Saudi Arabian fashion designers are now more ready to take on the world


By AGENCY

Fashion designer Reem Alsabhan stands in front of mannequins at her workshop in Riyadh. Photo: AFP

He has dressed celebrity royalty around the world from Beyonce and Deepika Padukone to Zendaya and Cardi B, but for years, few of Mohammed Ashi's clients knew he was Saudi Arabia's first big-name designer.

"In the 90s I was the only designer from Saudi. But I never said I was Saudi. I wanted the clothes to be out front, not me," Ashi said in a rare interview at his Paris studio.

It is partly shyness – he still prefers not to be photographed himself – but also the fact that Western fashion was largely taboo in public, certainly for women, when he was growing up in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s.

Ashi made his career abroad, training in the US and working for Givenchy and Lebanese couturier Elie Saab before settling in France.

Now, with Saudi Arabia going through momentous social changes, he has been welcomed home as a mentor for its Fashion Commission, set up in 2020 to help build a homegrown industry.

"A few months ago, I was invited publicly to talk in Saudi for the first time, and so many people came up to me afterwards. I'm getting recognition from the younger generation that I never expected," he said.

"They're giving scholarships to people for something that was prohibited when I was growing up. It's an iconic moment," he added.

Read more: Brazil's new first lady champions causes with fashion, and she's praised for it

Fashion capital?

Critics of the country's de facto ruler, Prince Mohammad Salman, see the easing of social restrictions as a PR campaign designed to distract from continued human rights abuses.

But there is no doubting the opportunities it has opened up for young creatives, such as 27-year-old Reem Alsabhan, whose outfits now grace local events.

"From the beginning of my studies, I kept repeating a sentence I really believed, even if it surprised people: Riyadh will become one of the most important fashion capitals," she said at her Riyadh workshop.

"Now the signs of this future are beginning to appear."

Previously unthinkable public events -- concerts, galas, the new Red Sea Film Festival -- mean Saudi Arabia now has red carpets on which to show off Alsabhan's designs.

Nonetheless, the foundations of the industry were laid much further back, said Burak Cakmak, head of the Saudi Fashion Commission.

"Many local creatives have built fashion businesses in the past 20, 30 years for the local market but didn't feel the need to tell their stories abroad – or dare to do so," he said.

"That allowed the system to build up in a controlled way... and now people can see there are hundreds of brands, very connected to their culture but also inspired by the rest of the world."

Read more: Dressing Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan and Jamie Lee Curtis for their winning roles

'A journey'

For Ashi, it makes sense that Saudi Arabia should become a fashion hub since, he says, its oil wealth has been keeping European labels afloat for decades.

Saudi Arabia takes "60 or 70 percent of French couture", especially wedding dresses, he said.

"Most of the big French houses rely on this but they don't like to talk about it because they don't want to be seen as just tailors – they want to be a 'brand'."

Ashi's diary is a hectic whirl of client fittings and preparations for the next haute couture week.

His outfits show up on red carpets from the Oscars to Cannes. A highlight was seeing Beyonce in his extravagantly ruffed fuchsia gown at a memorial show for Nelson Mandela.

Though proud of being a role model for young Saudi designers, he still prefers to see himself as "a citizen of the world".

Stopping to show the detail of an elaborate lace couture dress, he said: "The pattern was done in London, the fabric in Italy, the embroidery in India and it was assembled here in Paris.

"It's a journey for these clothes to happen, just like me." – AFP

Follow us on our official WhatsApp channel for breaking news alerts and key updates!

fashion , Saudi Arabia , fashion designers

   

Next In Style

Treat yourself to a vibrant, healthy look with the 'sunset blush' makeup trend
Red Carpet Watch: Dystopia and glamour collide at 'Furiosa' premiere in Cannes
Vanity Fare: Oil-based skincare can help in nourishing and purifying skin
Borrowed from the boys: Tailored shirts are having a moment in fashion
Victoria's Secret announces return of fashion show, but with details under wraps
Game, set and match for courtside style with the 'tenniscore' fashion trend
When it comes to skincare, applying sun protection is simply non-negotiable
Resolutely Timeless: The Richard Mille RM 07-01 Collection
Ask The Expert: Here's what you need to know about eyelash extensions
Malaysian content creator mum on challenges of balancing work and parenting

Others Also Read