DUBAI: When Nora Al-Shaikh was eight-years-old, her “very fashion-conscious” mother took her to purchase fabric so she could design her very own dress for a family wedding. “I was super-excited when the dress came back from the tailor and I was able to wear it to my aunt’s wedding,” Al-Shaikh tells Arab News.
That dress wouldn’t be the last design she dreamed up. Al-Shaikh would go on to launch her own eponymous fashion line in 2012, three-years after graduating from Riyadh’s Arts and Skills Institute (ASI).
“I’ve been passionate about fashion — as well as sketching, colors and textiles — from a very young age, but it wasn’t until I received my first degree in business administration that I decided to pursue my dream of becoming a fashion designer,” Al-Shaikh says.
ASI was the first institute to offer a fashion-design program in Saudi Arabia, and Al-Shaikh says it was her time there that laid the foundations for her to become a successful ready-to-wear designer with collections that offer complete wardrobes for women.
She designed her first collection of winter abayas in 2009 — before she had even established her namesake brand — and presented it at the now-closed Saks Fifth Avenue in Riyadh as part of a fashion-design competition sponsored by Swarovski. Following a series of capsule collections that included embellished eveningwear and sportswear, in which she was “trying to find my voice as a designer,” Al-Shaikh eventually decided to formally launch her label.
“When I decided to launch my own line I wanted to create modern, beautifully made clothes that could appeal to women all over the world. At the same time I still want to infuse my own Saudi heritage into the pieces I design but in a very subtle way,” she says. In fact, that heritage serves as the starting point for each of her collections.
“What inspires me about my Saudi heritage is the sheer diversity of it,” the designer explains. “Many people may not realize that Saudi Arabia is made up of 13 regions, each with their own distinct traditions, art forms and even natural wonders. With each collection I’m constantly learning and discovering a new facet of this country that’s so rich in crafts and traditions. It’s a constant source of inspiration for me, and I use my collections as a way to share this heritage with a larger audience.”
Indeed, fashion is a powerful tool with which to bridge cultures, and Al-Shaikh has been able to connect with women from all over the world through her clothing.
Since its launch, her Jeddah-based brand has been championed by everyone from Imaan Hammam, the Dutch model of Moroccan and Egyptian heritage, who donned a black Nora Al-Shaikh abaya for her first-ever visit to Saudi Arabia during the inaugural MDL BEAST festival in 2019, to American singer-songwriter Fergie, who has sported the brand’s crop top.
The label’s ultra-luxe and contemporary pieces have also been picked up by well-known retailers across the globe, such as Ounass and Dubai’s S*UCE Boutique in addition to pop-ups in Los Angeles and New York.
In 2014, Al-Shaikh was the recipient of the “Leaders Inspiring a Kingdom in the Business World” award from Forbes Middle East, which she describes as “a memorable moment that will always stay with me.”
But it hasn’t always been an easy journey for Al-Shaikh. She reveals that she had to overcome several obstacles as an Arab woman while working to establish a brand in the region.
“There are many challenges that most Arab designers face in the region — it’s about changing perceptions and convincing others that (we) are just as good as other international brands, as well as convincing local retailers to take a chance on us,” she says. “If we can’t find support within our own communities then it becomes more difficult to succeed as a label internationally. There should be a sense of pride in saying something is made in the Middle East — and we’re slowly starting to get there, but there is still a lot of work to be done.”
Unlike major fashion hubs such as France and Italy, the Middle East does not yet have an infrastructure in place to allow local designers to thrive. There is a lack of accredited schools where one can learn the fundamentals of what it takes to become a fashion designer, and finding affordable fabric suppliers and garment factories so that designers have the ability to locally produce their collections is also difficult.
However, Al-Shaikh claims that these obstacles have only made her more innovative as a designer.
“To be a designer is to also be a problem solver. I spent a lot time gradually building the amazing team I have around me today, because the reality of being a designer in Saudi is that we don’t have the same resources available to us as our peers in London or New York,” she says, adding that she had to put together a team of seamstresses and patternmakers to be able to produce her collections in-house.
“A lot of people think fashion is a glamorous business, but it’s really a lot of hard work,” she says. “I’ve been able to grow by quietly working on building and improving my craft.”
Ultimately, she is optimistic that her hard work has paid off, and that it can for others too.
“I truly believe if you put a good product out there you will find an audience for it,” she says. “And that’s what I hope I can continue to do.”