Fashionable women, dark-haired Saudis and blonde Eastern Europeans alike, filled the gold-trimmed halls of Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, marking the start of Saudi Arabia’s first fashion week last week.
Models and makeup artists preparing for the inaugural Saudi episode of Arab Fashion Week that ran Apirl 10-14 said they were surprised the event was taking place in the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom.
“We are so excited because this is the first fashion week in Saudi Arabia, so we are making history,” model Anita Dmycroska said.
Strict social restrictions have eased dramatically under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has reined in religious police, introduced public concerts and lifted bans on cinemas and women driving.
Yet, restrictions persist. Last Tuesday’s reception was open to men and cameras, but only women were permitted at catwalk events and outside photography was barred.
Women in public places in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, wear abayas – loose-fitting, full-length robes symbolic of piety.
With recent reforms, women in some cities have begun to don more colorful abayas, sometimes trimmed with lace and velvet or left open to reveal long skirts or jeans.
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No abayas were featured on the catwalk. The event hosted invitation-only fashion viewings and a Harvey Nichols pop-up store in a tent that was still being erected hours before the first show.
Another tent held the catwalk, featuring designers from Brazil, Lebanon, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United States and the United Arab Emirates.
The event, initially scheduled for last month, was postponed because of delays in issuing visas. Industry figures from Italy, Russia and Lebanon flocked to Riyadh, many for the first time, to admire the work of local and international designers.
Layla Issa Abouzeid, Saudi Arabia country director for the Dubai-based Arab Fashion Council organizing the event, said 1,500 people were expected to attend, including 400 from abroad.
She hopes the event will bring revenue into the kingdom and highlight local talent.
“[When] people go to Paris on the Paris Fashion week, the hotels are completely fully booked,” she said. “I want to create the same demand in Saudi Arabia, twice a year. I want to create a platform for the local designers to go worldwide.”
Lebanese designer Naja Saade came to Riyadh to display his couture collection.
“I’m very proud to participate in this first edition of Arab Fashion Week in Saudi Arabia, because it’s a part of the revolution of the women in this country,” he said.
By bringing talent from Europe and placing international brands on the same catwalk as Arab brands, he hopes to elevate local fashion designers.
AFC wants to introduce fashion courses, internships and scholarships to Saudi Arabia and develop a fashion district in Riyadh.
Jacob Abrian, AFC founder and chief executive, said many Arabs have had to leave their countries to have fashion careers, but this recurring event allows them to stay in the region.
“I was always asking myself, why do us Arabs have to travel abroad to find our future? Why can’t we find our future in our own countries?”