RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The sound of missiles fired by Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen made a muffled crack outside the windows of the Ritz Carlton Riyadh in Saudi Arabia’s capital. Moments later a text message came through from organisers saying Arab Fashion Week had been delayed for the second time in as many weeks.
The kingdom’s first public fashion week got off to an inauspicious start. Plagued by Saudi involvement in Yemen’s civil war, visa delays, infrastructure issues and even sandstorms, the historic event was almost overshadowed by a lack of organisation and foresight. The symbol of a fashion week in the conservative capital of a country renowned for its strict gender segregation laws certainly captured the world’s imagination — but at one point designers, buyers and journalists feared they might not see a single show.
A day later the lights were finally on in the billowing tent outside the Ritz Carlton Riyadh. The sense of excitement among young women in the city was electric — and many of them came to witness a fashion week that, simply by its existence, marked the crossing of a major threshold. The country is currently aligning itself with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, which pledges to decrease reliance on oil revenue, expand the tourism and entertainment industries and relax conservative attitudes towards female emancipation. It is no coincidence that the fashion industry can play a key role in all four.
“When the doors are open, you want to grab your chances with both hands,” says Jamila Halfichi, fashion editor of pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al Awsat, who attended the event. “It is not about being polished and perfect as much as it is about taking this opportunity and running with it, for this is history in the making — a few hiccups are understandable and should be acceptable.”
Nonetheless, many fashion commentators were frustrated that the country’s debut on the international fashion stage was beset by organisational problems and, for reasons still unclear, was half empty on the first night.
“This is a really exciting time to be in Saudi Arabia, especially for women,” says Marriam Mossalli, chief executive of Jeddah-based marketing firm, Niche Arabia. “But while it’s tempting to move at high speed, we need to give ourselves the breathing space to do things properly. Bad organisation reflects negatively on the local industry, even though the local industry wasn’t even that involved.”
Learn to walk before you run
The event was planned by the Arab Fashion Council, which claims to operate across 22 countries and is headquartered in Dubai. The Italian-Lebanese founder, Jacob Abrian, partnered with Saudi princess Noura bint Faisal Al Saud and the British Fashion Council (BFC) — which announced a strategic partnership with the Arab Fashion Council, sending the BFC's chief executive Caroline Rush to Riyadh for opening night of fashion week.
“Fashion week is one of the main pillars of Saudi change,” says Abrian, who, over the course of our interview in the Ritz Carlton lobby, is thanked by three different women for bringing the event to Riyadh. “I would have liked more time, but I couldn’t allow myself that luxury, as the transformation is happening so quickly. We had to do it now.”
Rather than focusing on creating a world-class event in its own right, Abrian and Bint Faisal Al Saud prefer to deflect criticism by talking about the infrastructure Arab Fashion Week Riyadh (AFWR) will bring to the country — specifically the opportunities the rapidly developing industry will afford to women.
“After the event I see a lot of investment happening in Saudi Arabian fashion,” says Bint Faisal Al Saud. “Investors need to have confidence in an industry, so where we lead, growth will follow, which will impact small fashion businesses, many of which are run by women.”
Abrian also insists that AFWR is the chance for Saudi Arabia to launch and own a new global movement towards demi-couture. “Paris has couture, but Riyadh will have demi-couture,” he says. “Social media means nobody wants to wear the same dress twice [but] couture [is] unrealistic for so many people.”
Despite Abrian’s insistence on the importance of eveningwear, it was the ready-to-wear collections by young female Saudi designers that offered the most thought-provoking fashion of the event.
Jeddah and Dubai-based Arwa Al Banawi stood out for her tailored suits and oversized T-shirts, which were peppered with Bedouin references. “It was definitely a challenge,” she says of AFWR, “But I had to be here. I am a Saudi woman and this country inspires so much of my work.”
Another noticeable talent was Riyadh-based Mashael Alrajhi, who sent pin-striped suit jackets and Nike embossed hijabs down the runway — the result was abaya-like from a distance but up close felt like an ultra-contemporary London fashion brand. “There were a lot of problems but I stayed for my country — we need to be the change we want,” she says. “And I think in the end they did a great thing. It was brave and a huge step in the right direction.”
These bazaars are really powerful. They have massive foot traffic and really help small businesses thrive.
The event was rightly touted as Saudi Arabia’s launch pad into the world of global fashion, and while it successfully focused domestic and international attention on Saudi design, many local power players were conspicuously absent.
This is partly due to the fact that, in order to freely model the clothes, AFWR had to be women-only, while the fashion retail sector is still largely run by men. But many of the royal women who have shaped the industry over the last decade were missing from the front row — these include HRH Reema Bandar Al Saud, the former chief executive of Alfa International, which operates Harvey Nichols Saudi Arabia, and Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz, the former editor-in-chief of Vogue Arabia.
Gulf trading dynasties wield power
Sheikh Abdullah Binzagr, whose company Rubaiyat owns the Saudi distribution rights for leading luxury brands such as Bottega Veneta, Kenzo, Balenciaga and Dolce & Gabbana, is one of the most powerful luxury fashion magnates in the country. His wife Wafaa Abbar, who is the group's president and main shareholder, did not attend the event either.
Other major players include the Al Deghaither family, who owns Saudi Jawahir Trading — an umbrella company that holds the distribution rights for brands including Givenchy, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney. They also own Jawahir department store and a multibrand chain called Avanti with locations in Centria Mall, Kingdom Mall and the Mall of Dhahran.
Other retail moguls with a slice of Saudi’s international luxury market are based in neighbouring Dubai, like Patrick Chalhoub, co-chief executive of Chalhoub Group, and Khalid Al Tayer, chief executive of Al Tayer Insignia.
Then there are the fashion bazaars. Run by notable members of the local fashion industry including the Princess Adila bint Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Iman Attar and Tamara Abukhadra, these multi-brand pop-ups have become a staple of the regional fashion scene and an essential way of introducing emerging domestic and international labels to the Saudi market. Clients come together in luxury hotel conference rooms for all-female events, during which coffee and sweets are handed around and women can relax and remove their abayas while they shop.
“These bazaars are really powerful,” says Mossalli. “They have massive foot traffic and really help small businesses thrive. They are a major part of Saudi culture.”
In a country renowned for its ultra-rich and elite society, the urge to focus on the growth potential in the luxury sector is understandable. But Saudi Arabia has a population of 32 million, many of whom are in the middle and lower classes, and 70 percent of whom are under 30. The kingdom has a two-tier economy made up of about 20 million Saudis, with most of the rest foreign workers. According to PayScale, the average salary in Riyadh is 123,000 Riyals a year ($33,000), creating a sizeable opportunity for high street and fast-fashion.
These middle-earners are set to have more spending power as Saudi Arabia's economic growth moves into positive territory over 2018, according to a report by BMI. Private consumption will pick up in 2018, growing by 2.5 percent, up from 1.5 percent in 2017.
Last year, consumers in Saudi Arabia spent $15 billion on clothing and footwear, outspending much larger countries like Mexico, Turkey and Thailand. By 2021, BMI forecasts that the Saudi fashion market will reach nearly $19 billion.
One fast-fashion provider who has taken advantage of this opportunity is Alhokair Fashion Retail. Launched in 1990 by brothers Fawaz Abdulaziz Alhokair, Salman Abdulaziz Alhokair and Abdul Majeed Abdulaziz Alhokair, it has since become one of the largest franchise retailers in Middle East and North African region and Central Asia, with more than 2,100 stores in 16 countries.
The group brings Western high-street labels to the region, owning the distribution rights for brands such as Accessorize and Zara, operating 1,217 stores in Saudi Arabia alone. In November 2017, Fawaz Alhokair was formerly detained as part of Saudi Arabia’s anti-corruption campaign and is currently in talks with banks for loans for their firms in excess of $3 billion.
The scale of Saudi Arabia’s fast-fashion sector becomes even more apparent when you look to Alhokair’s rival Mohammad Alshaya, executive chairman of the retail division of the Kuwait-based Alshaya Group. Alshaya operates 45 H&M stores and 68 Claire’s stores across Saudi Arabia.
A market ripe for development
Eyad Mashat is the founder of retail group Fad International. Under its umbrella, he has launched two major brands. His first, Femi9, is a fast-fashion label with 60 stores around the Middle East. The second is Vivid Flair, which is a mass domestic eveningwear brand with multiple branches around Saudi Arabia.
“We are witnessing significant changes in the creative sector in Saudi Arabia and particularly fashion,” he says “I see a great exchange of talent between local and international designers as Saudis showcase their collections to a wider audience, and global designers get closer to the Saudi market. The openness we are seeing is a great opportunity.”
Mashat believes the industry is about to fall under the spell of two major trends — modest fashion and e-commerce. Since all Saudi women currently wear the abaya in public, Western clothes have remained popular in the Kingdom, as they are only seen in private. However, statements from the crown prince suggest regulations around women’s clothing will soon be relaxed, leading to an inevitable boom in modest fashion.
Saudi Arabia is also ripe for e-commerce development. The kingdom has one of the world’s most dynamic social media environments and a number of factors inhibit the ease of traditional brick-and-mortar shopping. Prayer time means stores mandatorily close four times throughout the day, and until the ban on driving is lifted this summer, women will continue to need a driver to get around. Added to this, there are sometimes no fitting rooms for women in mall stores.
Women have been waiting for years to step into the spotlight. Now is their time.
“Saudi is the ideal place for e-commerce. Although interestingly, mass brands have been more successful than high-end ones like YNAP,” says Mossalli.
Major sites include Souq.com, which was bought by Amazon, and Namshi.com, which is entirely tailored to a domestic market, selling modest fashion and lines based around the Muslim calendar. Both operate throughout the Gulf and are headquartered in Dubai. Last year, Mashat purchased Thelevele.com, a domestic e-commerce brand that sells fashion and beauty.
Mossalli is hoping AFWR will shine light on the infrastructure of retail in Saudi. “Fashion has always been our lemonade stand, in that is acceptable for women to work in, so it has the real potential to change lives. The SMEA [Small Medium Enterprises Authority] has already been in touch with me to help create all-female design workshops.”
Very little happens in Saudi Arabia without government approval and fashion week is no different. The government’s General Entertainment Authority, which is set to invest $64 billion in growing local culture, endorsed AFWR and was even forced to take over production of the event at the last minute. Along with SMEA, these government bodies and their awe-inspiring budgets arguably have the greatest power to shape the future of Saudi fashion.
“Vision 2030 and other extensions of the government are driving these progressive policies,” says Mossalli. “The fashion industry is just one of them. There is so much talent and potential here and women have been waiting for years to step into the spotlight. Now is their time.”
Disclosure: Melissa Twigg travelled to Riyadh as a guest of Arab Fashion Week Riyadh.
Editor's Note: This article was revised on 19 April 2018. A previous version misstated that the British Fashion Council played an advisory role in organising the Arab Fashion Week Riyadh event. This is incorrect. The British Fashion Council has announced a partnership with the Arab Fashion Council.