Saudi Arabian fashion designer Honayda Serafi on Courage, Culture, and Couture

Fresh from her appearance at the Fashion Futures conference in Riyadh, Saudi fashion designer, businesswoman, philanthropist and powerhouse Honayda Serafi shares her hopes for the future with Grazia Editor in Chief Alison Tay
Saudi Arabian fashion designer Honayda Serafi on Courage, Culture, and  Couture

Honayda Serafi always dreamed big. How do we know? Is it her glittering roster of celebrity clients which includes the most illustrious names in Hollywood and the Arab world alike? Could it be her recent appearance on the panel at Fashion Futures in Riyadh, sharing her experiences of developing Saudi fashion brands from local to international as Founder and Creative Director of her eponymous fashion label?

It is, in fact, because we’re at home with Honayda and one of her dearest friends, Saudi interior designer Malak Masallati, who she’s known since she was a teenager, and who is joking about the time Honayda announced to all her girlfriends that one day she planned on being a big global name. “They always used to make fun of me,” laughs Honayda. Malak recalls, “We used to tell her, ‘How do you think you’re going to be famous? I mean, we’re in Jeddah in abayas, we don’t drive, we were so closed in. The opportunities were so limited then, but her vision was global.”

After studying art at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Honayda started her fashion career designing kaftans and abayas. A spell at Parsons Paris followed, and it was the European campus of the New York-based university – alumni of which include Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan and Tom Ford – that she crystallised her dreams to become a household name. And today – with stockists not only in Riyadh, Jeddah, Bahrain, Beirut, Egypt, Cairo, and Kuwait, but also as far afield as Paris and Panama – it’s safe to say nobody’s laughing now.

The secret of her success? “I work hard and I’m a fighter, this I can claim. I have a message that I want to deliver, to empower women, to show my culture, to be the ambassador of my country, to talk proudly about who I am, where I belong, and to change the perception of Saudi women purely being spenders to being known as good businesswomen, too.”

With a forthcoming fragrance launch, handbag line, plus a soon-to-be-announced education initiative, Honayda is well on the way to becoming the lifestyle brand she hopes to be. In an emotional interview, Honayda shares the truth about her journey…

How will Saudi Vision 2030 affect you as a fashion designer?

Saudi Vision 2030 has already empowered women, opened a lot of business opportunities for women, and created more jobs in the fashion industry. There will be more investment for the Saudi designers, and a lot of new projects, including an education initiative of my own. Cultural events such as Fashion Futures, Riyadh Season, and Winter Wonderland are not only encouraging tourism, but also leading Saudis to rediscover our country again.

How do Saudi women feel about Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s ruling making abayas optional?
An abaya is something special, something unique. People who come from abroad would like to see how real people dress, and I think it’s also interesting for them to try our abayas. Our abayas make us special. It’s what makes us who we are, it’s part of our tradition, our culture. Our abayas have never restricted us from doing what we want to do. But now, since you have the freedom of choice, you can either accept to wear it or not. Modesty is what we care for when visitors come, because to dress modestly is to respect our culture – whether or not you wear an abaya, you have to be modest. I will keep wearing my abaya. Some women have already stopped wearing abayas, and that’s fine, but I feel that it’s a tradition that will stay with us. It will take a couple of generations for Saudi women to not wear their abayas. When you see generations of Arabs abroad, often the grandmother is wearing an abaya, the mother maybe has a colourful scarf on her head, and the daughter won’t be wearing an abaya. We weren’t waiting for the moment to take off our abayas, but it’s all about the freedom of choice.

Lupita Nyong’o, Priyanka Chopra, Janelle Monáe, and Halima Aden are already Honayda fans. Who would you love to see in your designs?
Definitely Queen Rania; Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge; Michelle Obama; Jennifer Lopez and Rihanna. I love seeing women with courage wearing my designs, and I’m so thankful to all the women who wear Honayda.

Our abayas have never restricted us. We weren’t waiting for the moment to take off our abayas. It’s about choice

Why was taking part in Fashion Futures important to you?
Fashion Futures is all about building the business of fashion in Saudi Arabia. This is what I struggled with in the beginning – not knowing how to build a business made me want to share the experience and share the struggle I went through with the audience. I want to inspire people and I want to learn from people. Fashion Futures is really important to help build the fashion industry in Saudi Arabia. The Ministry of Culture has opened doors for all the young designers who are looking to become global in the fashion world. I couldn’t be more grateful for what’s happening now; it’s a new era. We were actually the target for all the international designers to come and have their brands here, and now we have the creative designers, the buyers, the knowledge and will pave our own way in the fashion industry. We have great hopes, big dreams and amazing goals and I’m sure we will conquer the world with our Saudi designers and our heritage. We have a lot to give the fashion world.

What advice would you give the next generation of Saudi designers?
Fashion is fun, business is hard. Believe in yourself, believe in your work. People may like your designs, people may not – it’s a matter of taste – but make sure you have good quality, good price points, and understand your client, then just put on your Superwoman cape and go. Now is the time for you to flourish, and the fashion industry in Saudi Arabia needs you. It’s your time.

Photos: Getty Images and supplied