Riyadh Fashion Week wrapped up its inaugural season on Monday night, and promptly revealed that it is planning another next October.
Staged inside the King Abdullah Financial District, the four-day fashion week attracted a cast of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) influencers, local socialites and several scores of international editors and buyers, despite the war in Israel and Gaza.
The season, which is underwritten by the Ministry of Culture and the Saudi Fashion Commission, is a key part of the country’s long-term plan ‘Vision 2030’. An ambitious attempt to build a series of creative industries locally, at a time when global sports events and international artists are increasingly visiting the region.
Most fashion guests stayed in the JW Marriott, mingling with the entourage of Tyson Fury, who will defend his heavyweight boxing crown this Saturday. While the local English-language Arab News daily revealed Monday that Ed Sheeran will play Dubai and Bahrein next year.
Many observers’ opinion of the country is still dominated by the brutal murder of dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, widely blamed on government secret agents. When asked about it, local Saudis respond with embarrassed silence. If anything, practically everyone notes the great personal freedom, especially for women. The de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman legalized women’s right to drive in 2019 and tiny women in burkas driving Porsche Cayennes now overtake chauffeur driven limos. Strict rules of covering arms and shoulders in public have been relaxed, as can be seen on the Riyadh catwalks. While restaurants are now permitted to host music events, that were previously banned.
Unlike most seasons in emerging markets, who invited in foreign stars for gala shows, Riyadh Fashion Week focused exclusively on local talent. In terms of fantasy, finish and finesse the results were often impressive.
“I think we got off to a great start. No one knew exactly what to expect but retail and the media got a good surprise. We hit the right tone, by showing what Saudis have been doing for decades, but was never visible. So, our plan is to do this annually in October, when the climate and calendar makes most sense,” enthused Burak Cakmak, CEO of the Saudi Fashion Commission.
“Designers have been operating here as part of a core eco system of fashion. Previously, they did business privately or sold to select stores, but the wider community didn’t know about them. It’s a reminder why fashion weeks are so important,” Burak stressed.
Saturday was devoted to couture brands, Sunday to women’s ready-to-wear and Monday to menswear.
On Sunday, several brands made concise and contemporary statements, like Abadia by Shahd AlShehail.
One of two Saudi designers who recently received financial backing after a road show in New York, Abadia certainly has commercial plausibility. This season, Abadia’s new offering was in black and white.
Shahd wants Abadia ladies in neat lapel-free jackets paired with flouncy full skirts, or sleeveless linen cardigans that end at the ankle. She paired wide pants with crisp gray linen coats piped in white, and cut some great silk sheathes dissected with sporty belts. And a neat touch of local imagery with several of the cast wearing Bedouin style cartridge belts.
Her finish was fine, her seamstresses were succinct, though the pattern cutting was not exactly stellar. But it was refreshing to finally see a collection in Riyadh that did not have several enormous trains, unlike in couture.
A turquoise dream at Honayda, where model superstar Halima Aden marked her professional return to the runway after a three-year hiatus. Aden opened the show in a turquoise silk dress, finished with a gigantic enveloping cloak. Her head topped by a beaded silver skullcap. One of a half dozen turquoise looks that opened this show, the second of which an elongated column was finished with a three-foot wide silver crescent moon choker.
An astronaut theme, where most models carried silver flags at the finale – Neil Armstrong like. Multiple looks featured planet prints and the soundtrack included a 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 countdown.
A jolly show, where the designer took an extended tour of the runway before sitting down with pals to applaud her own collection.
Somali-American Aden was born in a Kenyan refugee camp and is famous for being the first woman to wear a hijab in a beauty pageant for Miss Minnesota. The attention that garnered led to her being signed to IMG Models. Going on to become the first model to wear a hijab in a shoot for Sports Illustrated.
The night before Aden sat front row at Yousef Akbar before sportingly aiding a model, who had tripped over in a silk couture, exit the show.
“Us girls have to stick together and show each other support,” said Aden, a UNICEF ambassador.
Kaf By Kaf
The final look in Kaf by Kaf was a sombrero… dress. Five basket weave hats making a Chinese pagoda form, in which the model found extreme difficulty walking. Other woven baskets became giant shoulders. Some were cut into mammoth petal dresses. All playing on the local vernacular even as the language overpowered the garments.
Kaf by Kaf also loves crochet, riffing again on a local tradition – rope crochet. Using it in backless cocktails, fringed dusters and even a trio of two-foot-long mouth covers. Conceptual clothes in a conceptual collection, and one that played more than any other in Riyadh on Saudi aesthetics.
Overall, the Saudi luxury market has a rapidly growing spend, but local brands make up a small share, so a key goal is to change that.
“In many cases, this is the first time these designers have showed in fashion show format – and I believe we reached an international level of presentations. Fashion is a very important sector, so this is a learning journey for us and the brands. Where they must learn about staging, casting, music and invites,” noted Cakmak, who declined to reveal the size of the season’s budget.
“I cannot share numbers but the key thing is to present talent in the right way,” he stressed.
According to sources, in the past year the commission did a study of the local market expecting to find a few hundred fashion design brands. Instead, they discovered almost 2,000, with 75% founded by women. Noticeably, top-notch buyers attended from such diverse emporiums as Selfridges, London’s hippest department store, and Contraband, Canada’s most happening concept store chain.
“Some are stores already selling to GCC clients, so for them it’s very interesting not just to see shows but also Saudi taste and how they dress for events,” notes Cakmak.
Nor did the situation in Gaza affect participation, with no cancelation by brands or visitors.
The Commission has already staged large events in Milan and Paris, and last month took several designers to a financial road show in New York, where two of them garnered backing.
Going forward, the Fashion Commission plans more focus on special international events, targeting individual brands and certain categories. And it’s also heavily emphasizing educational aspects, with a major link-up with IFM, Paris’ top fashion and luxury management school.
“We began a training program 18 months ago, to develop knowledge in four sectors. Fashion business, and how the industry works, how to construct a collection, how to price it; Fashion design, to learn the creative process, and not simply to create by intuition; Fashion image and communication, how to manage media and social media and understand what networks to use. Skills and techniques; not just how to use a technique, but also have the eye to understand when they are well done,” explained IFM Director Xavier Romatet, who attend Riyadh Fashion Week.
In the first year about 60 designers enjoyed short but intensive three-week courses, rising to 100 this year. Given by IFM professors in both Paris and Saudi. About 15 professors have visited Saudi to lecture students, several of whom showed this week.
“They are impressed by the creative maturity of Saudi designers and their desire to learn. And, also by the increasing openness of this society to greater liberty, and greater freedom of expression for women,” noted Romatet.
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