PARIS (AFP) — Saudi Arabia is continuing its multi-billion-dollar entry into all aspects of global culture, hitting a new milestone on Thursday with the first Saudi designer presenting at Paris Fashion Week.
Mohammed Ashi’s haute couture show — his first as part of the official roster after years of dressing top celebrities — is “the peak of my career,” he told AFP at a cocktail soiree at the Ritz Hotel in Paris this week, part of a lavish Saudi PR campaign throughout this fashion season.
Ashi forged his own path, having left the kingdom three decades ago, but his promotion to the top league is neatly timed as Riyadh announces its own fashion week in October and says new freedoms will create retail opportunities worth $32 billion a year.
Fashion is just one strand of a strategy that has seen de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman divert its oil wealth into movies, sports, video games and tourism, while overseeing dramatic social changes within the kingdom.
Many worried it was all just a smokescreen to defuse criticism of his human rights record, especially after the gruesome murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
But the changes ran further and deeper than almost anyone expected.
“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.