Saudi Arabia Almost Had a Fashion Week
LONDON — Business class plane tickets and five-star hotel rooms had been booked for scores of guests. The dazzling eco-friendly Apex Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, designed by the architect Zaha Hadid, had been chosen as a site. And a four-day schedule, featuring local Arab designers and European brand names including Roberto Cavalli and Jean Paul Gaultier, had been confirmed for weeks.
Then last Friday, just three days before an opening-night gala was to celebrate Saudi Arabia’s first fashion week, the event was abruptly postponed.
Some observers blamed widespread issues stemming from Western models and journalists unsuccessfully trying to secure travel visas in the run-up to the shows. Others whispered of a pushback from more conservative government officials against some members of the Saudi royal family who were more supportive of bringing fashion catwalks to one of the most conservative countries in the world.
Either way, over the weekend, no official explanation came. Finally, on Monday, a statement — of sorts — arrived by email.
“Since the initial announcement made in February, Arab Fashion Week Riyadh has garnered significant interest from international guests wanting to attend,” said Layla Issa Abuzaid, the country director for Saudi Arabia at the Arab Fashion Council, the Dubai nonprofit responsible for the event. “Given this important historical moment for the kingdom, the Arab Fashion Council and participating designers have collectively taken steps to postpone the dates in order to welcome guests from all over the world. This could only be done by taking additional time.”
The new dates for the event, the statement said, will be April 10 to April 15, and it will take place at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh. The lineup of international and regional fashion brands will remain the same.
“The decision for postponing the event was made simply so that we are able to accommodate all the international guests who had applied to attend,” said Jacob Abrian, the chief executive of the Arab Fashion Council. “We are extremely thankful for all the trust and support that we have received to make it happen.”
While no one ever said that organizing a fashion week was easy (just ask those responsible for juggling the calendars of hundreds of shows and presentations in New York, London, Paris and Milan), the deferral of an inaugural event of such scale and at such cost — and under such media scrutiny — is still bound to spur many questions. That there is more at play than purely creating a new fashion hub is becoming increasingly clear.
The high-profile, high-stakes plan for a first fashion week in Saudi Arabia, unthinkable even two years ago, comes at a time of apparent reform in the country, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler. Taking inspiration from the successes (and failures) of smaller Gulf neighbors like Dubai, Saudi Arabia is trying to shift away from a reliance on oil and gas revenues and is repositioning itself as a dynamic place for business, hospitality and leisure — this in one of the most restrictive societies in the world for women.
Saudi officials have gone to great lengths of late to spotlight promises by the crown prince to let women drive and play a greater role in the country’s work force; to expand entertainment opportunities; and to encourage foreign investment. Change, they say, is in the air.
Arab Fashion Week Riyadh, at which shows will be held in the evening for women-only audiences, will come at a time when women have more access than ever to public arts and entertainment: In January, female fans were welcomed into soccer stadiums for the first time, and a decades-long ban on cinemas was lifted in December.
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Now the Arab Fashion Council, which opened its regional office in Riyadh in December, plans to position Saudi Arabia as a hub for an emerging regional fashion industry, appointing Princess Noura Bint Faisal al-Saud as its honorary president. Recently it also forged an alliance with the British Fashion Council to provide support in establishing a sustainable infrastructure for the fashion industry in the Middle East and the 22 countries of the Arab League.
“The first Arab Fashion Week in Riyadh will be more than a world-class event,” Ms. Issa Abuzaid said when the project was announced. “It is a catalyst through which we believe the fashion sector will lead other economic sectors such as tourism, hospitality, travel and trade. Our retail sector is among the fastest growing in the world.”
With two weeks to go before the start of the rescheduled fashion week, the postponement, and lack of information about it, continues to shroud the event in an aura of mystery. That said, the fashion shows in Riyadh will come at a time when Saudi Arabia’s religiously conservative rules constraining the attire of women outside their homes are showing signs of relaxing. In an interview with “60 Minutes” on CBS this month, the crown prince said that women should be able to choose what they wear.
“The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of Shariah (Islamic law): that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men,” Prince Mohammed said.
“This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover,” he added. “The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear.”
Let’s see if this new trend makes its way onto the catwalks in Riyadh, and indeed across the kingdom.