Arab event planners can turn the wildest wishes into reality. Five leading purveyors of fantasy share how they create magic
“HH Princess Hassa bint Salman, the only daughter of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, celebrated a wedding that was a unique and intimate event that we were honored to be a part of,” says Hibah Albakree, managing partner of Designlab Experience. “We transformed her private residence into an arabesque world inspired by oriental paintings and Islamic architecture. The hand-crafted 3D bas-relief sculptures extended throughout the 1,200 sqm space.” Albakree founded the company in UAE in 2009 after noticing an increased demand for event planners.
She later joined forces with Mootassem El Baba, who serves as Designlab Experience’s creative director. They first teamed up to work on a 2,500-guest wedding in Abu Dhabi, where they realized they worked well together, alongside their lead architect, Marwan Maalouf. “We were determined to contribute to the industry’s transformation by elevating the experiential element, transforming spaces entirely while creating layered and complex projects through architecture, decor, and collaborations with artists,” Albakree says.
They expanded into the government and private sectors, including sporting and cultural events, temporary urban spaces, and hospitality projects. In addition to being an event management company, Designlab Experience is also an architecture firm and creative studio specializing in temporary design and immersive projects. They’ve worked on numerous high-profile projects and redefined experiential events. Clients can get anything from large-scale installations to the recreation of walls and ceilings, or multilevel layouts. Their secret to success? They never repeat a concept.
“We consider each outrageous request an opportunity to raise the bar and tell a different story every time.” For a private event for 300 female guests in Kuwait City, Designlab Experience transformed a private beach residence into a Roaring Twenties-inspired venue. A 2,500 sqm structure was erected on the property, seamlessly fusing art deco opulence with Arabic flourishes. The wedding of HH Sheikha Meera bint Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan and HH Sheikh Zayed bin Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan featured ice sculptures by Makoto Azuma that encapsulated 28 types of red and yellow botanicals. “The compositions were lined up on the sides of the reflective catwalk, which was particularly challenging as we had to consider the melting time of the ice and create a drainage system under it,” Albakree remembers.
Anoud Al Zaben
“Designing the royal wedding of Jordan’s crown prince was a substantial responsibility,” says multidisciplinary designer Anoud Al Zaben. “It was an opportunity to create something that not only honored the royal palace and the Hashemite leadership but also resonated deeply with the people of Jordan.” Hailing from the Bedouin tribe of Bani Sakher, located in the central Jordanian desert, the artist, who grew up in Jordan, explains that her deep tribal connection shaped her perspective and worldview.
Al Zaben has a diverse background in architecture, fine arts, and biophilic design and launched her namesake company in 2021. Before that, though, her journey began with architectural firms, where she focused on design-led residential projects and deepened her fascination with materiality as a means of construction, communication, and storytelling. “Today, as an event scenographer, my role involves crafting immersive spaces for temporary exhibitions, installations, and celebrations. I’m passionate about weaving intricate stories around each project, drawing on my architectural training, and instilling a profound appreciation for nature into my designs.”
Various artists and nature often inspire her unique tablescapes and edible installations. For a Loewe event, the table decor was an ode to changing seasons, with Al Zaben foraging flowers and plants, while for a wedding in Amman, she reimagined the dessert table as a golden wheat field. As someone passionate about her roots, Jordan is often a source of inspiration for her. She recalls one of her most challenging projects – an event that celebrated the multifaceted nature of the Jordanian landscape. “
We recreated the lush greenery of the north, complete with hanging gardens and flowing water features,” she recalls. “As guests moved further, they became immersed in the rich red hues and desert-inspired decor that celebrated the south. The project challenged me to find the perfect balance between contrasting elements.” Not one to be fazed by competition, Al Zaben believes each designer attracts the right audience for what they create. “I avoid exposing myself to the work of others because I prefer to keep my wellspring of inspiration wide open,” she says.
“I used to be a private banker, but I knew I was meant to do something creative,” says Robert Hykl. After quitting his number-crunching job, he founded his eponymous company in Beirut in 2013. “I had a passion for design, textiles, and materials, and a love for interacting with new people, so I set up an event company and got to do both,” he shares.
His team includes architects, designers, art directors, producers, and event managers. One look at his Instagram, and it’s hard not to be impressed by the ideas he executes – be they in Beirut, Paris, or Greece. “When a bride says she wants to bring back the Jazz Age, you pull out the black and gold palette to hit those art deco notes,” he says.
He attributes his creativity to his travels and exposure to different cultures and experiences. Over the past decade, the creative has witnessed various industry trends and adds that there’s an increased demand for unconventional venues. While his opulent weddings look effortless, each event comes with its own challenges, including tight deadlines, coordinating with vendors, sourcing materials, and managing logistics in remote international locations.
He doesn’t have a constant signature aesthetic and instead listens to his clients, he says. “I consider their vision and mix it with my signature. From the moment I pin up a mood board to the final execution of the vision on D-day, my touch is recognizable throughout the work.”
Saudi event planner Ghadeer Ashoor fell into the industry by chance. The interior design architect started by planning engagement parties for family and friends and soon realized she had a knack for it. She launched her eponymous firm in 2012. Being a female entrepreneur in the Kingdom a decade ago was tricky initially, but things have become much easier, she notes. Ashoor has planned weddings for various high- profile clients, including Princess Lama bint Mansour. “I enjoy working on royal weddings and occasions – it’s usually formal and a bit different, but equally interesting and challenging to work on,” says Ashoor.
She recalls one such challenge: “I planned a wedding for 1,200 guests in the middle of the desert. With all the Covid-19 protocols, getting the materials and executing the project within the 7,000 sqm of space was complicated. But despite everything, it turned out to be special.” Another memorable project is a big destination wedding in Beirut, which was different from traditional Saudi weddings. “It was a new thing for Saudis to have weddings in Beirut, and we planned one that didn’t have a traditional set-up, complete with a stage, catwalk, and multi- leveled platforms,” Ashoor shares. “Besides the usual entertainment, Abla Fahita greeted guests.” With her vision and attention to detail, her clients see her work as art, and she doesn’t think about industry competition, believing that everyone has their own style. Instead, Ashoor tries to understand her clients and works towards fusing what they want with her aesthetic. “I do in-depth research to understand their style. Then, I create a wedding that reflects their personality.”
Last year, the wedding of Tiffany Trump and her Lebanese beau Michael Boulos at Mar-a-Lago in Florida made international headlines. While the bride walked down the aisle in a dress by Elie Saab, the decor was the handiwork of Lebanese creative Toni Breiss, who is known for his extravagant yet sophisticated events.
At 20, Breiss moved from Beirut to Paris to study hotel management and worked at various luxury hotels, including the Four Seasons George V. “In 2005, I started my company in Paris, and now I have offices in Beirut and Riyadh too,” he shares. With his signature style being a mix of contemporary and classical styles, Breiss has worked on weddings for royalty and celebrities as well as high-profile events like luxury brand store openings and the Joy Awards in Riyadh.
“Planning and executing an event to perfection require a large team and sometimes finding the right people can be tricky,” he says. “My team is massive, but if you’re producing a wedding in Egypt spread over 10,000 sqm for 2,700 people, you still need to find and work with local suppliers.”
Given his expertise and strong global networks, Breiss gets the job done flawlessly, be it in Monaco, Toledo, Riyadh, or Paris. He dedicates his achievements to his team. “There’s no success without a successful team. My people are vital to me. My employees are involved in my accomplishments – they see it, live it, and participate in it.” He oversees every detail and never books two events on the same day (or same week if it’s a large production), which is greatly appreciated by the clients.
When planning a wedding, Breiss and his team become like extended family to the client in the months leading up to the big day. “For us, every wedding is special, regardless of the budget or the country. We connect with our clients, which creates a bond – they become like family. And you want to create the best for them.”
Originally published in Vogue Arabia Living Fall/Winter 2023