These Designers Are Changing the Look (and Future) of Fashion in Saudi Arabia

Two weeks ago, Saudi Arabia hosted its first-ever Fashion Week in Riyadh. In many ways, the shows were just like the ones we attend in New York and Europe: The Arab Fashion Council built a giant tent for the venue; models walked the runway in demi-couture and stilettos; and guests wore their latest Spring 2018 finery. The glaring differences? There was no social media, no Champagne being passed (Saudi Arabia is a dry country), and no men. It’s customary that men and women don’t mix publicly in Saudi Arabia (though I witnessed coed dining and socializing many times, as the culture is becoming more relaxed), and there is an unwritten rule that women must wear abayas in the presence of men. At the all-women shows, we could wear whatever we wanted.

As such, most of my time in Riyadh was spent exclusively with women, and the female-driven mood was reflected on the runways, too. The schedule was dominated by female designers from Lebanon, Egypt, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere in the Middle East, and the local designers representing Saudi Arabai were all women. Each had a distinct aesthetic, from sparkly evening gowns to ’80s-inspired suits and sporty trousers, but all are pushing boundaries and laying the groundwork for a real, thriving fashion industry in the kingdom.

Below, meet five of the designers changing the future of Saudi fashion.

Arwa Al Banawi
There’s a global feeling to Arwa Al Banawi’s collections, thanks to her roots in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; her upbringing in Switzerland; and her current home in Dubai. Her show featured the only pantsuits we saw in a gown-heavy week. The opener came in boxy red jacquard, while another was khaki and had stripes of traditional Saudi fabric woven down the legs. Al Banawi calls her collections “urban luxury,” and they’re a clever mix of Western tastes and her Saudi heritage. “I like using fabrics that are authentic to Saudi culture, but it’s important to keep things very urban and modern, not ethnic,” she said. A parka was lined with the red-and-white–checked fabric of Saudi men’s keffiyahs, and one model wore a giant woven scarf made from a traditional fabric called sedu.

Al Banawi didn’t include a single abaya, but she made that choice long before the crown prince announced that women aren’t obligated to wear them anymore. “Even when I started, I didn’t design typical abayas,” she explained. “I don’t like to restrict women in my clothing, so mine are very modern and look more like coats.” The double-breasted velvet coat in her collection could certainly sub in for a typical, drapey abaya, ditto the sleek long-sleeved dresses.

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Mashael Alrajhi
Mashael Alrajhi describes her aesthetic as “a mix of couture and streetwear,” which hits the nail right on the head. Her show in Riyadh was the most energizing of the week, with looks ranging from hand-beaded tulle dresses to deconstructed shirting and oversize tailoring—all styled with Nike Air Force Ones. (Each sneaker also had the Arabic symbol for leadership on the ankle.) They were comfortable, day-friendly clothes that could be easily dressed up for nighttime, and while there wasn’t a traditional abaya in the mix, Alrajhi was modeling her own take on it: a long, silky pin-striped jacket. She is deftly carving out her own niche in Saudi fashion while staying true to her roots, and she’s being recognized for it; she has shown at London Fashion Week in the past and was the first Saudi designer to be nominated for a Woolmark Prize in 2016.

Her collection was confident and compelling, but as a designer who lives and works in Riyadh, there have been a few challenges, too. There is no garment district in Saudi Arabia, for starters; the only clothing manufacturers produce uniforms for schools, hotels, restaurants, and other professions. “I went to one of the manufacturers once, because I wanted to see what they could do,” she said. “But it isn’t possible. My clothes aren’t fully couture, but there is a lot of handwork. The real change here will be to [create opportunities for] designers to produce and work in Saudi Arabia.”

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Reem Al Khanal
After nearly 10 years in business, Reem Al Khanal is one of the more well-known designers in Saudi Arabia, but after Arab Fashion Week was postponed—twice—she had to pull out from the event. Still, she made time to meet with editors in town for the shows (and became a tour guide for many of us!) and offered a local’s perspective on the changing tides. “I can see Riyadh becoming one of the must-visit [cities] for Fashion Week,” she said. “I [hope to] see more showrooms opening, more editors and buyers visiting. It might take time, but I think it will happen. We need to focus on the infrastructure first and open more factories for this blooming industry.” She produces her collections abroad, which is expensive and requires constant travel—both of which affect her brand’s bottom line.

Al Khanal specializes in asymmetrical, architectural dresses and separates you can mix and match, in lieu of full looks. “They’re easy-to-wear pieces that create drama,” she said. As Saudi women adapt to the country’s more relaxed culture, Al Khanal’s modest, artfully cut label could gain popularity. “The challenges are in the past,” she said. “I’m in the now.”

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Herfah by Naeema
The designers behind Herfah by Naeema just got a big stamp of approval: The brand was chosen to be part of Moda Operandi’s Best of the Middle East trunk show. The piece that caught the retailer’s attention was likely the label’s signature farwa, a traditional fur-lined winter cloak worn by Bedouin men in the Saudi desert. The Herfah by Naeema twist was to make it for women—and to use faux fur, metallic jacquards, silk tassels, and embroideries. Everything is produced in Lebanon (long considered the fashion hub of the Middle East), but the hand-embroideries are done by 40 local women artisans in Saudi Arabia, in an effort to preserve the region’s traditional crafts. Another ethical component of the brand: Most of the fabrics are deadstock to reduce the carbon footprint.

Sustainability has only recently gone mainstream in Western fashion, so Saudi Arabia has several hurdles to clear before it can really address it (for starters, it needs a real garment industry). But Herfah by Naeema is a promising start and incorporates Saudi culture and craft in a clever, impactful way.

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Alya Al-Sawwaf of SWAF
Before the SWAF show in Riyadh, giant screens behind the runway played a video montage of designer Alya Al-Sawwaf working in her studio. She was pinning tulle into pleats, fluffing up the ruffles on a wedding gown, and painting loose glitter onto silk organza. The finished dresses in her show were appropriately glam and over the top, ending with a bride whose train stretched nearly 12 meters. You could sense that the women in the front row were itching to pick up their phones and take photos (which is not permitted by the AFC).

While that sparkly, red carpet–worthy aesthetic might feel a little out of place to Westerners, it’s certainly in keeping with the glitzy, evening-geared “look” of Saudi fashion. Al-Sawwaf is based in Jeddah, a more liberal port city, and her circle of high-net-worth friends and family members likely serve as her sounding board—and IRL models.

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