Why you should pay attention to what Saudi Arabia is doing in fashion


When one thinks of Saudi Arabia, one of the first things that comes to mind is probably oil. And rightly so. A large amount of oil was discovered in March 1938, and this natural resource made the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia one of the richest countries in the world. Eighty-five years have passed since the discovery of this oil, but Saudi Arabia is not about to stop producing it. Although the kingdom plans to divest and expand on this natural resource, it is also moving into other sectors, such as fashion, through initiatives such as Saudi Vision 2030.

Endorsed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the vision is to strengthen public sectors such as culture, tourism, health, education, infrastructure and entertainment to increase non-oil gross domestic product (GDP) by sixteen percent. Fifty percent and the contribution of the private sector to the GDP will increase from forty percent to sixty-five percent, according to the Saudi Fashion Commission.

Saudi Fashion Commission

Before 2020, there was hardly any fashion ecosystem in Saudi Arabia. But the creation of the Fashion Commission, headed by Burak Cacmak, is flourishing and is expected to contribute 1.4 percent to the country’s GDP. “Here in Saudi we were building the fashion industry completely from scratch,” says Kacmak.

Cacmak is the former dean of fashion at Parsons School of Design at The New School in New York City. Working passionately to rapidly grow the Saudi fashion ecosystem, Çakmak opens up about the highs and lows. The biggest challenge is getting market data. It is important for the Commission, as well as designers and businesses, to make informed decisions, he continues.

Stakeholders, investors, the Saudi government and the fashion industry need information to help the kingdom’s fashion sector grow, but a lack of information has led the commission to produce its first data-driven report. “We’re launching it in Paris on June 27 after Men’s Paris Fashion Week and we’re showing it in New York in October. Called ‘The State of Fashion in the Kingdom of Saudi’, the report guides the industry, clearly outlines the performance themes and the scope of opportunities in Saudi, which we hope will support the growth of the sector. We are launching an online platform for stakeholders to engage with sector data to augment the report. For the commission, Cacmac says, it is important for the kingdom to have every opportunity to develop as a high-value fashion value chain.

According to the commission, fashion accounts for 1.8 percent of the total Saudi workforce (230,000 people), and 52 percent of that workforce is female. All this in turn leads to wholesale and retail sales. “The Saudi fashion industry is attracting local talent,” says Kacmak. “It will ensure that enough talent is created to inspire the young Saudi population and provide a growing workforce across the entire fashion value chain as long as it inspires us.”

It was announced in May, and according to Reuters, sixty-three percent of the kingdom’s population of 32.3 million is under the age of thirty. This leads the Crown Prince to find a way to provide employment opportunities for more than 10 million Saudi citizens, hence Vision 2030. And this is where fashion makes a difference.

“What matters is that Saudi youth are ambitious, and they are embracing all the opportunities that Vision 2030 offers them. This also shows that the Saudi unemployment rate has decreased. As part of the Saudi Vision 2030 plan, it aims to reduce the unemployment rate to 7 percent, from the previous high of 11.6 percent, and increase the participation of women in the workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent, Kakmak explains.

For Cacmac, who oversees this ecosystem of designers, retail, development, production, apparel, footwear and jewelry for both traditional and contemporary fashion, he seems to be excited for all the future developments in the kingdom. In cooperation with the Ministry of Culture, they see that investment is pushed and a strong regulatory framework is built. It’s no easy task, but Çakmak is up to the challenge of enhancing the kingdom’s strong and rich fashion heritage by helping those in the Saudi fashion ecosystem reach their full potential.

“The Saudi fashion scene is unlike any other, you only need to attend a Saudi event like the Saudi Cup to witness its love of luxury and luxury combined with Saudi heritage and modernity,” he said.

Saudi 100 brands

Initiatives within the commission, such as Saudi 100 Brands, are professional development programs that help local emerging talents reach their full potential. This talent is between twenty and seventy years old. Some were educated at international design schools, others were self-taught, but eighty-five percent were women.

One of the Saudi 100 brands is contemporary ready-to-wear designer Mona Alshibil. “A distinctive feature of Saudi fashion is the abaya, a long loose robe worn by women. Saudi designers have reimagined the abaya and turned the traditional black design into a fashion statement. We modernized it and experimented with different fabrics, cuts, colors and embellishments to create timeless, versatile and modern styles,” she says.

“What sets Saudi designers apart from others is our vision born from our past and heritage. We have a strong desire to stand out in the field of fashion by showing the world inspiration from the ancient history of our kingdom and nature in its various regions,” said Noor Al Dahri., Another designer from Saudi 100 brands.

On what makes them unique, another designer from the first group of Saudi 100 brands, Shahd Alshehail, said, “We are built on a unique story-telling related to Saudi culture, and we have strong support from local artisans and craftsmen. This focus on craftsmanship and authenticity translates into unique designs and a brand experience unmatched by any other.

The Saudi fashion ecosystem is spread across ten categories from footwear, to fragrances, ready-to-wear, modest, concept, premium, demi-couture, bridal, handbags and jewellery. With more than five thousand hours of consulting, as well as masterclasses and workshops by industry leaders and experts, one hundred brands are given the opportunity to shine on the world fashion stage at New York and Milan Fashion Weeks.

“Since its launch in June 2021, the Saudi 100 Brands initiative has received thousands of applicants,” says Cacmak. “And on this side initiative, we were able to obtain information about the quantity and quality of fashion brands in Saudi. We realized that the kingdom has thousands of amazing, mostly undiscovered creative talents. It is great to see the talent of designers being recognized both locally and internationally.

Competition of the French Fashion Institute

And just last month, the commission partnered with the prestigious French institute François de la Mode to offer courses to Saudi designers. With two courses: ‘Fashion Business Program Executive Certificate’ and ‘Fashion Design Program’, designers have the opportunity to learn and grow within the industry. The aforementioned course will start this month with thirty students learning marketing, business strategy, visual merchandising, retailing and financial management. The latter course begins on June 26Th And it will work until July 13ThProviding cultural experience and technical knowledge to twenty-four designers.

The course fee is covered by the commission. There are still twelve universities in Saudi Arabia that offer bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD programs in fashion-related disciplines.

Other motivations

The commission has other initiatives that strengthen the value chain of the Saudi fashion ecosystem, such as Fashion Futures, Elevation and Intermix Residency, further strengthening the Kingdom’s role in the global fashion industry. The commission has participated in exhibitions such as Exhibition 2020 in Dubai, Iron23 Exhibition in New York, White Milano Exhibition, Red Sea International Film Festival, Mohammed Ashi Runway Show in Paris. Couture Week in July, and the Saudi Cup in Riyadh.

“Saudi fashion embraces traditional culture through their modern aesthetic vision. The Saudi aesthetic is made up of intricate details such as embroidery,” says stylist Breck Graham, who has worked with famous fashion brands from Estee Lauder to Karl Lagerfeld.

In addition to introducing the fashion report this month, the commission will continue projects that strengthen the value chain this year. “The new product development studio will open at the end of 2023. Based in Riyadh, the space has state-of-the-art technologies such as 3D knitting and laser cutting machines. The production space will allow designers to produce prototypes and samples to accelerate market entry,” says Cacmak.

The commission will host the fourth swap shop and signed a memorandum of understanding with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology to support a research and development center for sustainable materials and textile technology. Together with the mentors: Lorenz Baumer, Laure Herriard Dubreuil, Christophe de Pous and Valerie Herrmann, they continue to champion female leadership in the Elevate initiative. In September, their Saudi 100 brands return to White Milano, and their Future of Fashion event returns in October.

“Fashion is clearly a driver of the Saudi economy, and we are in a very strong position with a pipeline of talented young people eager to learn and apply their skills to Saudi’s emerging fashion scene,” Kakmak said.

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