Almost three weeks ago, Saudi Arabia’s inaugural Riyadh Fashion Week unfolded like a mirage, with glamorous local, regional, and international VIPs gathering beneath the gleaming towers of Riyadh’s King Abdullah Financial District.
The country has recognized an opportune moment for domestic brands to shine. Saudi Arabia already boasts the largest consumer market in the Gulf and expects fashion retail sales to surge to $32 billion by 2025. It is also one of the wealthiest nations in the world, housing an outsized demographic of millionaires (117,000 millionaires in 2022) and high-net-worth individuals.
The market for fashion and luxury is clearly there, but what of the nascent local industry? Riyadh Fashion Week offered a closer look, with front rows filled by glamorous VIPs, local celebrities, influencers, and clients.
“Part of the vision of this is definitely the country economically diversifying beyond oil. And fashion clearly has a place to play,” says Burak Çakmak, CEO of the Fashion Commission of Saudi Arabia.
As models sashayed down the runway, it became apparent that the event was a confluence of tradition and modernity. In a lineup of 30 exclusively Saudi designers, brands showcased collections paying homage to the region’s rich heritage while casting a visionary eye towards the future.
Sat in the front row was Somali-American model Halima Aden, a covergirl, UNICEF ambassador, champion of modest fashion, and the first hijab-wearing model to walk international runways and be signed to a major agency. She graced the runway for designer Honayda (who has dressed Priyanka Chopra and Lupito Nyong’o) in her “Cosmos” collection that paid tribute to trailblazing Saudi women.
Mohammed Ashi, celebrated for being the first Saudi couturier invited to Paris Couture Week’s official schedule, made a resounding return to the nation. His show captivated audiences with a dazzling homage to desert nights, twinkling stars, and rolling dunes.
Among menswear labels, 1886 stood out, as noted by Çakmak, for its style and market viability, both regionally and internationally. Noted international buyers such as Bosse Myhr from Selfridges and Ida Peterson from Browns were also among the attendees.
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And finally, Abadia, a sustainable brand by designer Shahd AlShehail, emerged as a clear favorite of the more contemporary and international crowd. The label masterfully weaves traditional Saudi bedouin craftsmanship into pieces epitomizing sophisticated minimalism. This fusion of cultural roots and modern design not only earned it a spot on Net-a-Porter but also attracted substantial investment during a New York visit.
“What makes Shahd stand out is that she started because she cares about the community,” Çakmak explains. “She’s the one that’s really trying to build an ethical luxury brand and really doing the local craft for ready-to-wear with respect to all the communities and respect to Saudi culture. But in a very modern way.”
Building a fashion ecosystem
The four days of Riyadh Fashion Week demonstrated the kingdom’s clear intent to transform its capital into the Middle East’s new fashion hub. As avant-garde abayas juxtaposed against contemporary couture and evening wear, international guests were surprised at the sartorial diversity — perhaps a testament to Saudi Arabia’s shift towards greater openness and artistic expression.
“Today, the fashion industry here only makes up 1.4 percent of the GDP. Our aim is to grow that as much as possible until 2030, to show that fashion can be a healthy sector in the country, offering opportunities for jobs and employment, but beyond that, also new businesses to be created in the country,” says Çakmak.
“Building a Fashion Week is part of that system. But everything else around, like agencies, showrooms, retail events too, and you’re creating a calendar around fashion, which never existed in the country,” he adds.
Clearly, the oil-rich nation is stepping away from the “behind closed doors” couture it was once known for.
“It’s more progressive than many think, and within fashion, I see big potential for the sportswear and streetwear sectors. The number one reason is that 50 percent of the country is under 25 years old,” says Çakmak.
“Within fashion, I see big potential for the sportswear and streetwear sectors. The number one reason is that 50 percent of the country is under 25 years old.”
Pre-empting this first Riyadh Fashion Week, 2023 saw a series of events and pop-ups showcasing Saudi fashion designers in London, Milan (where they landed a spot at 10 Corso Como), and Paris fashion weeks, advancing Saudi’s global fashion ambitions.
A Saudi Fashion Commission report outlines that the nation’s fashion imports stand at about $9.7 billion a year, a number set to grow by about 13 percent annually. With this newfound visibility, local designers are hoping to claim at least a sliver of the fashion pie. For them, the week was not just a marketing moment but also a sales one.
Cultural confluence and looking globally
For the country, Riyadh Fashion Week ultimately served as a cultural litmus test. While conservative roots were still visible, the air buzzed with a progressive spirit, challenging the perception of the once rigid norms of Saudi society.
The event’s successful run speaks to the strength of Vision 2030, the kingdom’s blueprint for economic diversification beyond oil. It could also help regional talent seize the opportunity to disrupt the global fashion hierarchy and redefine the Middle East’s fashion narrative, from consumers to creators.
While this edition started with Saudi-only talent, Çakmak says that going forward, regional and international designers will be invited. Already a hotspot for luxury’s biggest spenders, the ambition to make “Made in Saudi” its own coveted brand will become a catalyst for the nation’s cultural aspirations.