Seriously opulent, luxurious and meticulously crafted fashion, jewelry and accessories by 100 designers from Saudi Arabia are being spotlighted starting Tuesday at the Iron23 event space in Manhattan’s Flatiron neighborhood.
The Saudi designers, many considered emerging brands and selected from a field of 1,500, were challenged to create pieces expressly for the exhibit and that reflect Saudi heritage and culture. The exhibit, called “Saudi 100 Brands Fashion Exhibition,” has been organized by Saudi Arabia’s Fashion Commission. None of the 100 brands have been seen outside Saudi Arabia until now.
The exhibition, which debuted in Riyadh late last year, is split into eight different categories: ready-to-wear, modest, concept, premiere, demi-couture, bridal, handbags and jewelry. While ornate in terms of the heavy use of fabric, embroidery, laser-cuts, color and references from Saudi architecture and landscape, they are modest to the degree they cover the body. On display are long robes or “thobes,” long coats or “abaya” and large scarves for head coverings called “tarha.” But there is a diversity of style, with some streetwear — a hoodie and some shorts are shown — and more fitted and avant garde designs presented.
“This exhibit doesn’t have a commercial angle. It’s meant to give visibility to creativity from a region of the world that has never been exposed to the rest of the world,” Saudi Arabia’s Fashion Commission chief executive officer Burak Cakmak told WWD in an interview at the exhibit. “It’s open to anybody. It’s a free event. You just have to register.
The exhibit represents “the starting point to show the level of creativity,” said Cakmak, a former dean of the Parsons School of Design. “Each of the brands are working on a wholesale collection. The idea is this fall, we will have wholesale collections available for retail. The majority of these designers have never sold outside the country. Several have sold in the region; one or two internationally. The intention is to show the diverse range of products that are designed in the country, but also with the exhibition we challenged them to create a showpiece, not meant as a retail piece, that projects their creativity and represents who they are.”
The intent is also to dispel misconceptions about fashion in Saudi Arabia and how people dress there.
Currently, there are no statistics available on the size of the Saudi fashion industry, although the commission is gathering data to determine that, Cakmak said. “Local brands have the ambition to grow internationally and there is a huge appetite for international bands to come to Saudi Arabia,” he said.
“One thing people don’t realize is that life in Saudi includes every kind of product. What is different from the rest of the world is what’s public or what’s private. That doesn’t mean all these products you see in the West are not selling in the East. There is a different way of using the product, but every category is still very much relevant in the region. There are no restrictions. It’s really a personal journey of each consumer to decide how they want to dress in the house and outside the house.”
The exhibit could travel to other cities, but that’s to be determined. To further help the designers, the Saudi government has been setting up mentoring programs and bringing in consultants and experts from fashion houses and academia to guide them.
Asked if international politics could affect the level of acceptance of Saudi design by Americans, Cakmak replied, “The intention is to connect creative communities and build a bridge for designers with other creatives, designers and businesses. At the end of the day, individual brands are very much focused on building their own business, and we very much want to focus on the business side with them. This is ultimately letting the creatives shine and helping them grow their business with no other intention. When we see creatives engage with the West, it doesn’t matter where they come from. You speak the same language. You are focused on where your inspiration comes from, where the culture comes from and how does that influence each other.
“Saudi Arabia is on a growth path across all sectors, including fashion, and there are great opportunities for local entrepreneurs to build new businesses across all parts of the fashion value chain,” Cakmak added. “A robust fashion sector benefits from local creatives, design studios, marketing and communication agencies, manufacturers and retailers. And through programs like Saudi 100 Brands, we look forward to seeing Saudi designers take their rightful place on the global stage.”
The exhibition, which runs from July 26 through Aug. 7, is open Monday through Wednesday, 11 am to 7 pm, Thursday through Saturday, 11 am to 8 pm, and Sunday, 12 pm to 6 pm at Iron23, 29 West 23rd Street. Tickets can be reserved at saudi100brands.nyc.