The shift of model representation in the Middle East.
Times are changing in the modeling world. Contributing Editor, Saja El Mishri, had a virtual chat with Founder and Director of MMG Group, Gosia Golda, who leads the MMG Models, Events, Talent, Gallery and Artists sectors.
The go-getting leader highlights the expanded role of models today and the obstacles we have had in the past when it comes to model representation in the Middle East. Also, Golda hints at what Middle Eastern consumers would rather be seeing in major brand campaigns in order to feel they can identify with the brands in a genuine way.
About MMG Models
MMG Models was founded in Dubai in 2008 and is now largely regarded as the fastest growing and most respected modeling agency not only in the UAE, but in the Gulf region. MMG Models is operated and managed by a team that have lived and breathed the industry and therefore are able to use their experience to offer a personal touch and a high level of quality to be able to service the most discerning clients.
With offices in London and Dubai, MMG Models has a vast network with special working relationships with some of the best modeling agencies in the world. Through this network, we have set up an international scouting network and are therefore able to bring the very best raw and also experienced talent to the Middle East.
1. How do you think the modeling industry in Dubai has changed over the last 5 years based on global industry trends?
It has definitely changed; right now beauty does not exclude anyone like before. Brands have redefined what it means to be beautiful and they challenge outdated status quos. In the past, eternal youth was something to look forward to. For example, brands had 20 year old models advertising their wrinkle cream (ridiculous). Now, brands in the Middle East are looking for models that they and their clients can associate themselves with–such as darker hair and eyes and olive skin.
In the past we have only worked with European models but now we have models that look like the “pretty girl next door,” as brands are trying to reach a broader audience so it is important that they have a diverse range of looks. We also see an increase in plus size models to showcase the different types of women that exist. Brands are beginning to understand by noting inclusivity trends and are hence finding ways to change in order to become more approachable in their marketing efforts. In the Middle East, I recommend for brands to really hear what the women are asking for here and alter the marketing strategy to cater to them. Overall, consumers want to find ways of how they can relate to a brand in a genuine way. There is a positive shift happening – just look at the success of Huda Beauty.
2. How has the modeling culture shifted in the MENA region with regards to embracing body positive, gender-neutral and pro-diversity mindsets when it comes to hiring models?
The shift in modeling culture has changed and thanks to social media it all happened at the same time. Social media and online platforms have showcased the variety of women out there that exist. Brands have finally started to listen to the needs of the Arab woman and the importance of accommodating to her needs. Why? Well in order to attract and engage with the women in the MENA region, they all have different wants than the rest of the world and the women need to see themselves represented in a realistic way.
Brands realize that Arab women and influencers are starting to share their lives on social media and are proud of who they are. They are empowering others in the process as well. Overall, brands are hiring models that fit in with their values as well as their consumer demographic.
3. What more can be done to catch up with the West?
I don’t think we should be in this competition to catch-up with each other. In the past, brands that came from Milan, London or Paris all had their unique identities and models they worked with. Before, Arab designers were in the shadows but now they are in the spotlight – regional designers are going to represent and understand the Arab women in ways that a Western designer might not. For example, some women in this region prefer more rich, shiny styles (the bigger the better); however, brands might not know this if they have not spent enough time in the region. Brands need to know what their clients like and I don’t think we will ever be unified. The Middle East is the Middle East and there is no need to catch-up with the West. Each region is different and unique. In the MENA region we tend to turn to others but we have to see ourselves first. Arab women are proud of who they are and where they come from.
"In the MENA region we tend to turn to others but we have to see ourselves first. Arab women are proud of who they are and where they come from."
4. Which types of brands are the most progressive in the region so far when it comes to adopting the above new mindset?
There are so many that have been inherently diverse and included different women as part of their marketing campaigns in order to represent women in the Middle East. But online platforms like OUNASS, NOON are the most progressive. Brands have made a change by using plus-sizes models or using models that look more Middle Eastern than European. For Dubai Fashion Week, there were a couple of plus size models walking, as well as diverse women from all over the world. For all large scale campaigns you want to promote diversity and have multiple looks – bearing in mind that there are vast expat numbers in Dubai.
5. Do you think luxury brands may be hesitant to change their brand image to a more inclusive one? How come?
I don’t think luxury brands are hesitant to, but they are more careful. Change is indeed happening, but slowly, as brands want to take their time to try out new ideas and see what works best in each region.
Also something to bear in mind is that not all Arab women want to become celebrities and be in the spotlight so brands might find it difficult to find someone that fits within their brand DNA. I think there has been a general stigma that becoming a model isn’t something to be proud of. But as I mentioned earlier – genuine change takes time. Look at what has happened after the black lives matter movement! Now you see diverse models everywhere. It is a progress and we are getting there.
6. How has the role of models changed today versus 20 years ago? For example, are they simply hired to portray the fit of clothes or are they also hired to represent the brand in a more meaningful way in order to elevate brand perception?
When brands are selecting models for their campaigns, they want to know what the model is about and what she stands for, as consumers will be following her while she shares glimpses of the life that she lives on social media. Brands are very careful of who they choose to work with and the role of a model has changed dramatically over the last few years. With the rise of social media, brands are looking to create more meaningful relationships with their consumers and need models that share this aspect as well. Consumers have the right to choose a brand that aligns with their values and what they stand for.
Brands are making changes here in Dubai; they want to showcase who they are and what they stand for. It isn’t about how pretty the model is anymore. Who is she and how is she using her voice to empower other women?
7. What should Western brands be aware of when hiring regional models in brand campaigns?
They have to be aware of cultural sensitivity. Sometimes [Western brands] are ignorant to the culture and tradition that belongs here. I always tell the clients that you need to hire creative directors from the region as there are differences that they will not understand. You cannot just Google ‘culture’ and expect to know everything – you just have to hire people from here.
For example, you cannot do a cover image in a seductive or provocative way as there are cultural sensitivities involved. Brands have to do a background check and understand how each area is distinct in the region. Brands can work together with local advisers that can guide them on these small adjustments that make a big difference on the receptivity.
About the Editor
Having grown up in Sweden and later moving to the UK, Saja is deeply motivated by emerging social and political concerns around sustainability. Saja currently works as a freelance writer and recently published articles at Eco-Age that explores if sustainability has become a westernized concept.
Saja is currently working as a freelance journalist writing about the intersection of sustainability, fashion and social justice and recently being selected for the FashMash Young Pioneers program, recognized to drive positive change in the industry.