One of the most exciting parts of Arab Fashion Week Riyadh, the first official fashion week hosted in Saudi Arabia, which took place last week, was the sheer amount of Saudi girl power on display. It was an all-woman, all-the-time event — young student volunteers setting up and monitoring the tents, Make Up For Ever backstage beauty teams that had been trained specially for the shows — and an opportunity to spotlight some of the female design talent emerging from the desert kingdom. Here, four names to remember.
Arwa Al Banawi
A former banker born in Jeddah, Ms. Al Banawi began her fledgling fashion brand in 2015 from her parents’ vacation house garage in Dubai under the slogan “A suitable woman.” While Western brands offering day-to-night power tailoring for the working woman already existed, few had the arabesque flourishes Ms. Al Banawi thought would resonate in her local market.
So she set up shop on her own, offering suiting separates mixed with provocative slogan T-shirts in Arabic aimed at young Saudis (“My car is red” and “I studied in America,” for example). A capsule collection with Adidas Originals last fall spurred a social media craze, and for her official collection, “Bedouins,” Ms. Al Banawi took inspiration from the Arabian desert.
“I was thinking of the modern, elegant yet conservative girl when I designed this collection, especially someone who is Saudi and proud of it,” Ms. Al. Banawi said during a preview. Slick silk pantsuits in reds, whites and black with serious 1980s shoulder pads were mixed in among languid sand-hued suits with large collars with Ghutrah trim (the red checkered pattern of the headdresses worn by many Arab men). There were also sweeping shawls in traditional woven Bedouin fabrics draped over shoulders and given form as skirts, accompanied by khaki T-shirts with the words “We are a Kingdom” in both English and Arabic.
“I wanted to take the rich history of our kingdom and make it feel contemporary,” Ms. Al Banawi said. “I wanted to reflect the mood of our society right now: that we are proud of what came before us, but even more excited about what could come next.”
Mashael AlRajhi is a pioneer. She founded her namesake brand — a hybrid of street wear and couture — in 2013 and three years later was the first Saudi designer to be selected as part of the International Fashion Showcase at London Fashion Week. She was also the first Saudi to be nominated for the Woolmark Prize, in 2016, and a recent collaboration with Nike made her the first designer to bring a Nike hijab onto the runway.
She also creates both men and women’s collections, rare for a female designer from the region, and is based and manufactures exclusively in Riyadh, no mean feat given the underdeveloped local fashion industry infrastructure. (Most designers eventually have to move elsewhere to grow their businesses, often Dubai.) Yet Ms. AlRajhi said last week that she would not have it any other way.
“I am Riyadh born and raised. Being a fashion designer here has its challenges, but I want to keep my roots here in order to help develop foundations so other brands can also flourish,” she said before a show that mixed her Nike Pro neoprene sports hijabs with black tailored jackets, sneakers and chiffon skirts, or a pinstripe shift and electric blue ruffles.
Also on view were an elegant silk gown, with a scarlet belt at the waist and fluid trim fanning out at the shoulders and along sleeves; an all-white cotton pantsuit with cropped sleeves and ankles; and a dove gray cape with purple skirt overlay that would not be amiss on the catwalks of Paris.
While many of her Saudi contemporaries have focused their efforts on ready-to-wear, Alia Al-Sawwaf of SWAF Designs is an unabashed maximalist devoted to haute couture. And her show in Riyadh last week was a tribute to the luxury and extravagance found within Saudi Arabia’s capital city.
“I see myself as an artist as much as I do a designer,” Ms. Al Sawwaf said ahead of her show. Ruffled capes and trains swung dramatically from tailored pantsuits and evening dresses in blacks, blues, whites and reds, while several of the giant, tiered skirts to her ball gowns were finished with sweeping brushes of glitter.
“People don’t know about Saudi women because they don’t really see them,” said Ms. Al Sawwaf, who is based in Jeddah. “But we are strong and don’t give up. There is a customer base for my clothes here, and I am convinced it will only grow.”
Reem Al Khanal
A graduate of the Art and Skills Institute in Riyadh, Reem Al Khanal is a favorite of influencers both near (Saudi Princess Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz) and far (the American Man Repeller founder, Leandra Medine), who champion the modern interpretations of traditional garb produced by this divorced mother of two daughters.
“There are stereotypes about Saudi women and how we dress, but we are not trapped by our abayas, we wear them like a coat that we just take off when we get inside,” Ms. Al Khanal said last week. “My clothes are designed to make a statement underneath, about a woman, her sense of self and who she wants to be. Especially now, when at home there is so much change for women underway.”
Ms. Al Khanal, one of the best-known designers from the region, was meant to open Arab Fashion Week Riyadh, but took herself off the schedule after the event’s first postponement in March, choosing instead to concentrate on designing her collections.
Her latest focus? A more affordably priced second line, Reem by Reem Alkanhal, rooted in karate pants, shirtdresses, statement sleeves and tassel coats, and scaling up her business, which she started in 2010.
The winner of Best Female Designer of the Year at the KSA Arab Woman Awards in 2015, she was also an International Woolmark Prize finalist for the Middle East in 2016. Her next collection features tailored white poplin and crepe dresses with patterns and trims inspired by Al-Qatt Al-Asiri — dazzling interior wall decorations created by women in the Asir region of Saudi Arabia — and cutouts inspired by the windows of the region.