Arab fashion struts into Saudi Arabia

Modest Fashion Week comes to Riyadh, which aspires to compete with Dubai as a contemporary world center of style

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – In shimmering gold headscarves, embroidered capes and floor-length leather coats, models from more than 25 fashion labels will take to the catwalk this week at the Saudi capital’s swank Al-Faisaliah Hotel.

The event, which opens Thursday, is the first time that the Modest Fashion Show, a growing biannual display of couture designed for Muslim women, will be staged in Riyadh, where black robes, veils and hijab head coverings are more familiar apparel. The three-day lineup of designers, held previously in cities such as Dubai, Jakarta, Indonesia and London, is aimed at a growing Islamic market around the world that is estimated to be worth more than $300 billion.

“For us, modest fashion is not a trend,” Ozlem Sahin Ertas, CEO of the Istanbul, Turkey-based Modest Fashion Weeks organization, told The Circuit. “It was always big but it had no global platform for us to come together and speak out through our fashion. We believe in democratizing fashion, making it more inclusive and diverse.”

Apparel and footwear purchases by Muslim consumers grew by 5.7 percent last year to $295 billion, with Iran, Turkey and Pakistan ranked as the top spenders, according to the State of the Global Islamic Economy Report 2022. The market is forecast to grow to $375 billion by 2025. With close to 2 billion adherents, Islam is the world’s fastest-growing religion.

Fashion shows have been held in private for years in Saudi Arabia, but the events now coming to Riyadh and other cities have been made possible by the conservative Islamic kingdom’s easing of rules governing women since 2016 that included lifting the requirement for head coverings and a ban on driving. Dolce & Gabbana staged its first fashion show in the historic desert region of AlUla earlier this year and other prominent brands are also holding events as Saudi Arabia vies to become a hub for both Arab and international fashion.

Though it has gradually become the personal choice of women across the Gulf Arab states whether to wear traditional Islamic dress, neighboring Iran still enforces the covering of women’s hair, a practice that has sparked widespread protest and led to violent clashes with government forces. The demonstrations in which thousands of women have marched with their heads uncovered started in September after the arrest by the country’s morality police of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for allegedly wearing her headscarf too loosely. She died three days later in police custody. The women’s movement was further galvanized by Iranian rock climber Elnaz Rekabi, who came under public criticism for taking off her hijab in October at the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Asian Championships in Seoul.

The better-known side of the international fashion world that often flouts the region’s adherence to modesty was on display at Arab Fashion Week (AFW) in Dubai, which emerged more than 10 years ago as a Middle East hub for designer and luxury products. Major brands such as Chanel, Dior, Gucci and Louis Vuitton anchor the glittery Mall of the Emirates and the city’s other commercial palaces.

Chanel went so far as to take over a small island off the coast of Dubai to show off its 2014 “Cruise Collection,” designed by creative director Karl Lagerfeld. Guests arrived on traditional wooden boats for the event which presented a modern twist on the Arabian Nights theme with models parading in tunic tops, harem pants and Aladdin slippers.

The UAE and surrounding Gulf states are also beginning to embrace lesser-known brands closer to home, emblemized by the wide range of designers from across the MENA region at AFW, staged at the Dubai Design District, known as d3.

“The event is great,” Ibrahim Shebani, a Libyan designer who founded the label Born in Exile, told The Circuit. “The buzz, media, we meet plenty of press, network like crazy. For a young Arab brand, it’s the only way we can show our collection to press, influencers, industry people and buyers.”

Jacob Abrian, the Lebanese-born founder and chief executive of the Arab Fashion Council, which stages Arab Fashion Week, says the new interest in homegrown Middle Eastern designs is a major shift from accustomed preferences for expensive clothes from the fashion capitals of Europe and the U.S.

“One of the obstacles we used to face was that regional consumers only wanted to buy brands imported from the West and there was little attention placed on regional emerging brands,” Abrian told The Circuit. “This has changed immensely over the last five years. In 2022 consumers in the Middle East are more supportive of regional designers.”

Neawear model at Dubai Modest Fashion Show in 2021

AFW, started in 2015, aspires to be a regional landmark on the international fashion industry calendar. Its catwalk shows, networking sessions and business huddles attract young designers in the region who have struggled to participate in international shows in London, Paris, or New York.

Organizers are working to arrange representation from each of the 22 member nations of the Arab League to create a Middle East fashion infrastructure that would position the fashion industry as a main pillar for growth of the regional economy. The council envisions categorizing the countries into three industrial clusters, with Arab North African states leading the raw materials and textile group; Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq leading the garment manufacturing group; and the Gulf countries representing the marketing and merchandise group.

Revenue from the fashion industry in Dubai is projected to reach $4.6 billion this year, according to Statista, an 11 percent increase from 2021, driven by customers in China, Japan, South Korea, India and Indonesia. The great purchasing power of Gulf customers alongside a flood of international residents to Dubai since after the COVID 19 pandemic anchors the industry.

“Dubai used to be a place where brands would come, make some quick money and leave,” said Lori Rhodes, founder of Red Letter MENA, a marketing and communications consulting firm specializing in retail and fashion. “The growth of the luxury market here made the fashion much more relevant and gave an opportunity for homegrown brands to take advantage of selling to consumers all over the world from here,” she told The Circuit.

“There is an important local fashion voice that needs to be expressed,” said Hatem Alakeel, a Saudi designer who founded The Luxury Brand agency. “There need to be platforms to show regional fashion and bring the community together,” he told The Circuit. Alakeel added that the fashion industry has to develop a stronger professional system, including apprenticeships for young designers to work with established Arab houses. “Many of us don’t have the education and I am one of them,” he said.

Other brands among the 35 represented at AFW included Iraqi Mena Talal and Iranian designer Mohammad Amin Pour Eskandarian, demonstrating Dubai’s pull for designers from around the region, particularly from poorer countries and areas in conflict. Eskandarian, who showed his Zardouz collection in Dubai amid the ongoing women’s protests in Iran, creates genderless designs that feature sweeping dresses with hoods and layers of fabrics that are meant to reflect a society in transition.

The latest edition of AFW also presented the designs of sustainable start-up brand Atelier Forger, led by Syrian-born Tarek Abou Samr. His chic casual style is made by abiding to the principle of “slow fashion,” focusing on the environment and supporting local businesses. The fashion industry has been identified as one of the major contributors to global warming through its massive waste of water in factories, cheap synthetic materials that pile up in landfills and wide use of toxic dyes.

While noting the progress that was evident in the Dubai shows and the work of Saudi Arabia’s Fashion Commission, Alakeel said the Arab fashion industry has a lot of work to do before it can compete with major global players. “We have come a long way, but we still don’t have the infrastructure and know-how needed to further grow the scene.”

Growth across the region has also been limited by political turmoil in Syria and Lebanon, once centers for the region’s textile industry, that has led many Arab designers to source material and manufacture their products in India and other more stable areas with low labor costs.

Ihab Jiryis, a Palestinian designer, said AFW is key for any Arab fashion designer wishing to reach an international audience. Jiryis’s designs are replete with references to political conflict and the struggles that Palestinians endure. Jiryis’s latest collection is called “Dialogue with Death.” Featuring highly embroidered floor-length gowns and dresses in vibrant shades of red, black, green and purple, the Dubai show culminated with a series of white garments, evoking resurrection.

“I don’t need to say anything,” he told The Circuit. “My designs do the talking.”

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