Established or up-and-coming, these are the Saudi Arabian fashion brands built to last – and the remarkable women driving them forward.
Originally printed in the June 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.
Arwa Al Banawi
Three years in the making, Arwa Al Banawi’s eponymous line is founded on tailored suits and athleisure pieces like tees and hoodies. She says, “Female empowerment is the message behind the brand while Arabic calligraphy is also part of its identity; it speaks to young women from the Arab world.” Her muse, #thesuitablewoman, as Al Banawi refers to her, is very much in her own image – seductively androgynous, independent, and confident – though she humbly describes her as a woman she aspires to be and one that most women can relate to. Silhouettes are boxy, masculine, and oversized, perhaps an influence from her own closet that includes her father’s Gianni Versace blazers from the 80s and 90s. Her fabrics are sourced from Italy, Japan, and India – count cotton, silk, satin velvet, viscose, and even sadu as her go-tos – and the clothes are cut and sewn in a small workshop in Milan and at her atelier in Dubai.
“The suits I design are made for the businesswoman on the go. She wants to look effortless and cool,” she says. Social political issues inspire her and she is sensitive to her surroundings. Her upcoming collection, Beduwins, looks to Saudi Arabia’s culture to spotlight customs the public doesn’t typically see. “Going to the farm in the winter, getting fresh goat’s milk and eggs… are the norm in our society.” With her signature edge, she manifests young Saudi girls’ roots along with the Western world she’s been exposed to.
The label was founded by Aljawharah “Sadeem” Abdulaziz Alshehail in 2016. “It’s a sustainable brand – all the pieces are designed to be timeless and can be customized,” states the statuesque creative. Hers is a label for the eco-conscious, sophisticated woman who collects timeless pieces to be dressed up or down. Her commitment to holistic living extends to her closet, which is filled with slow-fashion brands, regional talents, and vintage pieces handed down from her mother. The Sadeem label also focuses on innovative, recycled, and non-toxic fabrics. “I’ve been sourcing my textiles from factories in Japan and Italy that employ ethical labor laws, renewable energy, and waste and water reduction management,” she says. The clothes are made across New York, Dubai, and at her own studio in Riyadh.
Alshehail’s imagery research is rooted in feeling but don’t take her for a consummate romantic – even though her muses include “silver-screen sirens and historical heroines.” Sadeem reflects forward-thinking changes in the Kingdom – no lofty dreams here. “Social, environmental, and economic developments motivate me,” she says. “Witnessing the current progress in Saudi Arabia and the many positive initiatives taking place give me a great sense of pride and motivation. I am filled with enthusiasm, and my next collection’s theme is dedicated to my country.”
“Rooted in antiquity and brought to life with a contemporary twist,” is how Layla Moussa describes her eponymous line of made-to-measure coats and kaftans. She creates for unique-minded, strong, modern women, much like herself. In the 36 years since she launched her brand, she has wholly dedicated herself to shining a light on artisanal craft. The former antique dealer and interior designer discovered early on that her real passion has always been textiles. “I collected all sorts of vintage and contemporary fabrics in abundance for spaces that I would design,” she says, motioning that her take on luxury is artistic knowledge. “Fabric is an interesting medium to work with and I am always searching for different kinds.” She adds that the textiles chosen are determined according to the design.
“There is no limit to what I use,” she insists. Jackets are embroidered in gold thread and kaftans decorated with paisley. She furthers that the secret to beautiful embroidery lies in the manipulation of the threads. Her embroiderers split silk and cotton threads to achieve various thicknesses and also experiment with unconventional cords like jute. All the clothes are crafted by master embroiderers and tailors in her ateliers in Jeddah and Beirut. It is no surprise that her own go-to brands include Jean Paul Gaultier, Prada, and Louis Vuitton during the Marc Jacobs era – all known for celebrating rich grandeur. “Every brand is the reflection of its designer. When I am producing a simple kaftan or an intricate couture piece, besides the design, the quality is paramount. From experience, only quality survives. This is what I wish to be remembered for.”
Seven years ago, Daneh Buahmad set out to create a line of clothes with flattering cuts. “Comfort chic with edge,” she says of her brand, which is imbued with simplicity and attention to detail. “It’s important to me how much wear a woman will get out of the clothes. I design for professionals who are on the go.” She makes clothes from cotton, viscose, Tencel, and jacquard sourced from Turkey, Italy, the UK, and Japan. She stresses her love of textiles, “It’s a weakness of mine. I can get lost in another world when choosing a white fabric.” Her fashion inspirations include Alexander Wang, Acne, and Junya Watanabe. “The list goes on and on,” she laughs, adding that Bianca Jagger, Debbie Harry, and Khaleeji stars from the 70s are among her muses.
Some of her most popular pieces are those that prominently showcase her heritage and strike a balance between tradition and innovation. The thobe jumpsuit (above), has been reissued for several seasons now. “Each jumpsuit is inspired by a different kind of thobe, from a different region,” she says. For pre-fall, the Daneh vibe is translated to relaxed shirt dresses and trench coats in gingham, cotton, and flannel with Nineties appeal that feels familiar and informal. Based between Dubai and Saudi – Buahmad hails from Dhahran – she says, “Saudi is home. There’s a warmth to my country that is hard to explain sometimes.”
Nora Al Shaikh
“By now, the industry is aware that the current fashion cycle is dated and ineffective. Small designers simply can’t continue churning out collections for the sake of presenting something new,” pronounces Nora Al Shaikh. She produces three collections a year: Ramadan, pre-fall, and resort. Her prescience to focus on mid-season or bridge collections has served her well. The brand reaches retailers at a time when they are looking for something new. At its core, the label creates contemporary clothes that translate to different cultures, yet maintain a distinctly Saudi attitude in terms of proportions and juxtaposition of materials like fine brushed cottons and techno textiles.
“The infrastructure and resources like factories and fabric vendors weren’t available to us when we began,” recalls Al Shaikh of launching her brand in 2012. “As a Gulf designer, I also had to convince retailers that my designs can meet international standards and that there is a market for them.” She established a network of boutiques like Sid and Cugini in Saudi Arabia. “I wanted to focus on growing sustainably, as opposed to creating a lot of hype and not generating sales.” Hailing from Riyadh, Al Shaikh and her atelier are now based in Jeddah. Some items are produced outside, while a team of two dozen pattern makers and seamstresses ensures it remains Made in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Herfah by Naeema
Aunt and niece design duo Naeema and Shad Alshuhail launched Herfah by Naeema in 2015, but their fashion heritage started long beforehand. “My aunt has been dressing women and defining fashion and luxury in the region since the 80s,” explains Shad. With a deep understanding of the market and existing relationships with local artisans, a ready-to-wear label was born to celebrate Saudi craftsmanship and heritage in a contemporary way. The signature farwas – floor-length oversized coats Bedouins wear in the desert – are among the pieces intended to “defy trends.” Designs are embellished with sadu and embroidery details by artisans in Qassim.
During a recent trip to Ta’if, the seeds were planted to develop a relationship with new artisans. “Our aim is to generate sustainable employment for these women. Their techniques have been practiced for generations,” Shad says. “Our customers appreciate beauty and quality but are conscious of their impact. They’re selective and make a long-term investment to preserve and even pass down clothes.” The duo enforces its support of ethical fashion. “I believe that our choices matter and make a difference,” states Shad. Raised in the oasis of Al-Hassa, in the Eastern Province, the young Shad defines herself as a 21st century nomad. “I’m mostly on a plane between Dubai, Riyadh, and Beirut. Home is wherever my mother is.”
Photography: Dirk Bader
Hair: Lucinda Gill, Emina Jahic at NStyle Beauty Lounge
Makeup: Kim Pongos, Jovan Nikolic at Sephora
Shot on location at The 118, Downtown Dubai