Saudi Arabia’s First Fashion Week

RIYADH—Despite quite a few delays, the Roberto Cavalli label cancelling at the last minute and missiles launched by Houthi rebels on the first day of Saudi Arabia’s inaugural fashion week, the show went on anyway. Eager to take part in the historic moment, big European names like Roberto Cavalli and Jean Paul Gaultier had agreed to headline Arab Fashion Week - Riyadh, which was staged at the city’s Ritz Carlton Hotel, and served as a strong, symbolic step towards a more liberal economy and female empowerment.   

Arwa Al Banawi Ready Couture FW18 show in Riyadh. Photo by Kristy Sparow for NOWFASHION.

Arab Fashion Week - Riyadh is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s larger plan dubbed Vision 2030 which is meant to diversify the oil-dependent nation’s economy and nurture new industries. 

Often referred to as MBS, bin Salman is known as Saudi’s “millennial prince.” The 32-year-old just completed a world tour to conjure new business for the Saudi Arabian economy. His meetings with Silicon Valley companies like Facebook and Apple, for example, made headlines worldwide. Saudi Arabian laws have been historically based on Sharia, Islamic law derived from the Qur'an and the Sunnah. Despite recent efforts, Saudi Arabia has trailed in comparison to its neighbours such as Jordan, Oman and the United Arab Emirates in opening its borders to foreigners and softening its rules and regulations.

And while the role of the religious police has been scaled back, international female guests were required to wear an abaya (a long robe covering their ankles). Men were not allowed to attend the fashion shows and unofficial photos or candid social media posts were not allowed inside the tent of Arab Fashion Week. 

Maison Alexandrine Ready Couture FW18 show in Riyadh. Photo by Kristy Sparow for NOWFASHION.

Inside, the exclusive crowd of Saudi female VIPs and aristocrats were feeling relaxed, socializing without their abayas or niqabs, snacking on pastries and sipping Arab coffee served by veiled, local women carrying elaborate silver carafes. 

“With social media, we can see the world,” said one female spectator, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Things are changing in Saudi Arabia and women will have more rights. You'll see next time you come back,” said another. A few women exuberantly asked NOWFASHION to take street style photos of them outside the venue, requesting that their face not be photographed. 

“This is just going to open doors to the Arab Fashion Council and the whole economy of Saudi Arabia, as it’s impacting the hospitality sector, food and beverage and retail. All sectors are being affected and people are coming from abroad. So they’re experiencing what Saudi has to offer,” said H.H. Princess Noura Bint Faisal Al Saud, Honorary President of the Arab Fashion Council, who candidly socialised with the crowd, wearing a white blazer and form-fitting black pants.  

Princess Noura explained that she met Jacob Abrian, the founder and chief executive of the Arab Fashion Council, while studying business in Japan (she also speaks Japanese). “I wanted to do something different in Saudi. The fashion industry already existed. We love fashion, but we just wanted to bring it up to a whole new level,” she explained.

Saudi designers have been propelled on a global stage by organisations like Vogue Talents, a project founded by the late Franca Sozzani and spearheaded by Vogue Italia editor Sara Maino. Upmarket abaya label, Haal Inc, a collection designed by Mariam Bin Mahfouz and Arwa Al Banawi of “the Suitable Woman” label, are two such collections that have been introduced by the Milan fashion scene vis-à-vis Italy’s Vogue Talents competition. The latter said her presence at Saudi Arabia's first fashion week was a historic moment that could not be missed.

“God bless them, King Salman and the Crown Prince, for really empowering women. We’re seeing a lot of changes towards women empowerment, especially with lifting the ban on driving. I’m here to support the country and all of these changes that are happening in the kingdom,” Al Banawi told NOWFASHION in the lobby of the Ritz. Al Banawi said that her collection was really inspired by Saudi Arabian culture and traditions, with items like a t-shirt emblazoned in Arabic with “We Are The Kingdom.”

Jean Paul Gaultier FW18 Ready Couture show in Riyadh. Photo by Kristy Sparow for NOWFASHION.

On the catwalk, ornate, modern princess fashions from designers like Lebanon’s Tony Ward and Brazil’s Maison Alexandrine dominated the runway. Gaultier infused the shows with Parisian panache marked by fine European textiles and elaborate and surreal, yet conservative, designs. Al Banawi’s fashions went against the grain, marked by masculine silhouettes and simple ready-to-wear ensembles. Characterised by tomboy looks like oversized blazers, shapeless pants and surfer hoodies, Al Banawi’s collection echoed the overall message of female empowerment, showing Saudi women they can dress conservatively and still be fashionable.

The event, which closed on April 15, was hosted by the Arab Fashion Council, which represents 22 Arabic countries and members of the Arab League. Main sponsors were Huawei and Harvey Nichols Riyadh, who hosted a pop up store adjacent to the shows.

Muslim consumers are projected to spend more than 368 billion dollars on modest fashion by 2021, according to Thompson Reuters. At the moment, travel visas to Riyadh are difficult to obtain; however, western influences are abundant – food chains like Burger King, McDonald's, and Starbucks are easy to find and major retail chains like Victoria’s Secret and Marks & Spencer are found in the city’s monumental Kingdom Tower. It is only a matter of time before Riyadh becomes a hub for fashion in its own right.

“We were faced with many challenges in organising this event, but we have received amazing feedback. You could see it in everyone's faces," Abrian said. 


See all the looks from Arwa Al Banawi's Ready Couture FW18 collection here.

See all the looks from Jean Paul Gaultier's Ready Couture FW18 collection here.

See all the looks from Maison Alexandrine's Ready Couture FW18 collection here.