It used to be difficult to buy interesting clothes in Dubai,” says award-winning architect-turned-art curator-turned-boutique owner May Barber. “Now, however, there is a fashion-forward movement in the city.” And at the forefront of this scene is The Cartel, one of Dubai’s most audacious stores, born out of Barber’s passion for avant-garde fashion.
“I arrived at this fusion of all three worlds – art, architecture and fashion – simultaneously,” says Dubai-born Barber. “The Cartel is a creative house, gallery and design studio as well as an incubator for fashion start-ups and, of course, a multibrand boutique.” The shop opened in a large industrial space in Dubai’s urban-cool Al Quoz district in February 2013, before moving to d3, the purpose-built Dubai Design District, last December. Swapping an interior of angular black-and-white pods for more open (although similarly angular and monochrome) racks and shelving interspersed with pale-wood panelling, “the new boutique is softer, warmer and brighter,” says Barber. “We moved from closed walls to a glass-fronted setting.”
This transparency is an inviting opener to The Cartel’s edgy edit of designer innovations – a mix of international and local names interspersed with pieces from the store’s own line. “Our signature style is contemporary eclectic,” says Barber. The selection for women features the likes of Gareth Pugh, Maison Margiela and Iris Van Herpen, alongside local designers such as Khulood Thani, whose autumn/winter collection includes a sleekly fitted black and taupe colour-blocked dress ($960) with a ruffle-adorned hem, and a kimono-esque trench coat ($1,040) with a bold frill on the back. From utilitarian-cool Australian designer Dion Lee there are cut-out knits ($465) and a cool dinner jacket-inspired black jumpsuit ($1,445), while Danish deconstructive brand Anne Sofie Madsen is represented by an asymmetric grey Falling jacket ($1,090) with an exaggerated belt. “Our autumn/winter selection centres around a monochrome, inky palette – black, bordeaux, forest green – with a handful of prints. These are beautiful, timeless pieces. We don’t stock anything that will quickly look outdated.”
This goes for accessories, too, including necklaces ($436) of blown-Murano-glass “bubbles” by Paris brand Idonthaveasister, and minimal earrings ($432) with subtle Swarovski-crystal drops, created in collaboration with Danish designer Vibe Harsløf – all enticingly displayed on a “garden” of sculptural hand-shaped stands. Bags are another strong point: the futuristic Lamat range by Belgrade-based designer Ivana Damjanovic, for instance, showcases sublimely structured diamond- ($1,214) and square- ($748) shaped clutches, while The Cartel’s own UAE-made metal Cage bag ($535) is a bestseller. “Object-like bags have become integral to my personal style, which is architectural, eclectic and quite contemporary,” concludes Barber. “I’m also a fan of layering – but that’s not so easy to do in the Dubai weather!”