Lifestyle Discoveries at Expo 2020 (Oct ’21 – Mar ’22)

dubai skyline expo 2020

Wide-eyed, craning my neck to take in imaginative structures, filled with anticipation, I entered the World Expo (Expo 2020) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). Every five years, “the world comes together to explore solutions to pressing challenges by offering a journey through universal themes and immersive activities.”(What is an Expo?) Since 1851, Expos (officially known as International Registered Exhibitions) have been celebrating the possibilities found through collaboration. At Expo 2020 (held from 1 October 2021 – 31 March 2022), the ideas on display all harkened back to the belief that when we use technology to come together for innovation, the possibilities are endless.

Dubai felt like the perfect setting to examine the future. With beautiful buildings towering, just riding at the front of the metro felt close to sci-fi. Passing the domed centerpiece of this year’s Expo, various eye-catching architecture unfolded. About half the participating countries opted to build their own ornate pavilion. Each representing specific visions or aspects of their culture, noted my guide, Michael Richardson, whose company (Jacobs Engineering) managed the construction of Expo 2020.

Al Wasl Plaza at the center of Expo 2020 designed by Gordon Gill design partner at Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture
Al Wasl Plaza at the center of Expo 2020 designed by Gordon Gill design partner at Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

The Pavilions

The host country, UAE, had a striking white pavilion meant to emulate the wings of a falcon. A crowd circled Germany’s brutalist structure. Sweden evoked a forest while Brazil straddled a river. Russia chose a futuristic rainbow orb with a rooftop caviar bar. Saudi Arabia was angular and mirrored; children of every nationality played in a water feature while parents filmed on iPhones. The list of impressive architecture goes on. Even the countries located in the Expo’s prefab structures had packed their small spaces. Showcasing a wealth of information and striking examples of national products, artwork, and dress.  

Each structure beckoned. The names alone of far-off places offered promises of discovery. Inspiring sculptures, water features, and a garden in the sky lined the paths. Making a mental map of everything appealing, we walked down an avenue in the Sustainability District. Here showcased “some of the world’s most advanced technology in action, what countries are doing to champion sustainability, and . . . how the human race can enjoy living in harmony with nature in a high-tech future.” (Expo2020

The Women’s Pavilion

Located at the heart of the Sustainability District, we entered the Women’s Pavilion. Like most pavilions, the Women’s Pavilion began with a short video. In each, these videos set the stage for what visitors would experience next. All while drawing you into an ever deeper layer of collective imagination and hope. Here, a series of children from around the world spoke to what they viewed as equality. The innocence and similarities in their answers underscored the truth that we are born for better than society has given us. 

The exhibits in the pavilion were set up to celebrate progress while revealing the barriers women must overcome. The combination made the exhibit inspiring while showing how we can lift one another up.

A 3D-printed concrete tree, weighing 3.5 tons at the center of the Solutions room in the Women's Pavilion
A 3D-printed concrete tree, weighing 3.5 tons at the center of the Solutions room in the Women’s Pavilion

Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s photo appeared next to images of suffragettes showcasing women’s continual struggle for equal rights. Scientists like Marie Curie were featured with Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak who brought the Arabian Oryx, the UAE’s national animal, back from the edge of extinction. And, Jeanne Toussaint was celebrated as a revolutionary designer and businesswoman. The first woman to become creative director of a jewelry house and the creative mind behind Cartier’s legendary Panthere creations. (Women’s Pavilion Expo 2020)

The Female Touch

Seeing the combined achievements of women from around the world—all different backgrounds—displayed together highlighted our shared struggles. And how acknowledging the struggles of one woman helps us understand the struggles of all women.

Income inequality exhibit at the Women's Pavilion expo 2020
In the Women’s Pavilion, an exhibit illustrates the income inequality women face around the globe – highlighting the uptick in unpaid care work in light of the pandemic.

This pavilion only began to scratch the surface of the many contributions women make. Other pavilions also featured women’s contributions woven into their displays. Some countries took a deep dive into innovative advances and the minds behind them. While others explored the country’s history, nature, and culture.

koket reve gold and black round flower mirror

Lifestyle at the Expo 

Whether traditional or modern, fashion was a cultural aspect that almost all pavilions included in some way. In the Italy pavilion, an enthusiastic man in a white ensemble set off by a D&G belt with Ferragamo shoes greeted us. In the France pavilion, guides wore head to toe Lacoste. Collaborating with “Tanagra the Middle East’s destination for luxury lifestyle,” France showcased “creations from the three legendary Maisons: Baccarat, Bernardaud, and Christofle,” and projected images onto plates laid out on an ornately set table. (CCI France UAE)

Like this display, we walked past displays of innovative farming techniques. And a 3-D printed copy of Michelangelo’s David in the Italy pavilion. Each showcasing how design and science are not mutually exclusive.  Fashion requires innovation and increased sustainability as much as any other part of our lives.  

As I toured other pavilions, the start-ups driving fashion forward caught my eye. Countries far from fashion capitals were spearheading innovative approaches to manufacturing materials.  

Emirati Design Platform

I’ve heard new cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi described as having borrowed culture. I certainly felt that way. Every western luxury brand from Tiffany to Gucci to Porsche is readily available. We passed dozens of Starbucks and drank Costa coffee at the Expo. In reflecting on the trip, I feel it is arrogant to look down on a place for “borrowing culture.” We happened to be in Dubai during the city’s 50th anniversary—what must it have been like to be in the US just 50 years after our founding? How many cultures do we routinely “borrow?”

Near the UAE pavilion, which displayed elements of traditional Emirati culture from falconry to tea and traditional weaving, was the Emirati Design Platform. The platform featured local designers and or designers who honed their craft in and were inspired by the UAE and neighboring areas.

Of the unique ceramics and jewelry featured, the Telli Clutch stood out to me most. Telli is a traditional technique using braided metallic threads to embellish clothing. It takes an experienced craftswoman about a month to create the clutch. Resulting in an extremely elegant and unique appearance that could set off any evening gown. Dubai is overwhelming with its futuristic buildings, but in the Emirati Design Platform, I realized an underpinning of the culture was an appreciation for deliberate design. 

emirati design expo 2020 telli clutch purse
Telli Clutches made using the traditional telli technique of using braided metallic threads showcased at the Emirati Design Platform at Expo 2020


In addition to chocolate, Belgium offered options for accessorizing yourself and your home. Baobab has brought luxury to finely crafted candles. Each made so that burning them presents no risk to the environment or your health. All the materials are sourced and handcrafted in Europe. The glass is hand-blown in Poland, and some of the limited-edition candles are even upholstered with Italian leather. 

In her Brussels studio, Clio Goldbrenner has crafted timeless quality leatherware for 10 years. She combines original and contemporary materials to make a statement with accessories. The brand also includes multi-functional and practical bags—meaning there’s a design for every occasion.  

cleo goldbrenner bag belgium pavilion expo 2020 dubai
Leather accessories by Cleo Goldbrenner at the Belgium Pavilion at Expo 2020


Walking through the unassuming prefab structures most of the smaller countries inhabited, two-story high-fashion images drew me into the Botswana pavilion. Immediately, racks of handmade clothing in the corner devoted to the gift shop drew my attention. There was a small exhibit dedicated to jewelry from House of Divinity, an ethical brand focused on bespoke handcrafted pieces marrying contemporary designs and traditional African influences. In an adjacent display, I found Nako Timepieces, which also focus on highlighting “proudly African” designs.

As Aja Barber notes, there are 54 countries on the African continent, yet it’s often overlooked when it comes to fashion. (Consumed, The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism, 51) She goes on to explain, “the current fashion system prioritizes American and European designers.” (Consumed, 51)

Large, high-fashion images outside of the Botswana Pavilion at expo 2020
Large, high-fashion images outside of the Botswana Pavilion

Several African pavilions highlighted contributions to design proving that there’s more beauty than marketing exposes us to. Nigeria listed designers who have been worn by the likes of Michelle Obama and Lupita N’yongo while Sudan’s shop featured exquisitely crafted leather goods.


The Poland pavilion featured uniquely designed decor and ceramics certainly alluding to traditional pottery. However, two skincare brands featured in the exhibit stood out. Kryana places an emphasis on nature with its line of vegan-certified products packaged for minimal waste. Their products are made from natural ingredients with the intention that natural ingredients are best for personal beauty and the Earth. Yonelle focused on innovation for anti-aging. Their hallmark is the Skin Penetration Revolution. A technique that allows the anti-aging ingredients to break through the epidermis barrier in order to work effectively.  


Drawing inspiration from Singapore, Onlewo uses pattern design to tell stories. And to “celebrate meaningful local narratives through patterns and colors.” (Singapore Pavilion Expo 2020) Onlewo began pattern making with wallpaper but has since expanded to upholstery, apparel fabric, accessories, and decor. In the Singapore pavilion, a scarf with a pattern reminiscent of elements of the Peranakan culture reflecting wealth and good fortune caught my eye. Onlewo found many of the significant cultural elements featured by scouring black and white family photographs at the Singapore Peranakan Museum.  

dry mist fans at singapore pavilion expo 2020
Walking around the upper levels of the Singapore Pavilion covered in plants, strategically placed misting fans showcase innovative, energy-efficient approaches to keeping crowds cool. Known as “dry mist,” high-pressure is used to create ultra-fine droplets with adjustable outputs to minimize energy use. With the targeting cooling, visitors feel 6 – 10 degrees cooler.


Singapore was among several pavilions featuring traditional design in fashion. Also of note, Peru featured traditional weaving techniques using high-quality fibers and elaborate designs, which are now being incorporated into high fashion. Peru is also exploring innovative methods (with a nod to pre-colonial techniques) for developing materials like vegan leather made from microorganisms or sustainable leather from fish skin.


Patricia Urquiola is pioneering more sustainable furniture design with the Nuez Lounge BIO. This chair is made from a natural thermopolymer which is biodegradable and compostable. It is constructed with the intent for all pieces (shell, foam, fabric, and base) to be separated and repurposed at the end of their life. Streamlined appearance proves that sustainable design can be aesthetically pleasing while laying out a path for anticipating an object’s next life at its inception.


Ideal of Sweden embeds sustainability into core operations and every aspect of their structure and culture. With a four-pillar sustainability strategy (each pillar supported by company-wide policies and initiatives), Ideal of Sweden aimed to drive consumption towards greater sustainability. As a “lifestyle brand for cellphone accessories,” their products are effortlessly interchangeable with a simple magnetic click, which allows you to create perfect matches. They also offer a range of other accessories and bags. It was the bags that first caught my eye with their effortless modern design.

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Small and vibrant, the Vietnam pavilion was a wealth of information. Several fashion-based innovations caught my eye. Next to a display of traditional dress hung a silk scarf made by De Silk. By “blending traditional silk weaving and modern digital applications from design printing to creative visually surprising artworks,” De Silk emphasizes tradition while driving into the future. The displayed scarf is part of a collection titled, “Lotus,” Vietnam’s national flower. The scarf’s pattern “is reminiscent of lotus petals rising from the mud like the Vietnamese people always overcome adversity and leads to a better future. . . Natural silk provides a sheen and smooth finish and digital printing with millions of millions of pixels delivers delicate nuances and rich colors.” (Vietnam Pavilion, Expo 2020)

expo 2020 dubai Lanterns evoking a streetscape in the Vietnam Pavilion
Lanterns evoking a streetscape in the Vietnam Pavilion

Other companies featured, including TomTex and Rens Original, have developed sustainable solutions to sourcing materials. Using waste from the shell-seafood industry, which wastes literally tons of shells every year, TomTex created a biodegradable and plastic-free bioleather. TomTex was a 2021 finalist for an LVMH Innovation Award for sustainability. Rens Original has developed 100% waterproof, ultralight, fast-drying, antibacterial, and odeon-proof material for sneakers using sustainable coffee materials.   

With innovations like these, Vietnam is making strides in the goal to “transition from manufacturing and assembly to proactive innovation, design, and production of Vietnamese digital technology products.” As part of the ‘Make in Việt Nam’ strategy these products “will help Vietnam improve growth quality, build an autonomous economy and involve more deeply in the global value chain, realizing Vietnam’s goal to become an industrialized country.” By combining fashion and technology, the resulting message becomes stronger with a deeper impact on societal transformation.

Incorporating Innovation  

Innovative fashion offers a route to incorporating the beauty of innovation into daily life. As Alain de Botton noted, “a dominant urge on encountering beauty is to wish to hold onto it, to possess it.” (The Art of Travel, 214).  We found beauty in the surrounding desert dunes and state-of-the-art structures. The tiniest details of the Expo were thoughtfully displayed. Seeing multi-national crowds transcend stereotypes to strive for the greater good evoked beautiful emotions; perhaps that’s why the fashions stood out to me.

Desert dunes outside of Dubai
Desert dunes outside of Dubai

Sometimes, our purchasing decisions are how we drive progress. To do so we must be able to look for innovation and support it beyond the mainstream. The Expo opened the door to more transformational ideas than I could have imagined in a lifetime. If you’re in Dubai before the end of March, stroll through the pavilions, catch a show on the main stage, or see who is speaking at the Women’s Pavilion. And if you don’t get a chance to visit in person I hope this article gave you a small taste!

Words & Photos by Emma Voigt

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