Saudi Arabia continues to make significant strides in its multi-billion-dollar foray into global culture, reaching a significant milestone with the debut of the first Saudi designer at Paris Fashion Week. Mohammed Ashi, renowned for dressing top celebrities, showcased his haute couture show as an official part of the event, marking a pinnacle moment in his career. Ashi expressed his excitement, describing it as the highlight of his professional journey during an interview with AFP at a glamorous cocktail soiree held at the prestigious Ritz Hotel in Paris. This event was part of a grand Saudi PR campaign that has spanned the fashion season.
Ashi’s remarkable rise to prominence is particularly well-timed, coinciding with Riyadh’s announcement of its own fashion week scheduled for October. The Saudi capital anticipates that newfound freedoms will create annual retail opportunities valued at a staggering $32 billion. While fashion is just one facet of a broader strategy, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the de facto ruler, has been diversifying the nation’s oil wealth into various industries such as movies, sports, video games, and tourism. Simultaneously, he has overseen sweeping social changes within the kingdom.
Initially, skepticism surrounded these developments, with concerns that they were mere attempts to deflect criticism regarding Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, particularly in light of the tragic murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. However, the transformations have exceeded expectations, surpassing superficial appearances and delving into substantive societal shifts that few could have predicted.
“For the first two years, I almost didn’t believe it was real, but then I realized, wow, it IS real,” said Yousef Akbar, 37, who began his eponymous fashion label in Australia in 2017 and has dressed the likes of Nicole Kidman and Rita Ora.
“I really never thought when I was growing up that this would happen. When I started my brand in Australia, I thought my whole life would be there since I’m a fashion designer,” added Akbar, who now also runs his business from Jeddah.
The Saudi elite already spent vast sums on international luxury brands for events behind closed doors.
But the Saudi Fashion Commission claims new freedoms around public dress and a growing private sector will see retail sales surge by 48 percent to $32 billion between 2021 and 2025.
It wants a lot of this money to stay in the country, creating a Saudi 100 brands program to incubate local designers.
CEO Burak Cakmak says there are stable foundations for a homegrown industry.
“Just because the country wasn’t exposed to the rest of the world doesn’t mean they are starting now,” he told AFP in Paris. “I had an event for a brand this week that’s been running since the 70s.’
While the queer community has heavily influenced the fashion industry around the world, LGBTQ people face severe repression in Saudi Arabia, which criminalizes same-sex relations.
“(The authorities) are certainly aware that many couturiers and designers are gay,” said Susanne Koelbl, author of “Behind the Kingdom’s Veil”.
Their approach is simply to “try to ignore it,” she added, and the authorities are turning a blind eye to almost everything.
“Maybe you can’t dance naked on the table, but almost anything else is possible now, as long as your family is OK with it and you are loyal to the ruler,” Koelbl said.
Having repressed practically all opposition to his rule and stripped clerics of their power, there are few obstacles in Prince Mohammed’s path.
“It’s a well-planned, long-scheduled reform process which is about to change the society completely,” said Koelbl.
“The Saudi people don’t tend to be revolutionary and for the vast majority there are indeed new and big opportunities now, especially for women.”
The excitement is certainly genuine for those who are benefitting.
“It sounds cliched, but seeing something happen that we all thought was impossible is very inspiring for my own business,” said Akbar.(AFP)