Interview with The cARTel founder May Barber
UAE-based, award-winning architect May Barber is passionate about creating beautiful things regardless of their material or scale. Her creative curiosity took her into fashion design followed by fashion buying and writing. Coupling her aesthetic eye with her entrepreneurial drive, May founded The cARTel, a fashion concept store that features wearable art based in Dubai. In this exclusive interview, Tharawat speaks to May about her passion for all things unique, and how The cARTel challenges the status quo of fashion retail.
What is The cARTel and what does it do?
A few years ago, I was approached by my business partners to start a concept store in Dubai. Originally, the idea was to have a dedicated fashion showroom representing designers curated from all around the globe.
From there, we transformed into a wholesale gallery of wearable art located in Al Serkal Avenue. We were in good company among some of Dubai’s most iconic art galleries. Naturally, the arts industry isn’t the most profitable and we soon found ourselves in the dilemma of being too commercial for art (given that our content is mainly fashion) and too conceptual for fashion. We revised our strategy while maintaining the original DNA of the business by showcasing emerging brands in avant garde fashion, turning ourselves into a retail concept store thanks to increased interest and demand.
The cARTel also developed a branded world of its own as we started injecting various elements into it. We started a bi-annual magazine in 2012. I am the editor and invite international voices to share critical insights about the industry. We’ve also started incorporating other business models by using the space as an events venue for short-term pop ups and exhibitions with designers, elevating the cARTel into an institution with key intellectual and educational offerings.
What kind of designs and designers does The cARTel showcase, and why?
Our aesthetics are quite specific as we tend to focus on discovering new talent from across the world with avant-garde, contemporary, and sometimes dark influences that employ architectural compositions in their work. For that, we travel beyond the conventional fashion weeks and do a lot of research from university alumni to emerging designers in order to get fresh talent with contemporary techniques, high quality, and readiness for production.
We feel that the local market is heavily dominated by two types of brands – high-end brands that are quite safe but not affordable or high street brands that are cheap but unoriginal and low quality. Therefore, we wanted to fuse original ‘designer’ brands that have a sense of individuality without the high-end price tag.
I’ve personally struggled to shop for something unique and not mass-produced, and the cARTel seems to be the answer for many like myself who are seeking something exciting and fashionable.
The cARTel is located in the Alserkal Avenue, an industrial area featuring local art galleries and studios. What was the reason for this, and how does The cARTel see the relationship between fashion and art?
The decision to position the cARTel within Alserkal Avenue was a strategic one partly because we wanted to communicate to our audience why we are not just another store and why our designers are not the typical names you find in a mall.
The other reason was financial since we wanted to minimize our costs at first and maximize opportunities that such a space offers. We have a beautiful one-of-a-kind themed space with strong architectural features that connects to an adjacent photo studio that we use for photo shoots, exhibitions, and events so that it becomes a one-stop destination.
The location also allows us to participate in the Alserkal Galleries Night and various events that introduce content inspired by the art of fashion. This allows us to highlight new themes and techniques that go way beyond what people might initially perceive as ‘wearable art’. The relationship between art and fashion is not simply a direct application; for us it is an integration of the two resulting in sculpture-like clothing and accessories with original forms and multiple functions.
What do you think sets The cARTel apart from typical fashion boutiques?
I think the cARTel has successfully managed to tick three boxes: fashion retail, art, and design. As a fashion retailer, what truly sets us apart from others is that most of our products are often exclusive to us, making them ‘limited-editions’ much like art itself.
I think the other factor is that the cARTel has managed to establish an institutional role via the magazine, the exhibitions we host, the out-of-the-box fashion theatrics, which shows that a boutique can be much more than a simple retail establishment.
We’ve also managed to produce some quality fashion films, a genre often missed in this part of the world. My business partner is an award winning fashion filmmaker whose film ‘Alchemy’ won the La Jolla Fashion Film Festival in 2012. Thus, our offerings are diverse, original, and interesting for this market and beyond.
What are your thoughts about the art and fashion environment in the Middle East?
I think the arts scene has picked up really fast over the past decade and we’ve witnessed the birth of art galleries and international-level art fairs, which has attracted collectors, foundations and institutions from all around the world.
Fashion was quite stuck in the label phase and the comfort of well-known brands until social media changed the course of fashion consumption, causing customers to go beyond the Louis Vuitton’s and Zara’s to the cool unknown. We were one of the first to take that risk and introduce fresh names that were validated later and through efforts like this, we are witnessing a turning point for Dubai from a capital of fashion consumption to a place for marketing local and regional brands. This is partly driven by the formation of organizations such as the Dubai Design and Fashion Council and the focus on cultivating talent as opposed to continually importing names.
However, there are still challenges such as over-exposing the same local designers, lack of quality control in production, and lack of platforms for industry players to interact, but I think this will happen in the next few years and we will witness an overall change in the region’s strategic role in the international market.
What is your ultimate goal for work in The cARTel?
My goal is to expand this institution to different parts of the world because I see it as a universally applicable concept for showcasing designers and holding engagements. I hope for it to start making good income commercially that can be injected back into the cultivation of the business. I also hope that leaders of art and fashion in the UAE can continue to support individual players such as the cARTel who started purely out of passion for change and a vision to freshen the market.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs looking to succeed in the fashion and art industry?
Fashion and art is not necessary a profitable business. It harbours a number of risks especially now that the retail industry worldwide is facing severe challenges. So my advice is to listen to the market, be original, and try to minimize costs at the early stages because the return on investment is in the long term. You have to do it with passion, because it requires deep involvement in all the major decisions in the business from buying to merchandising. Finally, they need to invest in the right people.