Urban Flair: Sole DXB Partners Rajat Malhotra, Joshua Cox, And Hussain Moloobhoy Rajat Malhotra, Joshua Cox, and Hussain Moloobhoy, share what it takes to launch (and grow) Sole DXB, a regional festival for fashion, culture, art and design.
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For something that was started out in 2010 by a group of friends trying to find and build a community around their shared interests in Dubai, it's fair to say that Sole DXB has come a long way since then- it's evolved from its beginnings as an experimental, open event where people could come together to talk about urban streetwear, hip-hop culture, and more, to becoming an annual festival which, while still doing all of the things it started out with, now includes everything from live music to art installations to film screenings, and much, much more.
With more than 25,000 people coming through Sole DXB's doors last year, this year's instalment of what has been billed "the premier culture + lifestyle festival" looks set for an even bigger impact this time around, with the three-day event, running from December 5-7, 2019 with an all-pervading Jamaican theme for its agenda, set to feature performances by heavyweight names like Wu-Tang Clan, Black Star, Burna Boy, Wiley, and several others.
At this point, one could be wondering about how this event got to where it is today, and perhaps the answer to that lies in the very entrepreneurial manner in which Sole DXB Partners Joshua Cox, Rajat Malhotra, and Hussain Moloobhoy got together to build it in the first place in 2010. "When we started, no one knew what a sneakerhead was," Cox remembers. "You were weird if you were into footwear, and if you were into hip-hop, it wasn't really that accepted. Brands didn't necessarily want to be associated to it. Fast forward to today, where it's a multi-billion dollar industry, everyone wants a piece of it."
As Cox notes, the landscape in which Sole DXB operates in today is a far cry from what it was when the event first launched. The men who lead Sole DXB today had noted a lack of creative outlets or spaces in Dubai where they could talk and meet with like-minded people who shared their interests in, say, sneakers or hip-hop, and, as Cox recalls, they went from complaining about it, to thinking, well, why don't they do something about it. That's how a Facebook Group page for Sole DXB came to be in its early days, and slowly but surely, as it grew, an event started to get organized around its central ethos. "We started to put together a show," Cox says. "And the first event was free- the only prerequisite was [you had] to wear your best kicks."
With the conversation thus being centered on sneaker culture, the team also went around looking for brands in this space to collaborate with for the event. "There were collectively about seven or eight brands that came on board in that first year," Moloobhoy remembers "But the pitch to them was that it's not a chance [for them] to shove marketing down anyone's throats- [it was to] just come and connect with an audience."
With this kind of mindset pervading the event's agenda, Sole DXB found itself becoming a very community-centered initiative, and as such, it got a bigger response that it had anticipated. "I think in our first year, we were expecting 300-400 people, maybe," Cox says. "It was in thejamjar here in Al Quoz, so, not a massive space. And we had over a 1,000 people turn up, and the event was packed, with people spilling out onto the streets."
Sole DXB 2016
Besides setting the tone for the different iterations of Sole DXB that have followed since, the overwhelmingly positive feedback that first instalment of the event received made the team behind it realize that they had started something that could become a viable business enterprise as well.
"We started it with passion, but it was very quickly that we realized we were onto something," Cox explains. "For most creatives, our dream is to be able to make a living doing what you love. And we are into sneakers and footwear, but beyond that, into the culture as a whole. So just being able to create some sort of an ecosystem where we can flex our creative muscles in this space was really kind of the mandate of what we were driving towards. But we also knew, we weren't in a buyer's market. We knew that our approach had to be different."
And to make Sole DXB stand out, the team was clear that its offerings had to be driven by their consumers. "Before you start charging for something, you need to know who your audience is, and then, what are you selling," Malhotra explains. "You know, it really was an experiment in the space of, say, we think there's other people here like us, so, what are they wearing? What are they listening to? How are they showing up? And if you look where the festival is today, I think it's a very deliberate evolution over that period of time, like really making it strong, while also not making it inaccessible."
Adidas Nite Jogger launch party at Sole DXB
"Not trying to price above the market, even if we think our content sits in a particular space. When we go into a new space, like we did in Cape Town earlier this year, we didn't try and go in, like, we're Sole, and we're going to start with 600 people. Instead, we said we're going to host a party. And the party is free. We want to meet the community, like, come out, and let's again find out who these people are. So, it was a deliberate process, where we had the comfort of doing this on the side for a while, where it wasn't snowed under, or crushed creatively by the commercial pressures of any business."
Now, it does seem like the Sole DXB team's modus operandi has worked out well- not only does the brand have a significant reach and pull within the creative community of the region, it's also managed to snap up great commercial partnerships along the way as well. This year's edition of the event has brands like Cadillac, Burberry, Farfetch, Levi's and several others participating in it, with them making use of everything from large activations to exclusive retail experiences to connect with the audience at Sole DXB. In terms of how the team goes about making decisions on which brands to collaborate with, while also making sure that Sole DXB's focus on its attendees is not lost, Malhotra says that they are very insistent on sticking to the values and beliefs with which they kicked off this enterprise in the first place.
"We're trying our best to program authentically- we're not coming out and saying, we think this is popular, let's top that in there," he says. "It's like, we actually think that's quite cool, and by sticking to what we actually like, in terms of taste, you know, rightly or wrongly, at least we're being genuine about it. We're not bringing cynicism into the equation, and brands do recognize that. While we can have a tendency to be seen as, sometimes, at the beginning, difficult to work with, once things start rolling between us with brands or anyone that wants to participate, we stay together. Like, we stick together as a unit. As long as we agree on, going in, what the standards are, things run pretty well."
At the same time, there's also the camaraderie between the partners that's proved to be a huge advantage for Sole DXB. "Sole wouldn't be what it is today unless there was a huge amount of respect that we had for each other," Moloobhoy reveals. "And we challenge each other, but in the best of ways- that's what helps elevates this, and keeps it as fresh."
As for where Sole DXB is headed, it seems to be a given that Cox, Malhotra, and Moloobhoy work with the mindset that the next edition of Sole DXB has to be a better version of its current state. The team is also exploring into how the Sole DXB model could be applied in locations other than Dubai, whereby they use their expertise and learning from here to boost another creative ecosystem. "I hope that we can look at this five years from now, and be, like, we are this region's chief cultural expert," Malhotra says.
"Like, going into another market, where people are like, wow, that's Sole from Dubai that's coming out, and doing this." But, once again, even when it comes to growth, the team is clear that they are not going to do so by compromising on the quality that Sole DXB stands for. "We're not the type of people that necessarily believe that you need to be in 20 or 30 markets for this to work the way it works," Malhotra says. "There's ways to make this richer and more profitable, without having to take everything that's on the table." As for what we can expect in a few years from the brand, one has to admire the team's mindfulness to stay atop of their inadequacies. "It's our job to try to remain self-aware of what our challenges are, and which areas we might not be the strongest," Malhotra says.
Sole DXB 2016
"But all that being said, and all things being equal, like, we are talking about it internally on how to improve those things, how to address those things. It's our 10-year anniversary in 2021, and everything is leading up to what that's going to be. In five years, we have to be the number one festival in the world. And that's not about having 200,000 people at the door- it's that if you're in the space of contemporary culture, you pick up the phone to your agent, and say, how do I get a gig at Sole DXB? If I'm a brand, it's like, I want to show at Sole DXB. Our creative capital needs to be unmatched. And we think we can do it. We really do. I think there's a few things that need to come together, but I think we have the energy to get there."
THE EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: SOLE DXB
JOSHUA COX / PARTNER AND DESIGN DIRECTOR
As Design Director at Sole DXB, with a global outlook on street culture, Josh established Sole DXB to create a platform to help revive culture and inspire the urban fashion industry in the region. He completed his Bachelors of Design in Australia, with a specialization in product design. Being Dubai-based for 25 years, his craft is heavily influenced by his upbringing, which took place amidst the urban community of Dubai's artists, musicians, DJs, basketball, and hip hop. Birthed through Sole DXB, Joshua's dedication to parallel the global narrative of street culture with the dialogue happening in the region has placed Dubai as both a celebrator and contributor in the conversation. He is also the co-founder of contemporary fashion brand, Haraamis, with partner Hussain Moloobhoy, launched in 2016.
HUSSAIN MOLOOBHOY/ PARTNER AND CREATIVE DIRECTOR
Having graduated from the London Institute of Art and Design, Hussain started his creative career at Saatchi's London office where he spent four years. In 2006, he made the move to the Middle East, joining Saatchi & Saatchi Dubai as Creative Director. In 2010, Hussain took a sabbatical to explore the global design and fashion industries. His ambition to start an agency was realized in 2012 with the launch of Moloobhoy & Brown, an awardwinning independent design and brand communication studio. Set out to make an unparalleled mark on the landscape of Dubai since founding M&B and Sole DXB, he now sits as their Creative Director. He is also the co-founder of contemporary fashion brand, Haraamis, with partner Joshua Cox, launched in 2016.
RAJAT MALHOTRA / PARTNER
A graduate of NYU, Rajat settled in Dubai after having lived in Los Angeles, Kuwait, India, and New York City. In 2004, he established a media and telecom business, for which he served as CEO for eight years. Rajat has previously partnered with Third Line Gallery's co-founder Sunny Rahbar on a collaborative project, hosting multiple curated exhibitions with NYC gallerist Candice Madey, founder of On Stellar Rays. More recently, Rajat has built a recording studio in Dubai, as a place for visiting artists to create and connect. He is also the co-founder of the card game, Panda, and has been serving as a partner in Sole DXB since 2013.