Saudi designers show kingdom’s new face at the first Riyadh Fashion Week – South China Morning Post

It was a world away from most prior fashion shows in the Gulf kingdom: small, women-only gatherings in private homes or, in one famous example, a public show that did away with models altogether, hanging dresses from flying drones.

A model walks the runway during the Adnan Akbar Haute Couture show at Riyadh Fashion Week. Photo: Getty Images

“It’s a huge change, what’s happening now,” said Abdullah Akbar, Adnan’s son and managing director of the family brand.

“I think the world is seeing how creative we are, the strength of the designs that we have.”

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But as the Saudi government extends previously unheard-of support to veterans like Adnan Akbar along with up-and-comers bringing out their first collections, it remains to be seen whether authorities can develop the infrastructure needed to support them.

The Saudi fashion industry last year accounted for US$12.5 billion, or 1.4 per cent, of national GDP and employed 230,000 people, according to a report by the official Saudi Fashion Commission.

Under the right conditions, the report argues, the industry could become “a major driver” of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform agenda, which aims to transition the world’s biggest crude oil exporter away from fossil fuels and transform it into a business, sports and tourism hub.

One challenge will be lowering the dependence on imports. In 2021, the kingdom spent US$7.3 billion on imported fashion goods, the fashion commission report said.

Mohammed Ashi (above, at Paris Fashion Week, in September 2023) has dressed celebrities including Beyoncé and Zendaya. Photo: Getty Images

With that in mind, Riyadh Fashion Week was structured to showcase local talent rather than well-known international designers.

Beyond Adnan Akbar, and Mohammed Ashi, who has dressed celebrities including Beyoncé and Zendaya, the line-up was rounded out by Saudis with much less visibility overseas.

“We are basically creating curiosity around a group of designers that have never been explored and seen from outside,” said fashion commission chief executive Burak Cakmak.

The fact that these designers already have “healthy businesses” at home points to the strength of the local market, Cakmak said.

A creation by Saudi designer Honayda Serafi shown at Riyadh Fashion Week. Photo: AFP

Projects like a new manufacturing space, the commission’s first, expected to open in Riyadh next year, will help keep more of these brands’ value chains in the country, Cakmak said, potentially making fashion more of a force for the non-oil economic growth authorities want to see.

“Ultimately, our goal is to build the local economy,” he said.

Broader societal changes introduced under Prince Mohammed have also created new opportunities for Saudi designers.

The lifting of requirements that women wear abayas and hijabs, combined with a push to get more Saudi women working, exposed “a gap in the market”, said Mona Alshebil, who contributed a ready-to-wear collection to Riyadh Fashion Week.

A bridal look at the Adnan Akbar Haute Couture show in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo: Getty Images

“There are a lot of women in very high professions … who want to look professional, and they want to look respected, so I started designing suits and long blazers,” she said.

In recent years, the sidelining of the feared religious police and the introduction of previously forbidden attractions like cinemas and music festivals have created new wardrobe needs.

“Especially in a city like Riyadh, you can expect that everybody after work is spending time with friends and family outside until late hours in public spaces, which means that people are dressing differently than they would for an occasion at home,” Cakmak said.

A look from Saudi designer Honayda Serafi shown during Riyadh Fashion Week. Photo: AFP

Demand for streetwear has skyrocketed among new brands, yielding sweatshirts and jackets that can be remarkably unisex for a country long known for rigid gender norms.

“And they all have a local twist,” Cakmak said, citing hoodies inspired by traditional Saudi thobes, the traditional white robes worn by men, and garments incorporating Arabic calligraphy.

During a meet-up with investors in New York in October, one such streetwear brand, 1886, sealed an investment deal with Turmeric Capital, whose chairman, Ravi Thakran, compared what’s happening in Saudi Arabia’s fashion industry to what he witnessed in China two decades ago.

“A decade from now,” Thakran said, “I believe books will be written about the colossal changes as Saudi increases its economic presence across Asia.”

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Mark Evans

Hey there, I'm Mark Evans, a student at The King's University in Edmonton. I'm passionate about fitness and gaming, and I love writing about both. You can usually find me pounding away on my keyboard, crafting blog articles for various websites and news outlets. I've been interested in fitness for as long as I can remember, and I've always loved trying out new workouts and experimenting with different diets. On the gaming side of things, I'm a huge fan of all kinds of games, from action-packed shooters to immersive RPGs. When I'm not hitting the gym or diving into a new game, I love spending time with my friends and family, exploring the city, and trying out new restaurants. Thanks for stopping by my blog, and I hope you enjoy my articles as much as I enjoy writing them!

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