Much has been written in Western press about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s male-dominated society and the status of women’s rights. Meanwhile, one mother-daughter team has been working diligently to bring about real change from within.
Originally printed in the September 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia
Wafaa Abbar is the president of the country’s leading luxury retailer, Rubaiyat Group. Her daughter, Noura Binzagr, is its ladies division manager. Together, they contribute to impressive advancements for women in Saudi. They have done this on a number of fronts: through the curated choice of luxury designer products (from the likes of Gucci and Prada) sold in their stores, to the local fashion initiatives that they support. Now, they are heralding the opening of a new ladies store spanning over 2000 square meters in Olaya, Riyadh. Industry pioneers, the two women are regional and international examples of what women with vision and drive can accomplish.
“I think it’s only fair that the likes of Noura and I speak out so that all women sitting at home – or who are working but hiding it and don’t want to be seen – reveal themselves to the public. There is no shame in that. It’s a power,” says Abbar about her choice to do interviews with the press. Abbar, a woman who always has a smile on her lips and a joyful twinkle in her eyes, has had the drive to make her mark on the world since she was a child. The youngest of six children, she remembers looking up to her older brothers and wanting to be like them. “I have the spirit of competition inside me; to be number one,” she admits. That drive translated into a work ethic that saw her become one of the first Saudi women to start a retail business in the Kingdom. She is also the main shareholder of the company, which she helped to co-found in Jeddah in 1980. In 2014, under her guidance, Rubaiyat opened the city’s first luxury fashion department store.
Meanwhile, Binzagr is a diminutive beauty with a head for business, a love of fashion, and a clear-eyed understanding of the challenges women face in her home country. “I think it’s because we feel we have to work so hard to prove ourselves that Saudi women in the work force end up being very accomplished. I see it at work: most of the Saudis in our company that excel are women,” she says.
Both Abbar and Binzagr relish the challenge of finding luxury goods that will sell in their unique market. Often they work hand-in-hand with designers to help them create products that are in keeping with the label’s esthetic but that also incorporate the particular needs of Saudi customers. “Saudi is a tricky market. It’s very sheltered in the sense that it is one of the only markets in terms of retail that caters only to locals. In Europe the offering is different than what we have because we buy a very tailored edit. I’ve heard customers say things like, ‘We’ve been to Europe and we didn’t see these products.’ This is why we’re here. We buy for you because we know what the market needs,” explains Binzagr.
Now, the launch of the three-floor ladies store, promises even more selection for its dedicated customers along with a café and mini spa. “This is a dream that we’ve been wanting to realize for many years,” comments Abbar. The mezzanine will offer footwear from brands including Aquazzura, Malone Souliers, Sergio Rossi, but also Golden Goose and Nike while the store’s ground floor will propose handbags and accessories by brands like Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, and Saint Laurent alongside labels Phillip Lim, MSGM, Helmut Lang, and Alexander Wang. Upstairs, eveningwear from Jenny Packham and Naeem Khan will satisfy special occasion indulgences. Décor on the walls will feature a curation of large-scale works from the Kingdom’s art foundation l’Art Pur, established in 1999 by Her Highness Princess Adwa Yazid bin Abdallah Al Saud.
What the market also craves is the promotion of its own homegrown talents. To that end, Abbar has been instrumental in highlighting regional designers on both a macro and micro level. In 2016, Rubaiyat Group backed the first ever Jeddah Vogue Fashion Experience. This saw a number of leading fashion designers, tastemakers, and journalists fly to the Kingdom to judge a group of up-and-coming local designers. The winners of that competition were then flown to Europe to present their creations during Milan Fashion Week. Furthermore, since the Rubaiyat luxury department store opened four years ago, during Ramadan, Abbar creates a dedicated area for emerging designer products. Over the 30-day period, a different designer is given the entire space to display their creations for two days. Often, a selection of abayas or kaftans is presented exclusively for the store.
With the launch of the new store, Abbar aims to satisfy a growing need, “Our customers in Riyadh have been wanting a bigger Rubaiyat store in their city for a while now. We’ve always wanted to satisfy our cosmopolitan customer and now it’s finally the time.” She adds that along with providing a bigger space, they will “take everything to the next level,” from the interior to the merchandise and customer service. “We hope it will be as exciting for them as it is for us and that it was well worth the wait.”
Photography: Rawan Althomali