Meet the woman documenting Saudi Arabia’s history though its clothes

Her love for preserving traditions is evident in her continuous studies and efforts not only to preserve but to educate the younger generation about the importance of keeping traditional clothing alive. (Shutterstock)
Updated 06 March 2018
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Meet the woman documenting Saudi Arabia’s history though its clothes

JEDDAH: We all look to our past for answers as to who we are as Arabs, as Saudis. How we came to be. Where our families originated from and what makes us significant from others around us. We seek our elders and ask questions, where they lived, how they dressed, what traditions arose in their time and what traditions were inherited from their forefathers. Many of the answers we want are no longer applicable in modern times, but it is undoubtedly what makes us who we are today.
Of our many Saudi traditions, its diversity is what is striking. Every region has its own taste and beauty all meshed into one big melting pot that is the Saudi Arabia we know now. Of the many beautiful aspects that make up the Kingdom, clothing has to be the most noteworthy.
Word of mouth was and is still one of the best ways to learn of a certain past event, tradition or social aspect, but documenting it is a much bigger task. One of the first Saudi females to do so is Dr. Laila Al-Al-Bassam.
Her love for traditional wear led her to become the first to study the heritage of traditional Arab costume and textiles in Saudi Arabia. Her love for preserving traditions is evident in her continuous studies and efforts not only to preserve but to educate the younger generation about the importance of keeping our traditional clothing alive.
I met Al-Bassam a year and a half ago through a mutual friend. I shared her love for traditional clothing and grew a mutual respect for our respected heritages. She found how much I knew of my Hijazi heritage, more specifically that of Makkah and Al-Madinah, where my family originates. Al-Bassam granted Arab News an exclusive interview about her lifelong work in preserving traditional Saudi costumes.
Her beginnings in the field started very early on. She recalls her mother folding her grandmother’s dresses in a special violet and crimson chest, taking special care in the way she placed them inside. As a young girl, she visited Unaizah in Al-Qassim region, where her family originates, and bought her first traditional costume.
“Al taly” is a tulle dress or thawb adorned by small rectangular shaped beads creating geometric designs in lavish floral and leaf motifs concentrated mostly at the bodice. It was the first dress I bought from the monthly pocket money I saved up in middle school. It’s one that became a part of my ever-growing collection thereafter,” Al-Bassam explained.
“The dress holds a special place in my heart as I inherited a similar one that my late aunt passed down to me. My admiration for the traditional ways of my region grew and I even decided to wear a traditional wedding dress on my wedding night.”
Like many Saudis of her time, she became an educator. Al-Bassam received her BA in home economics and in 1979 was teaching at the Girls’ College of Education in Riyadh. She obtained her MA in 1983 and, soon after, her PhD in 1988. Both were in clothing and textiles from the Girls’ College of Education.
In 1995 she became an associate professor in the department of home economics at the same college, where she successfully incorporated the subject of traditional Saudi clothing in the study plans of the department, in addition to methods of decorative embroidery. Neither subject is complete without the other.
Decorative embroidery well-defined each region as its own. It signified one tribe from another as well. The importance of these subjects can’t be emphasized enough. They are the means of allowing a younger generation to get a glimpse of and understand the history of our culture and heritage.
“A lot of people tend to forget that traditional clothes were mainly made, decorated and embellished by women,” Al-Bassam said. “They were the backbone to their families alongside their spouses. Though many of the garments were for versatile use due to difficult environments and living conditions in many regions, they still created something beautiful.
“Whether it was a simple embroidered sleeve or a feminine shaped design, they used their environments as their muse and canvas, resulting in the many designs we have now for men and women. There’s more to it than just a dress or miqta’a or diglah. There’s a story behind the designs.”
Al-Bassam’s work in the educational field and dedication to the many preservation projects for traditional clothing has gained her recognition. As one of the most influential and important researchers in her field, she is a member of many national and international associations such as the Committee on Heritage in Al Nahda Women’s Welfare Association, the Advisory Committee in the National Museum, the Gulf Council Committee, the Textile Museum in Washington, DC, and of the National Heritage Society and more.
She believes that it is essential to collect, record and document the traditional costumes of the Kingdom. With the discovery of oil in the past century, these styles are disappearing and she has been on the move to many regions around the country, conducted questionnaires, collected samples, managed meetings with locals and listened to the stories as well as learning the proper manner of designing these clothes in detail. They signify the Saudi culture that is moving into modernity, fast.
“Each region has its own take on their costumes. The distinct features of the Arab garments can be found in their stitching, the fabrics, their embroidery, jewelry, accessories and the choice of color. You can know a lot through these features, which culture they were influenced by, and you can differentiate between each tribe’s costume, for example, through these features,” said Al-Bassam.
“I believe that with the many efforts around the country to revive its traditions through festivals and events like Janadriyah, the younger generation will get a good glimpse of how our men and women dressed in the past.”
Al-Bassam was rewarded by the King Salman Prize of Excellence for Research and Studies on the Arabian Peninsula History, and recognized as the first Saudi woman to have studied the heritage of traditional Arab costumes and textiles in Saudi Arabia. She’s currently in the process of publishing a number of books on the subject.
“It’s important that I share my knowledge with everyone, to raise awareness of the importance of preserving our beautiful heritage.”


No hard feelings: Paris fashion star Abloh reaches out to Kanye West

The relationship between West and Abloh has been tested after the later was named head of menswear at Louis Vuitton in March. (AFP)
Updated 19 June 2018
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No hard feelings: Paris fashion star Abloh reaches out to Kanye West

  • Abloh will show his own Off-White label in Paris Wednesday before making his debut bow with the world’s biggest luxury brand on Thursday
  • Abloh grew up in Illinois where his seamstress mother taught him her trade as he studied engineering and later architecture. He has made it clear his clothes will be much more street

PARIS: Virgil Abloh paid tribute to his friend and longtime collaborator Kanye West as the US designer took star billing as Paris men’s fashion week began Tuesday.
Relations between the pair have been tested since Abloh was named head of menswear at Louis Vuitton in March, with the rapper saying it was “hurtful” to lose his muse and erstwhile artistic director.
West has made no secret of his own ambitions to lead a major luxury brand as a designer, and revealed last month that he had also once been in talks with Louis Vuitton’s owner, French fashion magnate Bernard Arnault.
Abloh — the son of Ghanaian immigrants — will show his own Off-White label in Paris Wednesday before making his debut bow with the world’s biggest luxury brand on Thursday.
As he put the finishing touches to his collections he posted a photo of Kanye West to his 2.3 million Instagram followers with legend, “The architect of it all.”
West’s wife Kim Kardashian responded with emojis of a heart and two fires to signal her approval. The rapper — who has his own Yeezy line for Adidas — remained silent.
But he told US radio star Charlamagne tha God in a wide-ranging interview last month that there were no hard feelings.
“These things are hurtful when you are working with a talent like... Virgil and somebody comes through and says ‘Bam! I am going to take Virgil.’
“There is some validation in that someone that I came up with is now the head (of menswear) of Louis Vuitton,” West added.
Abloh, 38, is only the second black man to rise to the top of a big Paris fashion house, with French designer Olivier Rousteing responsible for both Balmain’s men and women’s lines.
As well as his nod to his former employer, Abloh dropped hints on social media that he was about to give the aristocratic Vuitton label a strong dose of black empowerment and streetwear style.
Vuitton’s previous designer, Briton Kim Jones — who makes his own debut for Dior Homme on Saturday — often referenced British colonial and safari chic in his clothes.
Abloh grew up in Illinois where his seamstress mother taught him her trade as he studied engineering and later architecture. He has made it clear his clothes will be much more street.
He posted films on Instagram of cotton plants and ceramic neck chains, in what could be seen as references to slavery, as well as a Louis Vuitton record box inspired by hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash, “where you can put your coat in while DJing, shielding it from smoky clubs and spilled drinks.”
Abloh had worked hand in glove with West for more than 15 years. They designed clothes together on Photoshop and were $500-a-month interns under Karl Lagerfeld at Fendi in Rome in 2009 even though the rapper already had a string of Grammy awards under his belt.
West said that he only found out about Abloh taking over at Vuitton as the appointment was announced in March. “He (Abloh) made the call two minutes before it hit the Internet... He had told me he was looking at Versace too... but he knew he was going to Louis Vuitton,” he added.
West admitted days later in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter that the news had weighed on him. “It’s not bad or good,” he said.
Abloh has built up a celebrity following at Off-White with high-profile collaborations with Nike, Jimmy Choo and Moncler. Such has been the buzz that fashionistas jostled each other to get into his show in Paris last March.
Not everyone, however, is sold on streetwear’s inexorable rise. New York Times critic Guy Trebay said a “lot of what turns up on the runways lately looks less designed than crowdsourced.”
The young German and Swedish brands CMMN SWDN and Gmbh kicked fashion week off on Tuesday evening after a dance show by choreographer Mathilde Monnier inspired by shoemaker J.M. Weston.
French label Pigalle also tried to rethink the catwalk by presenting its new collection during an hour-long music and dance show at one of the French capital’s most prestigious concert halls.