As the sun casts a warm glow over the sprawling beige façade of the opulent Ritz-Carlton in the heart of Riyadh’s posh Diplomatic Quarters, preparations for the city’s first-ever Arab Fashion Week begin. Some men in black muscle T-shirts direct traffic, while others roll in hotel trolleys carrying hangers and trunks and others still test-run the music playlist and fashion reels from inside the massive tent venue.
As guests of the women-only event start arriving, the males – including organizer Jacob Adrian, 26-year-old model, founder and CEO of Arab Fashion Council, a non-profit fashion council representing 22 members of the Arab League – begin to leave.
Women step out of shiny, polished cars and make their way towards the enclosed area, where veils come off to reveal perfectly done hair, thick and curly eyelashes and contoured cheekbones.
On the red carpet, the energy is palpable. Guests ranging from members of the Saudi royal family, socialites, diplomatic wives and college students pause to have their pictures taken.
Who would have thought that the deeply conservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – a country where most women are expected to be fully covered in abaya when appearing in public, and where parks and festivals have different visiting schedules for families and bachelors – would one day have its own fashion week? Before this event, to shop for designer clothes Saudi women had to fly to London, Milan or New York, or pay inflated prices at Saudi stores.
Could this show fuel a new industry that turns Riyadh into a fashion capital?
WITH THE WORLD’S second-largest proven petroleum reserves, the Saudi economy is the largest in the Arab world. Its capital city, Riyadh, boasts glitzy malls and impressive dining options, and many of its residents have ties to the royal family.
Most art and cultural events happen behind closed doors, in private compounds and embassies, and there is an unspoken code of conduct that favors discretion.
But times are changing in Saudi Arabia, and that’s mostly down to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, whose Vision 2030 masterplan aims to lessen the kingdom’s reliance on oil while opening up new sectors, including entertainment and tourism, to investment.
There have also been cultural changes. In April, cinemas were allowed to reopen after 35 years. Two months later, the ban on female drivers was lifted. Mixed-gender concert and sporting events are also in the pipeline and the kingdom wants to see an increase of women in the workforce, as well as more females in high-profile government positions.
I wanted to counteract the Western media’s monochromatic avatar of the Saudi woman – all in black, mute and inferior to her male counterpart
FOR MANY SAUDI women, the Arab Fashion Week signified the start of this change. While women can – and do – wear the colorful cover-ups and embellished abayas seen on the runway out in public, in cities like Riyadh, there is a strong social expectation for conservativeness.
One local designer who is tapping into this expanding demand is Arwa Al-Ammari, founder of ArAm Designs. A few days after the fashion week, where she showed her spring-summer collection, I meet Al-Ammari, who is wearing a black organza skirt she designed paired with a simple black hijab turban.
A homegrown womenswear label established in 2016, ArAm Designs takes inspiration from fine art. Characterized by monochromatic beige and pink pastel colors and organza ruffles, the prêt-à-porter collection is designed for Saudi women to wear in private, women-only gatherings, though the hope is that women will soon be able to wear such designs out in Saudi Arabia’s streets.
Al-Ammari believes that homegrown fashion is a growing industry in her country. “Fashion weeks bring opportunities for designers, media, buyers and other stakeholders. Investors are now looking at it seriously; it has opened their eyes to the revenue in the fashion industry.
There is also a change in the mindset, moving away from conventional careers like doctors and teachers to creative industries,” the designer says. Al-Ammari recounts meeting fashion and design students at Riyadh’s Princess Nourah University where she was recently invited to attend a graduation ceremony. “I was thrilled to see the designs and deep aspirations of these young women – there is demand and immense potential that needs to be supported.”