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First Riyadh Fashion Week Positions Saudi Arabia as Middle East Hub for Fashion and Design

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The first ever Riyadh Fashion Week was held under the bright lights of the city’s new glitzy King Abdullah Financial District (KAFD). Models walked the runway in 15 shows over four days in one of the most buzzed-about new neighborhoods in Saudi Arabia. The vibrant, high-rise dense financial district, which boasts Zaha Hadid-designed architecture, is the most visible symbol of the government’s vision to diversify the country’s economy.

And runway shows taking over the financial district seemed appropriate given seizing the economic opportunity for fashion is high on the government’s agenda. The event was organized by the Saudi Ministry of Culture’s Fashion Commission, whose aim is to bolster the talent of local designers.

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“Fashion is directly supporting Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030 transformation,” said Burak Cakmak, chief executive officer of the Fashion Commission, referring to the blueprint to grow the kingdom’s economy beyond oil by developing new economic sectors.

Saudi Arabia is the largest consumer market of all the Gulf countries. The demand for fashion products is forecast to reach $32 billion in the next two years. The commission expects there to be a huge appetite not just for international luxury goods, but also local product. The nascent domestic industry already contributed 1.4 percent of Saudi Arabia’s GDP last year.

“We look forward to seeing Saudi brands finding their rightful place in the sector as it continues to grow. Riyadh Fashion Week a stepping stone in that journey,” said Cakmak.

Despite the turmoil in the region due to the Israel-Hamas war, with numerous events being canceled in Middle Eastern countries, Riyadh Fashion Week went ahead as planned, with a focus on supporting the development of the industry.

Ashi Studio at Riyadh Fashion Week 2023
Ashi Studio at Riyadh Fashion Week 2023

One of Saudi Arabia’s most well-known creative exports, couturier Mohammed Ashi, kicked off the week with his show staged in front of the King Fahd Library. Ashi, the first Saudi designer to be on the official calendar for Paris haute couture, hosted his first-ever runway show at home in Saudi Arabia — a milestone for the brand. For years he has operated out of his base in Paris and Beirut. For his homecoming, Ashi shared he is launching a new line of ready-to-wear eveningwear called “8pm,” which will debut in the Saudi market in March.

Model Halima Aden walked for veteran designer Honayda Serafi, whose collection, titled “Cosmos,” was inspired by the first female Saudi astronaut to go into space, Rayyanah Barnawi. Honayda’s designs showcased bold and playful eveningwear styles, some modest and some not. “We have the freedom of choice here,” she said. “This collection is about celebrating the success of women.”

Honayda at Riyadh Fashion Week 2023
Honayda at Riyadh Fashion Week 2023

One of the week’s standouts was Abadia, by Shahd AlShehail. Her “elevated daywear and understated eveningwear,” as the designer described it, incorporates a traditional bedouin handweaving style called “sedu.” The collection has “cultural storytelling that is applicable on a global stage,” said AlShehail.

“We design for a multidimensional global woman. She could be Saudi, because Saudi women are global and may dress different ways in different geographies.” She added, though, that the second-highest visitors to the brand’s online store are from the U.S. This, she said, is all organic reach. “We haven’t done any marketing to the U.S.” Abadia has recently been picked up by Net-a-porter, the brand’s first retail partner.

Arwa Al Banawi’s eponymous designs reflect the designer’s laid-back glamorous style. Her classic, cool tailored style is combined with urban influences. As a young mother balancing personal life and work who was also raised between Jeddah, Germany and Switzerland and by a working mother, Banawi said her style is for “women on the go.”

“Practicality is key for me,” said Banawi. “Women want to look sophisticated and to feel comfortable. That was my main inspiration. The collection is all pieces that are minimal and chic, that you can wear day and night.”

She said her brand can be found in Saudi, but also in other major global cities. “I design for the woman here in Riyadh, but also the ones in London or Paris or New York. My aim is to make women feel confident by being comfortable.”

One piece she said epitomizes her look this season is the caftan. “I added elements like fringe which is very reminiscent of the desert. This is a traditional garment of Saudi, but I wanted to play with it to make it both glamorous and easy so that you can wear it anytime.”

Tima Abed at Riyadh Fashion Week 2023
Tima Abed at Riyadh Fashion Week 2023

Ida Peterson, buying director at Browns, attended Riyadh Fashion Week, her first time in Saudi Arabia. “What is so interesting being here is not just the things you discover on the runway, but also just seeing the fashion community and discovering brands that are both on and off schedule. You learn so much about the people, their tastes.”

She said that she plans to continue to watch the market, which she described as “very promising.” She added that it was nice to see there was not one overarching theme to Saudi design. “Each designer reflected their own individual identity.”  A sign, she said, of an evolved creative market.

Over the last year the Fashion Commission has also taken the “brand Saudi story” on the road, with a series of roadshows aimed at educating global fashion stakeholders — including international buyers, media and investors.  Cakmak was in Paris last weekend  to participate in a panel discussion as part of “Les Trésors d’Arabie,” a cultural showcase organized by Saudi Arabia’s culture ministry and the Literature, Publishing and Translation Commission, on until Nov. 10.

Mohammed & Humaid Habdan at Riyadh Fashion Week 2023
Mohammed & Humaid Habdan at Riyadh Fashion Week 2023

Visitors to the free event just off the Place Vendôme can inspect basket-weaving, taste Arabian sweets and coffee, walk into immersive displays, learn about development projects in Riyadh and take in musical performances, poetry readings, short films and a variety of talks.

Two participants in Riyadh Fashion Week — Noura Sulaiman and Mohamed Bajbaa of Proud Angeles — joined Cakmak for a wide-ranging, one-hour discussion that stressed the importance of leading with the brand story, and focusing on the burgeoning local market first.

Bajbaa disclosed plans to change the name of his streetwear brand (inspired by Los Angeles) next year as it widens its community with an emphasis on well-being, growth mindset and belonging, and expands into retail, hospitality and entertainment.

He also cited enormous interest in creative careers, noting that during a photo shoot at a basketball court for a Proud Angeles X Rex Chouk collaboration, youth kept interrupting with queries about the various jobs on the set.

Kaf by Kaf at Riyadh Fashion Week 2023
Kaf by Kaf at Riyadh Fashion Week 2023

Sulaiman, who recently took on an investor to expand her luxury menswear business, said her wish is to collaborate with an international brand like Loro Piana.

Meanwhile, the Saudi Fashion Commission is aiming to open early in 2024 a new product development and sampling space outfitted with advanced machinery that it will put at the disposal of its Saudi 100 mentorship program, allowing them to bring products to market faster.

“This will be another game changer,” Cakmak asserted. “We are very excited to be able to showcase the ‘Made in Riyadh’ label.”

  • With contributions from Miles Socha, Paris

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