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Inside Saudi Arabia's First Fashion Week

© Bibisara

Saudi Arabia hosted its first ever fashion shows last week. Held in the glittering environs of Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, and showcasing international names like Jean Paul Gaultier and Roberto Cavalli alongside local designers, Arab Fashion Week was a powerful metaphor for a country that is in the process of deep transformation.

Change, of course, isn’t necessarily easy. And, for a moment, the boundaries between being fashionably late and just not turning up at all were pushed to the max as the entire event threatened to be overshadowed by scheduling chaos – first it was pushed back two weeks in part because of no-show visas, then a sandstorm – which rendered the tent unsafe – delayed the second start date, with murmurs of government interference along the way. ‘It’s very challenging,’ admitted Jacob Abrian, founder and CEO of the Arab Fashion Council, hours before the first show was due to start. ‘Because everything is changing so fast.’

Saudi Arabia is a country caught between two worlds – tradition and the future. It’s exciting but challenging, to say the least. at dichotomy was represented in the set-up of the shows themselves, with only women allowed access and photography strictly banned so that attendees felt comfortable enough to go without a headscarf if they wished. That’s not to say the audience – mainly glossy young women dressed up in sparkle and status labels – didn’t want to take pictures. Surely the most thankless job of the week was the woman who had to run up and down the aisles chastising people for taking snaps on their iPhones.

‘I think it’s a spark to bigger things coming ahead,’ said designer Reem Al Kanhal, one of the shining lights of
the Riyadh fashion scene, of the event. Certainly, it’s hard to believe that a spark could have been ignited without the social, cultural and economic changes currently being spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – known as MBS – the outward-looking heir who has embarked on a global charm offensive over the past few months. From June, women will be able to drive – something that elicited whoops and applause from the audience when it was mentioned at the opening gala.

Ask the women themselves, however, and it’s clear that society is catching up with them rather than vice versa. They’re impressive: educated, sharp, open, and palpably proud of their country. Entrepreneurs, single mums, gallery owners, buyers, who all enjoy pyjama weekends in front of Netflix, seeing friends and working out. ‘Women working is
not something new,’ says Sara Hamoud Alsaadi, a CEO and co-founder of a chain of coffee shops. ‘A lot of girls have so much potential here – they just need that push,’ agrees Princess Noura bint Faisal Al Saud, the endearingly wide-eyed executive president of the Arab Fashion Council, who sees the Riyadh shows as ‘just the beginning’.

While a fashion week might be new to the country, Saudi women are already fluent in fashion. Passionate trend consumers, they aren’t afraid to try different things. ‘I want people to see what’s under the abaya!’ says designer Mashael Al Rajhi, who debuted the first ever Nike hijab in one of her Dubai shows last year. ‘Saudi women love everything new, they love luxury and trying things. It’s not like they stick to one style forever.’ Princess Noura adds, ‘I feel like fashion has always been part of this society but now they can show it even more.’

And as for the Saudi look? No more one-note than the British aesthetic is. Just look at two of the women in the Ritz lobby: Alia Al Sawaf, designer of Swaf, is the epitome of haute-glamour with painted red nails, a diamond encrusted Hublot watch, perilous Balmain heels and coordinating dazzling choker; Mashael wears a sporty uniform of Nike Air Force Ones and leggings under her abaya.

And as for those abayas – the loose, modest robes women wear, typically black but often embellished, embroidered or wildly colourful – even they can be an indicator of personal style. To see it necessarily as a symbol of repression is to misread it. ‘I wear one, but I do it on my own terms,’ says Reem. Interestingly, despite being invited to remove their abayas at the shows, the majority of women chose to keep them on.

Rather arrogantly, we in the West can default to the assumption that Saudi’s opening of its doors is all about letting Western culture in. But events such as Arab Fashion Week also give Saudi Arabia an opportunity to introduce itself to the world. Interestingly, the strongest collection of the opening night was by Arwa Al Banawi, a young designer from Jeddah who usually shows in Dubai. Her collection inspired by her Saudi heritage was reinterpreted in oversized tees and hoodies emblazoned with the slogans ‘We are a kngdm’ and ‘Rebirth’. ‘It’s a new era right now for Saudi Arabia, especially for women. The whole world should come and see what we’re made of,’ she said backstage, visibly moved by the experience of finally showing a collection in her home country.

Riyadh’s first fashion week was far from perfect – but it showed that positive change here is no mirage.