Lindsay Miller’s piloting skills came in handy when she was charged with creating a fashion and design hub in Dubai in just 18 months
In aerobatics, a hammerhead is a move that requires the pilot to take the plane, at full speed, into a straight vertical climb before turning it 180 degrees and plummeting directly downward.
The career of Lindsay Miller, the managing director of the new Dubai Design District (d3), seems to have followed similarly unpredictable twists and turns – which is apt given the hammerhead is the most proficient move Miller, a qualified pilot, can pull off.
But the 40-year-old mother-of-three has relied on that sense of spirit and derring-do in her current role. She has been charged with shaping a fashion and design district in the heart of Downtown Dubai to rival the likes of Brooklyn in New York and London’s Shoreditch. While they took years to develop organically, however, she had just 18 months.
“It is definitely not easy and one of the challenges we have to accept [is] a certain amount of chaos,” says Miller. “We cannot control everything. That is really where it is challenging for us. What do we control and what do we let progress organically?”
Miller has a remarkably varied CV at a relatively young age. Taking the most out of life is a skill she learned early, she says, from her fire-fighting father dragging his young family around the globe in pursuit of his passion.
It did not take long for Miller to follow suit. The Canadian’s degree in film was swiftly put to one side when she discovered her love of flight.
“I took a flight in a small acrobatic aeroplane and I loved it,” she says. “I was 23 years old and I just changed the whole plan.”
Miller quickly attained commercial multi-engine pilot and instructor licences, working as a flight instructor for Air China pilots in the process.
But when the 9/11 attacks took place in September 2001, it “changed airlines”, she says, and prompted a career change.
“The airline industry really struggled after that,” she says. “It looked like there was going to be a delay and I was just impatient.”
Miller instead set about establishing her own music video production business. In Canada, the film industry is heavily grant-based and she quickly learned how to get what she needed, she says.
She proved so successful that roles followed with the National Film Board of Canada and Toronto International Film Festival. Miller says those jobs gave her a sound footing in industry development, which came in handy when she joined Tecom Investments upon migrating back to the Middle East, where she had lived as a young girl, although in Libya rather than Dubai.
Having spent summers visiting the city as a university student, she says: “I came full circle back to Dubai, where I still had family. The purpose was really to look at developing the media industry here, which I was very passionate about. I felt if it could be done right, it could really shape society.”
After successfully overseeing the launch of Dubai’s Internet City and Media City, Miller was a natural choice for the ambitious task of creating an organic design district to rival New York’s Brooklyn and London’s Shoreditch – and quickly.
But she was not sure she even wanted the job initially. Miller says she did not have confidence the region was ready for a dedicated fashion and design industry in mid-recession 2009. Several years later, when the idea was back on the table, everything had changed.
“When we started looking in 2012, these industries had green shoots already,” she says. “We started to see design was really cross-pollinating with fashion and there was a great opportunity to bring it all together.”
In the course of her research, Miller discovered a thriving local scene with designers like Latifa Saeed and Khalid Shafar working quietly in parts of Dubai. But she still needed to be coerced into the role.
“I did not put my hand up,” she says. “I had just had a baby and felt it was such a high stakes project that it would take a massive commitment. It did but it has been well worth it.”
In less than two years, Miller has managed to drum up a huge amount of support and buzz both locally and internationally for the multi-million dollar d3, set to house 10,000 people by the end of the year. Last October, Tecom announced d3 would be one of the subsidiaries to benefit from a $1.23 billion investment.
With more than 200 licences already granted for companies to set up in the design quarter, which supports both free zone and onshore licences, Miller says a number of top international labels are looking to open headquarters, with the likes of Hugo Boss and La Perla already on board. There have been more than 3,500 expressions of interest and when the first four of 11 buildings were handed over in mid-March, they were already 87 per cent full.
Miller says d3, which has had huge government backing, will be the catalyst to develop the “very important design movement taking place within the region” – on a par, she says, with the impact of the early 20th century Bauhaus movement in Germany or the 1930s Harlem Renaissance in the US.
“I really see something of that scale is going to happen,” she says. “If you see what is going on with the abaya, 10 years ago it was something people wore from a certain culture but no one else would wear it unless they had to. Now people are doing interesting things with it, regardless of culture and religion.”
The abaya will reach “iconographic status internationally”, she says. She expects the equivalent in the design world, too, thanks to the space d3 will provide, with architects working seamlessly in the fashion world and vice versa, big international brands discovering small local designers and tourists accessing genuine innovation.
But while an area like Shoreditch developed organically over decades, can Miller really create something similar – or better – in just 18 months?
Enthusiasm and government support exists in spades, she says. Although Miller will not disclose rental costs, she says they span the spectrum and Tecom is guaranteeing market competitiveness.
And while she says she has learned a lot from previous Tecom ventures, her time in aviation has proved invaluable.
“Being a flight instructor is about breaking down an activity to its most critical components and making sure people are always following procedures,” she says. “This can seem so messy when you are going fast. A lot of times we take a step back and [review].”
So does d3 have the impetus to really take off?
“It is a lot of pressure but the support is there from the community, the government and the private sector. I really cannot ask for more. It seems like a recipe for something really interesting.”