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How Arab Culture is Influencing the Fashion World, Era After Era

Arab culture’s influence on fashion has never been stronger – or prouder. Over centuries through to the present-day Paris Spring shows, its allure inspires a legacy of artistry and glamour

Dress, hairpiece, earrings, Stephané Rolland. Photo: Fouad Tadros

Tunisian model Myriem Boukadida opened Georges Hobeika’s SS24 couture show to the strains of Umm Kulthum. With assured steps, she walked steadily to the music, instilling a sense of pride in the many Arab clients in the front row, and a sense of wonder in the westerners witnessing a showcase of authentic Middle Eastern fashion and culture.

The rich history and heritage of the Arab world have long inspired explorers, artists, and writers, offering boundless vistas for creativity. From the ancient marvels of Marrakech to the vibrant streets of Beirut and the cosmopolitan charm of Riyadh, Arab culture has left an indelible imprint on the realm of high fashion. This enduring style continues to captivate designers today. Through couture, they honor the region’s diversity.

Dress, Valentino. Photo: Royal Gilbert

Like Georges Hobeika, Stéphane Rolland also brought forth a profound admiration for Arab culture with his SS24 couture show. With a mother from Casablanca and a grandmother whose roots spanned Tunisia and Egypt, Rolland’s early upbringing sparked a deep fascination for the Arab world. “It all started when I was a child, moved by the tales – like Aladdin and the magic lamp – and stories from my mother’s experiences in Northern Africa,” Rolland reflects. “Some years later, I made my first trip to Riyadh. It was then that I discovered to what point I was made for that culture.” Rolland, who had the honor of designing the wedding dress of HRH Princess Hussa bint Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the only daughter of King Salman, is renowned for the multicultural elegance of his work. Rolland’s designs grace prominent figures and celebrities worldwide. His latest couture collection, named Fullness, draws inspiration from the undulating dunes of the desert. “I love traditional Arab clothing. The pure and graphic design of its cut, the way in which a bisht is draped under the arm, the opulence and sensuality in each movement, the veils fly away – and my mind with it,” Rolland shares. From rosewood silk gazar tunics to Tuareg blue organza thobes embellished with golden embroidery, Rolland’s collection is a testament to his creative prowess.

Dress, shoes, Tony Ward. Photo: Fouad Tadros

Haute couture, synonymous with French luxury and culture, has long positioned Paris as a global beacon of sophistication, dating back to the era of King Louis XIV (1643-1715). Luxury houses throughout history have drawn inspiration from the rich tapestry of Middle Eastern culture, infusing their designs with its intricate craftsmanship and opulent fabrics. As early as 1911, French couturier Paul Poiret rose to fame for his Eastern-inspired creations. The translation from Arabic to French of Thousand and One Nights by Joseph Charles Madrus in 1898 and the premiere of the ballet adaptation of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade at the Opéra Garnier in Paris in 1910 further fueled Parisians’ fascination with oriental motifs, notably the seductive allure of Zobéide. Poiret’s legendary soirée, the Thousand and Second Night, held at his Parisian residence, captivated 300 guests, primarily artists. His reinterpretation of the sarwal mesmerized his affluent clientele, cementing the enduring influence of Middle Eastern aesthetics on Parisian haute couture. In the 1930s, Elsa Schiaparelli, influenced by her time in Tunisia, found inspiration in the traditional veiled dress of the Hammamet region. Yves Saint Laurent’s first journey to Morocco in 1966 marked the inception of an enduring creative partnership, profoundly shaping his collections. His SS1989 couture collection featured gazar capes adorned with hand-embroidered bougainvillea, inspired by the enchanting Jardin Majorelle, his Moroccan sanctuary.

Dress, Celia Kritharioti. Photo: Royal Gilbert

“Morocco is a land of cultural blending,” muses Sara Chraibi, the one female fashion designer from the Middle East and North Africa featured on the Paris haute couture week calendar. Chraibi, who is renowned for infusing her collections with the essence of her homeland, rejects the notion of a stark divide between preserving cultural heritage and embracing contemporary trends. Instead, she champions authentic storytelling, seamlessly interweaving her dual cultural identity into her designs. “I believe in an artistic expression where the question of identity, especially my Moroccan identity, naturally arises, without any form of struggle or advocacy, simply as a unique perspective born out of a specific geography and personal history,” she explains. “If this can promote diversity, inclusivity, or any cultural exchange, then all the better.” Rooted in a family of artists, Chraibi finds inspiration in the poetic resonance of Arab music, like tarab, and various forms of artistic expression, from calligraphy to Islamic architecture. Her SS24 couture collection, La Terre (The Earth), draws from Moroccan resilience in the face of adversity, notably the September 2023 earthquake. The opening ensemble, an oversized coat adorned with motifs reminiscent of the Tinmel Mosque’s brick arcades in the Atlas Mountains, symbolizes strength amid destruction. Coppery browns, blush tones, and deep corals accented with lavish gold and bronze embellishments dominate the collection, evoking layered rock formations. Delicate chiffon merges seamlessly with intricate beadwork, while semi-sheer kaftans and coats exude elegance. Through her collection, Chraibi – who chose music from Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi for the runway – hopes to inspire pride in heritage and appreciation for the interwoven tapestry of cultures, both within and beyond the Arab world. Elie Saab’s latest spring couture collection, Desert Rose, also delves into the soul of Moroccan culture, drawing from the intricate patterns of its architecture and the ethereal light of its deserts. Saab translates these inspirations into his designs, adorning capes and gowns with filigree reminiscent of Moroccan metalwork, while soft sunset colors and gold accents evoke the country’s mesmerizing landscapes. CEO Elie Saab Jr emphasizes the commercial significance of their couture line, highlighting its integration into the brand’s DNA and recent collaborations, such as the partnership with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the Riyadh Seasons festival. This fusion of cultural inspiration and commercial viability solidifies Saab’s position as a leading figure of the global fashion landscape.

Arab Culture fashion

Top, skirt, gloves, shoes, Georges Hobeika. Photo: Fouad Tadros

Napoleon’s resonant declaration in 1798 – “It is necessary to go to the east; all great glories come from there” – marked the beginning of western fascination with Egypt and its rich cultural heritage. Despite Napoleon’s defeat, Egypt captured the imagination of the western world, especially after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. At that time, Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels created pieces inspired by Egyptian motifs of exotic birds and scarabs and Jeanne Lanvin designed a collection she titled Tutankhamun. Perhaps the collection that exemplified the allure of Egyptomania was John Galliano’s opulent SS2004 couture show for Dior with its lavish use of gold leaf, silver lamé, and coral beading, paying homage to Egyptian royalty and ancient hieroglyphs. Fifteen years later, Karl Lagerfeld continued this legacy with the Chanel Métiers d’Art 2019 collection, reimagining ancient Egypt with elaborate detailing. Now, Cartier’s ties to the Arab world are celebrated with its exhibition Cartier, Islamic Art and Modern Design, currently on view at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. More than 400 works and precious objects underscore the influence of the Islamic arts on the French maison’s work across centuries.

Arab Culture fashion

Dress, cape, Giambattista Valli. Photo: Royal Gilbert

“We live in an interconnected world,” says Georges Hobeika, co- creative director of Maison Georges Hobeika. “Cultural exchange is inevitable, enriching our personal experiences and our creative endeavors.” The house’s SS24 couture collection embraces the vibrant essence of the Arab world. According to Georges, “Every facet of Arab culture offers its own unique allure and inspiration, reflecting a legacy of artistry and glamour.” He adds, “It is incredibly rich and diverse, embracing intricate patterns, luxurious fabrics, vibrant colors, calligraphy, geometry, and nature-inspired motifs.” Reflecting on inspiration and shared experiences, Georges son and co-creative director Jad recalls “memories from childhood, school, and times spent in the mountains where life was simple, beautiful, and with a sense of belonging.” Their collection combines elements of childhood nostalgia with the glamorous spirit of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, embodying a modern, streamlined aesthetic while expressing the warmth and hope of the Arab spirit. Georges emphasizes, “Embracing heritage has become innate to us; it is engraved in our day-to-day life.” The collection evokes the essence of Thousand and One Nights with shimmering motifs, translucent designs, and mousseline gowns. Jad highlights the house’s commitment to diversity, stating, “Our brand has been at the forefront of diversity in the region, with our casting evolving from one collection to the next, reflecting the story and personalities that embody it, regardless of background.”

Arab Culture fashion

Cape, dress, Elie Saab. Photo: Fouad Tadros

Indeed, this enduring fascination underscores the timeless elegance and allure of the Middle East in the realm of high fashion, both in design and in spotlighting a diverse cast of models. Algerian French model Farida Khelfa had paved the way in the 1980s, when she walked the runway for icons like Jean Paul Gaultier and Azzedine Alaïa. Today, along with Myriem Boukadida, Saudi model Amira Al Zuhair’s career is thriving. She made waves walking for Alaïa’s SS24 couture show, while Moroccan model Nora Attal captivated audiences at the Fendi SS24 couture show, Lebanese Nour Rizk has walked for Chanel, French Algerian model Loli Bahia is the new chouchou of Louis Vuitton, and Egyptian Moroccan Imaan Hammam is a bona fide international supermodel. New faces will continue to push Arabia’s beguiling narrative for many a collection to come.

Dress, Zuhair Murad. Photo: Royal Gilbert

Arab Culture fashion

Dress, hairpiece, earrings, Stephané Rolland. Photo: Fouad Tadros

Dress, Rami Al Ali. Photo: Fouad Tadros

Arab Culture fashion

Dress, Elie Saab. Photo: Royal Gilbert

Fashion director: Amine Jreissati
Style: Yehia Bedier
Makeup: Mabs Khakwani
Hair: Anastasia Alawadhi
Producer: Sam Allison
Style assistants: Neymat Master, Marguerita Christoforidis
Hair assistant: Hamta Babaei
Model: Daria at Fashion League UAE

Originally published in the April 2024 issue of Vogue Arabia

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