“I remember standing in front of a split-flap Solari board at Malpensa Airport in Milan thinking, what am I doing here?” recalls Hussain Moloobhoy. It was 2010 and he was waiting for Chiara Orlandini, head of footwear at Armani, whom he had been introduced to by a colleague at Saatchi & Saatchi in New York.
“I spent a few months between Milan, Marche, Tuscany, Bologna travelling between factories, trade fairs and tanneries in the hope of getting a sound understanding of the footwear game, driven by a passion for footwear and design,” he says. “I had nothing to lose.”
You could learn a lot from Moloobhoy. A former Saatchi & Saatchi creative, he quit his job, decided to do his own thing, and has never looked back. One of the co-founders of Sole DXB alongside Joshua Cox and Kris Balerite, in the five years since the lifestyle platform was launched he has made a mark on the urban landscape of Dubai that is perhaps unparalleled.
“It was time,” he responds when asked why he left big agency life. “I had been at Saatchi & Saatchi for eight years working with some amazing people and proud of the successful campaigns that we had conceived and managed. However, I had started to feel like I needed new challenges. Was there a product or service I could design, create, market and truly believe in? What would it be?”
I remember meeting Moloobhoy at an event in Al Quoz when the idea of Sole DXB was yet to be properly formulated. “I’m going to launch an event around sneakers,” was all I remember him telling me at the time. I must have looked bemused.
“You weren’t the only one,” he says with a smile. “Whatever you do, someone will judge you for it. I felt many questioned what I was up to. You can either be judged because you created something or ignored because you chose to protect yourself from criticism.
“Sole DXB is proof positive that a young city filled with expats can implant a specific culture and still make it its own. It’s a recognition of the fact that there is a large enough community in the Middle East that we should not have to get on a plane and fly somewhere in order to celebrate a culture and lifestyle that we believe in and grew up with.”
Moloobhoy lives and breathes brands. He has a deep appreciation for design and craftsmanship and argues that shoes are today’s ultimate statement of craft and wearable art. They are a form of creative expression, he says.
After Italy and the first Sole DXB event in 2011, he had flown to London and completed a few months’ worth of courses in footwear design at the London Institute of Art & Design, the London College of Fashion, and Central Saint Martins. He also spent the summer finessing designs for a small collection of six silhouettes and revisited a factory in Italy for prototypes.
“It was around that time I realised I was going to have to focus on marketing a product and start building a memorable brand for which I would need an agency,” he says. “So I returned to Dubai and six months later my ambition to start a creative agency – Moloobhoy & Brown (M&B) – was realised with partner Elliott Brown. The two year time-out was a challenge and the perfect opportunity to explore and identify ways of enhancing my creativity.”
Since then Sole DXB has gone on to become a major event on Dubai’s calendar, while M&B has carved a successful niche for itself in the world of streetwear and design.
But why sneakers? Why urban clothing? Why brands such as Adidas and Puma? Why an association with the underground and a love of hip-hop and its associated streetwear, art, music and basketball?
“Sole DXB isn’t exclusively about celebrating the underground,” replies Moloobhoy. “The choice of programming affords an opportunity for underground thought to survive in what would otherwise be an inhospitable climate. Hip-hop may be enjoying commercial success today, but there’s always a fringe to every movement that is less exposed and can benefit from being curated in a wider line-up of ideas. Grime hadn’t seen the commercial success of its American cousins, so our decision to focus on that this year was a means to expose the city to a younger and more raw side of the movement.”
When we meet, the team organising this year’s event, which takes places at Dubai Design District on November 18 and 19, are looking tired. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how much work and passion is required to follow your dreams.
Sole seems to be as much about a group of friends, including Raj Malhotra, than an urban movement in Dubai. Does Moloobhoy agree?
“To an extent, yes. This event takes 10 months to put together. Without the friendship behind it, it would be difficult to get through. That’s probably not any different in any other city though. Whether it’s your friends, your neighbours, or what you would classify as your community, without that there isn’t a movement. All these cities are just a function of their citizens. In the end, this event isn’t about us, it’s about those that show up, but we do hope that our chemistry works its way into the attendees experience.”
He adds: “Brands are one more way for us to express ourselves and carve out an impression of ourselves for other people. Brand identity may be manufactured but it is also executed with purpose and a specific direction, if done correctly. There are times when people can take themselves to seriously, but like with everything else in life, if done with balance and modesty, fashion and the brands you choose, make up a small part of how you view yourself.
“We’d like to think we’ve made some sort of meaningful mark on the city. We’re also pleased that we’re not quite satisfied with where we are. There’s always something we feel we can do better. We reckon if that feeling ever goes away, we may just stop what we’re doing. We’ve been very fortunate that there’s been a lot of good will and support extended our way and we’ve fed off that. We’d be lying if we said we knew five years ago that this is where we’d be, but also comfortable knowing that there isn’t a lot we would’ve changed along the way. It’s good to be acutely self aware of whether you’re having fun or not. If that stops, it’s probably a good time to question whether the organisation needs a change of direction.”