If there’s one thing Middle Eastern women are known for, it’s their impeccable dress sense. Intricate couture finds a home in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Beirut. Chanel bags and Hermès scarves line scented and curated shelves, Louboutins and Jimmy Choos stand to attention. For the Arab woman, there’s no occasion too small to display her Elie Saab, no meeting too inconsequential to showcase her Zuhair Murad. While the imitable Mr Saab and his ilk have, over the last few decades, trained the spotlight on the region with their ravishing red-carpet creations, a fresh crop of designers is capturing the attention of the next generation of Arabs; a set with their own sartorial point to make.
Arab fashion has diversified in recent years and where initially the region focused on occasion wear, now, designers are flourishing in every category, from streetwear to swimwear. London-based Syrian designer Nabil El-Nayal is one of the new guard. He recently received a substantial grant from the British Fashion Council’s Fashion Trust to help grow and sustain his brand, for which he sources historical references and gives them a contemporary twist. “I have a specific look that caters to a woman who is passionate about innovation – respecting history and searching for something with substance and meaning,” he says. Arab design is for confident women, El-Nayal states; it’s defining its own niche by pushing design parameters while staying respectful to Arab heritage. Lama Jouni is another exciting talent being strategic about her expansion. The Lebanese designer – who has stints at Balmain and Reed Krakoff behind her name – launched her ready-to-wear label in 2013. Her tailoring underpins collections inspired by hip hop and worn by Bella Hadid and Rihanna – and she’s also teamed up with Puma on two exclusive ranges of athletic wear.
Arab designers have their own perspectives, informed by a proud yet sometimes insular culture that has only fairly recently opened itself up to reinterpretation and experimentation. This is an idea that excites not only industry insiders, but the market itself. “When I started introducing Arab designers to global audiences around 2011, the reaction was not the strongest,” says Firras Alwahabi, fashion consultant and owner of creative agency Faux Consultancy, which counts some of the Middle East’s best design talents on its books. “We were still very much thought of as an import region, not an export one, and retailers didn’t know if their clients would gravitate towards Arab names and perspectives. This has changed massively in the last decade – press and buyers are excited and supportive of what is happening in the region.” What is taking place is a reawakening of cultural pride and a reimagining of what it could mean. “Arab designers often have a strong message inspired by the ups and downs the region has gone through,” comments Beirut-born Racil Chalhoub,who anchors her brand with chic and versatile tailored tuxedo suits. “There is a certain energy that comes from the chaos of the region, which is then translated into beautiful designs with a sensitive, elevated touch. That specific aesthetic inspired by our Middle Eastern heritage is incomparable.” Other designers echo this, deftly intertwining their roots into clothing with a global appeal. “It’s important to keep including our culture and motifs in modern ready-to-wear designs to keep educating today’s generation about our heritage,” says Reema Al Banna, the force behind UAE-based Reemami. SemSem weaves Egyptian motifs like the lotus flower into its creations – worn by Blake Lively, Olivia Palermo, and Gigi Hadid – with founder Abeer Al Otaiba proudly embracing her Middle Eastern heritage. Arwa Al Banawi merges her Saudi heritage and Swiss education in her slick, streetwear-inspired pieces. Dubai-based Saudi designer Daneh Buahmad’s flowing metallic dresses, overlays, and jumpsuits blur the line between everyday and occasion wear. She draws inspiration from her heritage, transforming it into modern pieces with subtle nods to Arabia. “The different elements that influence Arab design are exciting,” she says. “Handwork, crafts, landscapes, tradition, circumstances… During my design process, I research and investigate elements we have around us all the time and possibly take for granted. To see something traditional that reminds us of our parents and grandparents on international platforms is thrilling.”
With events like Sole DXB, luxury boutiques like Plum Concept in Beirut, and global e-tailers carrying Arab designers, the region’s style is opening up to a new world of opportunity. Streetwear is one of the most exciting genres, with young designers gravitating towards small groups of skaters and rappers to collaboratively showcase their talents. “Streetwear is seeing an Arab twist with calligraphy and inspiration driven by the region’s culture and history,” Alwahabi says. He namechecks Jordanian label Romani and The Nou Project as ones to watch – the latter sneaker label, founded by Saudi-born Nour Al Tamimi and Lebanese Basma Chidiac, collaborates with artists to create limited-edition sneakers. “As these new categories emerge, we will begin to see an influx of new designers and even more design genres introduced,” he continues.
“It’s interesting that this transition is already happening – a brand like Madiyah Al Sharqi started off as an occasion-focused label and now mostly consists of contemporary separates. Designers here are adapting to what the global audience wants.”
There is a caveat to this gear shift in the region, though, as Alwahabi points out. “If we are to see a growth of designers from the region, we are going to need more production facilities – there are very few here and at this point, it’s all that’s stunting the growth.” Chalhoub believes the world is catching on to the fact that Arab designers have more than one trick; that they can design and create a variety of ranges and styles and that there are many more edgy designers out there. “I’m always so proud to see someone of Arab origin make it, mostly because it means that they probably had to work a lot harder than others to get there,” she says. “There are no limits to where it can go, especially in this day and age where everyone is being more inclusive and open to diversity and newness.”