enquiries from buyers in New York and Europe. I am very grateful to Dubai and Middle East for letting me discover its beautiful heritage and culture and I am very honoured to take my modern interpretation of it to the worldwide level.

My fashion must haves 

1. For business – different pieces from my Sadou collection, I keep wearing them. They are very practical, especially when I am meeting people for the first time as they can spot me immediately! 

2. For traveling – my Puma by Hussein Chalayan hoodie. I always wear it when I travel, because I can fully zip it up and it even covers half of my face – it makes me feel like I have my “private room” whenever and wherever I am. It has been with me since 10 years and I am not ashamed of it and still love it to bits. (Talking about sustainable fashion and responsible consumption!) 

3. For evening – my YSL by Stefano Pilati shoes and my first hand made evening dress – red and very dramatic. 

Katya Kovtunovich (Катя Ковтунович)

The recent book I read is the Boeing 777 Operations Manual. I am fascinated by everything related to aviation and I dream to pass my private pilot license test at some time in the future! One of my favourite books that inspired me a lot is “Lust for Life” by Irving Stone. It tells a story of Vincent Van Gogh. From this book I learned that following your true passion may not be so easy, but you have to keep going forward no matter what. 

Dressing simple and wearing the same style of clothes every day is not a fashion crime! Read some interesting discussions regarding this topic in Huffington post the other day. Indeed, it is far more socially acceptable for men to wear the same clothes to work every day, the “work uniform” such as the famous Steve Jobs’ black turtleneack, than it is for women. I think there is nothing wrong with that. 

My favorite fashion designers are Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel and Alexander McQueen. Each of them had such a different story and each of them was a true genius. 

As a journalist, I was very inspired by the articles in vintage Vogue from 1920s and 30s. I had a chance to read them in Vogue library, while interning at British Vogue. The journalism was so pure and so sincere. The articles were written like personal stories, told to a friend in a whimsical letter. I learned to write from reading them. As a person, I am inspired by great leaders who make global changes in our life and yet manage to remain so humble, kind and simple – Marc Zuckerberg, Jan Koum co-founder of Whatsapp, Kevin Systrom co-founder of Instagram, HH Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum the great visionary who made Dubai into what it is now. And of course the great women – Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, Sheryl Sandberg. I am also inspired by the great talents. By the voice of Andrea Bocelli, by ballet dancers Diana Vishneva, Ulyana Lopatkina, Misty Copeland. When you experience the beauty that they create – you become a better person. 

If I were allowed to pack only one look for a weekend in London, it would be my Sadou skirt, a matching jacket with fur collar, a vintage bag and a pair of ballerinas or Stuart Weitzman over the knee boots, if its late fall. Understated, chic and very stand out.

My role model is my grandmother. She is a real career woman – a general and oncology surgeon. In her time she was the only female in the operating room among men. And she was one of the most respected. She worked so hard and despite all the difficulties that she had to go through (Surviving Second War as a child and taking care of younger brother, all by herself, while both their parents were sent to help the army, being seriously ill as a teenager, being oppressed by the Soviet Government as a student and many more things) – she did not give up and became a brilliant doctor who saved so many lives within her 56 years at work. 

She is a true literature and art lover, a real connoisseur of art, ballet and opera. Having a role model like this, it is very hard to keep up with her. She just celebrated her very “mature” birthday last summer and I was honored to create matching dresses for us both. We wore them and she actually liked them very much. 

MUA: Marwa Barahiem

Photography: Lena Stanevko

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