Originally printed in the January 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.
Along a stretch of runway, women dressed in abayas and niqabs sit tightly together in the front row, excitedly chattering among themselves. More than 30 women from Oman – among them members of the royal family – have traveled to Dubai to witness Atelier Zuhra’s couture showcase during Fashion Forward’s tenth season. One woman rises and crosses the runway, her abaya billowing with each stride. She greets another who’s donned a turban while teardrop pearl earrings swing from her lobes. She is the First Lady of Nigeria, Aisha Muhammadu Buhari, and she is being welcomed by the equally elegant and high jewelry attired Mousa Al Awfi, founder of the new Dubai-based couture house. Al Awfi’s diamond pendant sways like a pendulum and all eyes are on them as the two women exchange courtesies.
“I have always dreamed of glamour,” says Al Awfi backstage after the show, her porcelain skin shimmering against her black abaya and painted red lips. “Atelier Zuhra is named after my mother; a woman with passion, who has forever been my role model. I introduced myself to couture as a child – I admired the beauty of ballerinas and always wished to have my own couture house.” She opened Dar al Aufi boutique in Dubai, offering in-house eveningwear and bridal designs, and started to build a regional clientele who gravitated towards her enthusiasm for maximalist glamour. In a short time, spectacular gowns became the lexicon for Atelier Zuhra. At the Fashion Forward showcase, the maison featured 35 dresses, each seemingly more grandiose than the last; with Syrian designer Nabil El-Nayal, who showcased his brand just afterwards, divulging that “each dress took up a rack” backstage.
“I have four daughters and one son, and I have a strong relationship with all of them,” continues the matriarch. “I could see, through the years, that my daughter Rayan had capacities in fashion; she is ambitious, supportive, and very loving. And so, I decided to pass Atelier Zuhra on to her.” Rayan Al Sulaimani speaks with the certitude of a budding entrepreneur. With a master’s degree in chartered accounting from London and a self-assurance instilled by her prominent Dubai-based family, Al Sulaimani oversees the maison’s operations with aplomb. Some 20 petites mains work at the atelier in Dubai, every so often dedicating four to five months to making one dress alone. She also develops the house’s strategy, and aims to see it expand with various lines, while maintaining two couture collections a year and producing made-to-order dresses.
For Atelier Zuhra’s creative director, Filipino Ryan Pacioles, his appointment is the effect of chance coupled with talent and perseverance. Upon leaving the Philippines in 2015 to “try his luck in Dubai,” Pacioles passed through Al Awfi’s boutique while she was there. The two struck up a conversation about fashion and “the rest is history,” he says. He maintains daily conversations with Al Sulaimani, discussing fashion, the house’s clients, and future. “My duty is to deliver the dress in a state of perfection – no matter the design. I always demand the best level of quality of production,” he says. “The challenge is to obtain the approval of the mother and daughter – they each have such an eye.” He notes that both women push him to delve deep into his designs. “When the relationship is like that, there is no limit, creatively.”
Befitting the étoile dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet, the Fashion Forward Atelier Zuhra showcase opened with a white A-line sleeveless dress, the structured silhouette of which featured hundreds of mosaics that served to introduce the Gaudí-inspired collection. It was followed by more fitted silhouettes and skirts of all lengths. And while ostrich feathers, beads, and embroideries sometimes decorated the dresses, the mosaics that dusted the dresses like morning snow created a juxtaposition: here, attention to detail and precision were set against the imperfect nature of the mosaics that appeared to have been broken with a hammer. In fact, each acrylic piece was uniquely shaped via laser cutting before being attached to the fabric with adhesive. The metallic and neutral color palette also worked to build drama within the collection. Midnight black sparkled with monastic starkness while models gleamed in silver like Amazons, and the gold dresses shone as though they were ordered by the Sun King himself, while at court in Versailles.
“We don’t have any one particular muse in mind. We aim to create something for all women who love the spectacular,” says Al Sulaimani. “Personally, I prefer the mini skirt dresses.” Al Awfi picks up, “And I prefer the classic ball gown dresses. Every woman should have at least one occasion in their life to sparkle.”