Saudi Arabia hosted its first ever fashion shows last month. Held in the glittering environs of Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, and showcasing international names such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Roberto Cavalli alongside local designers, Arab Fashion Week was a powerful metaphor for a country that is in the midst of a deep transformation.
Change, of course, isn’t necessarily easy. And for a moment the boundaries between being fashionably late and not turning up at all were stretched as the entire event threated to be overshadowed by scheduling chaos. First it was pushed back two weeks, partly because of a lack of attendees’ entry visas, then a sandstorm rendered the tent unsafe, delaying the second date. “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. That dichotomy was represented in the set-up of the shows themselves, with only women allowed access and photography strictly prohibited, 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 that bestowed upon 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 locally 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, mothers, gallery owners, buyers, all of whom 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 Her Highness 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 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? It’s 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 Designs, is the epitome of haute-glamour with painted red nails, a diamond-encrusted Hublot watch, perilously high 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, even they can be an indicator of personal style. “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 opted to keep theirs on.
Events such as Arab Fashion Week also give Saudi Arabia an opportunity to introduce itself to the world. 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 in Saudi Arabia is no mirage.