‘Your dreams will happen, inshallah,’ my mother would say,” recalls Saudi womenswear designer Arwa Al Banawi. As a child, she would hide out in her room, collecting photos from magazines. “She told me that every time I saw something that inspired me to put it in a box,” Al Banawi continues. The designer would also spend hours in her mother’s closet, trying on her Chanel, Saint Laurent, and Versace suits. “As a young girl, I wasn’t very confident. I remember wearing those clothes and feeling like I could run the world.” That’s how she fell in love with fashion. “I started to dive into it from my room in Jeddah. I remember reading magazines and feeling a sense of liberation because it made me understand that there’s a big world out there. All I wanted to do was find my calling…”
With no fashion design school in Jeddah, Al Banawi studied books and fabrics, learning to drape with her mother’s prayer scarves. “They were long and colorful, and I would use myself as the mannequin,” she says. When the London College of Fashion arrived in Dubai, she could start her design journey by enrolling in fashion courses. This led to her ultimately launching her eponymous brand in 2015.
Fast-forward to today and Al Banawi’s Dubai Design District-based label is a cool-kid go-to, with its signature tailored suits with edge. Prints represent the designer’s Saudi heritage and silhouettes are cut to make a woman look poised and sharp. The Kingdom is never far from the designer’s mind, however, as evidenced with her latest capsule, titled The Saudi Dream. Collaborating with Saudi photographer and artist Ali Chaban, the campaign features model and Vogue Arabia cover star Shahad Salman alongside Chaban’s carpet artworks. “I believe his work relates and connects with youthful energy,” Al Banawi says, adding that the work was custom-made for the shoot. In this collection, which is rife with nostalgia, Pepsi takes center stage.
“I explained to Pepsi that my inspiration is Saudi youth street culture, its authenticity, creativity, humble streets, and people. I can’t recall one Friday without ordering from a street food place called Al Beit – and you had to have Pepsi. And there were those Friday lunches at your grandmother’s house, with fried fish from the market, rice, lamb, and, again, Pepsi.” The Pepsi logo from the 50s to the 80s is featured in Arabic and English in the collection, capturing the vintage feel, while the fabrics are inspired by prints Al Banawi would see in the souks.
“Every fabric has a purpose,” she says. “I keep reminding myself to open my senses and eyes to new things, cultures, and technologies. It’s the only way to keep evolving in a creative industry.” Silhouettes are Nineties-inspired merged with traditional Saudi garments. Oversized blazers with no lapels use the red and white fabric used in the shumagh. Loose pants feature box pleats while T-shirts and sweatpants merged with the Saudi thobe show her twist on athleisure. Hoodies in the form of an abaya can be donned instead of the veil. “It’s all about how the Saudi woman can wear those pieces to work under her abaya or after work at a dinner and feel and look both modern and practical,” comments Al Banawi. There’s also a nod to her mother in the form of floral bandanas similar to what she would wear. It’s another wink to the past, but she’s decidedly looking to the future, too. The label now uses eco-friendly shopping bags, has lessened its use of plastic, and reuses leftover fabrics.
Find her label here.
Originally published in the May 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia.