Amidst sweeping changes throughout the country, Saudi Arabia hosted its first Arab Fashion Week this past week. The event, the first of its kind in the country, was held in the nation’s capital, Riyadh. It attracted popular Middle Eastern designers, as well as internationally known designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Roberto Cavalli.
Generating a 30-35% growth in annual sales a year, Middle Eastern consumers wield tremendous buying power and many have a taste for luxury, making the region a draw for fashion houses. The social calendars of many Arab women, which include many weddings and celebrations, create an unparalleled demand for couture gowns, and design houses such as Dior and Chanel, amongst others, respond.
Reforms ranging from allowing women to drive and a movie theater opening, are largely attributed to Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud—also known as MBS, and represent a changing culture in Saudi Arabia. Recently, the Arab Fashion Council opened a regional office in Riyadh. The timing seemed right for the country to host its first Fashion Week.
Ultimately timing proved to be a big issue for the event, and left many wondering if it would happen at all. Initially scheduled for March 25, the event was pushed back two weeks following Visa delays for editors, buyers, and models alike. The night before shows were scheduled, a looming sandstorm lead to another delay. However, the shows did eventually begin despite the delays, and the collections did not disappoint. Styles shown down the runway were nothing short of spectacular. Combining a chic and modern aesthetic while honoring the country’s traditionally conservative culture, designers created visually interesting and culturally relevant lines.
In keeping with the country’s conservative standards of dress, designers had to create their collections for presentation within certain parameters. All outfits that went down the runway had to be below knee length, and could not be too revealing or transparent, and all audience members were female. However, these parameters did not prove limiting for designers, and the collections presented were innovative, fashion forward, and beautiful.
Many Saudi Arabians are encouraged and excited by the changes they are seeing in their country. Saudi Arabian designer Mashael Alrajhi told Vogue the following, “From one month to the next, you can’t imagine the changes happening here. I’ll travel for a week, and I come back and new things have opened, there are new opportunities, new rules — and most of them are good for women.” Some promising designers and labels to watch include Lebanese based designers Naja Saade, and Tony Ward; Bibisara by Asem Altynbekova of Kazakhstan; Arwa Al Banawi, originally from Saudi Arabia now working out of Dubai, and Asory House by Rana Yousry of Egypt.
Despite some delays and initial hiccups, Arab Fashion Week turned out a success, and a chance for cross cultural communication over a shared love for fashion. Undoubtedly, more is to come.