LONDON: For Saudi fashion designer Mohammed Khoja, creating clothes is an act of self-expression that is as much about liberty as about art and style.
“There’s a lot of freedom and empowerment in the concept of being able to translate your ideas into reality and create something out of nothing… that’s why I enjoy it so much,” he said.
This scope for creativity has never felt more palpable than now in Saudi Arabia as the country prepares to host its inaugural Arab Fashion Week next month, giving local designers a chance to showcase collections to a global audience.
Arwa Al-Banawi, a Saudi designer who regularly exhibits at fashion weeks overseas, said she can’t wait to see her work on a Saudi catwalk.
“Saudi Arabia is becoming more and more developed and I’m seeing a lot of Saudi designers following their dreams. It’s a very special time for female empowerment and also for the world to see the beautiful creative talent in our country.”
Speaking to Arab News in London last month, Princess Noura Bint Faisal, honorary president of the Arab Fashion Council (AFC), said the event would be a chance for many Saudi designers to “showcase their world to the world.”
“Arwa Al-Banawi is one of those designers who has so much potential. I can’t wait for her to show her work in Riyadh… I want all Saudi designers to be able to do that.”
Princess Noura added the event would be “truly international”. “Of course we have a lot of Arab designers but the doors are open for anyone to come.”
With the market for luxury brands well established in the Kingdom, some of the biggest names in international fashion have RSVP’d. Italian fashion house Roberto Cavalli, French couturier Jean-Paul Gaultier, British brand Ralph & Russo and Russian designer Yulia Yanina, have all confirmed attendance, as has Harvey Nichols, which is hosting the trunk shows with the Arab Fashion Council (AFC).
Attendees can look forward to an eclectic array of designs reflecting the cosmopolitan character of Arab style.
“The mentality of the Kingdom as a whole, is opening up to more public platforms; and vice versa: we are seeing modest wear on mainstream catwalks and an increased interest in Arab designers, especially on the red carpet,” said Marriam Mossalli, Saudi fashion editor and founder of luxury consulting firm Niche Arabia.
Modest fashion, a trend that that hovered at the edges of international catwalks for several seasons before bursting into designer collections over the last year, will certainly have a presence, but while global fashion houses from Mango to Gucci are embracing loose lines and lower hems, the AFC is cultivating a more diverse outlook.
“Fashion is about freedom. It’s a choice,” Princess Noura said. “Women can wear whatever they want, there are no boundaries.”
Jacob Abrian, AFC founder and chief executive, who has led five Arab Fashion Weeks in Dubai, said there is a lot more to Middle East fashions than modest attire. “I don’t believe modest fashion is the right branding for the Arab world as a land of opportunities and investment.
“It’s a choice for a lady if she wants to dress modestly or not,” he added.
While the curators of Saudi Arabia’s emerging fashion industry are keen to avoid sartorial stereotypes, next week’s shows will be a chance to dispel some of the myths surrounding female fashions in the Kingdom.
“With the exposure of the Saudi market and this event, I think people will start to understand (modest fashion) better,” Princess Noura said.
Describing modest attire as “truly liberating,” Alia Khan, chairwoman of the Islamic Fashion and Design Council, said that fashion “has always been a soft way to break down socio-political issues and barriers.”
The Saudi fashion sector is entering an exciting period of evolution, she continued. “It’s a very important market and I don’t think we’ve even begun to understand the level of talent that comes from the Kingdom.”
“Whereas before there were more restrictions and guidelines, now they are going to start showing you a little more of the vast talent and range of skill they have, while staying within the bounds of what’s culturally acceptable.”
For Hatem Alakeel, a designer based between Saudi Arabia and Dubai who set up the brand Toby by Hatem Alakeel: “Fashion is a great example of where we are and of the times.”
Emphasizing the value of nurturing the arts and supporting young talent, he said: “Not everyone is academic but many people are creative. It’s important that the creative can turn their talent into an industry creating opportunity, jobs and recognition.”
The AFC, which launched its regional office in Riyadh last December, plans to position Saudi Arabia as a hub for an emerging regional fashion industry. It recently forged an alliance with the British Fashion Council to provide support in establishing a sustainable infrastructure for the industry in the Middle East.
Key to this is catering to a “more diversified market,” Princess Noura said. “We are welcoming any brands, whether it’s high-end couture, ready-to-wear... we want to create a hub for all these people to come to Saudi Arabia.”
In the past, Arab fashion output has been characterised by couture, with the glittering gowns of Elie Saab, Reem Acra and Zuhair Murad familiar features on the catwalks of London, Paris and Milan.
More recently, a push to promote upcoming talent has opened the way for a more varied Middle East style set, bringing smaller brands to the fore. Regional platforms such as Dubai Design District and Fashion Forward provide an outlet for local designers to launch their careers and gain global recognition.
Saudi designers have been gaining momentum on regional and international catwalks but many hope this month’s Arab Fashion Week will pioneer more opportunities to display their designs and build their brands on home soil.
“There’s an ever-growing appreciation in Saudi society for fashion,” Khoja said, describing the “Creativity and depth within the Saudi aesthetic as well as complexity when you look at the various regions.
“I’m happy that I’m starting to see more efforts toward building up this industry and its infrastructure, the focus so far in Saudi has mainly been on art and film and I feel fashion will be next.”
Arab Fashion Week, organized by the Arab Fashion Council, begins on April 10 at The Ritz Carlton, in Riyadh.