A year before Lady Gaga put out the word in design circles that she needed a dress made of broken crystal for her “Born This Way” video, Reem Al Kanhal, an aspiring Saudi couturiere, was in the garden of her Riyadh mansion smashing a window with a hammer. She wanted to incorporate glass shards into the bodice of an evening gown for a project she was doing at her country’s first ever fashion school. “It was a self-portrait,” recalled the 31-year-old mother of two. “A woman might be shiny in public, but inside she has pain. She keeps things inside her that might hurt others.”
The assignment to construct a dress with no sewing involved was part of the fashion-degree program at the Arts and Skills Institute (ASI), a private women’s college in downtown Riyadh that counts Al Kanhal among the graduates of its first class, in 2009. Founded five years ago by a member of the Saudi royal family, ASI has managed to circumvent Wahhabi Islam restrictions on self-expression, and it aims to become the Saudi equivalent of London’s Central Saint Martins college. Standing out among student garments made from bicycle parts and Starbucks coffee cups, Al Kanhal’s elegant yet frightening-looking glass dress—as well as a second gown of silver-painted plastic sheeting with a clattering black train of steel shish kebab sticks—marked the arrival of a bold young talent.
I met the designer last year at the opening of her boutique, RK Designs, in one of the Saudi capital’s upscale strip malls. Because movie theaters and nightclubs are banned, shopping is a major form of entertainment, and store openings generate much public excitement. (In 2004, three people were trampled to death at an Ikea event in Jeddah.) A parking attendant guided cars to RK’s windowless storefront, the interior of which displayed a restrained industrial chic, with cement floors and hangers made of iron rebar. It was a women-only affair, and a male guard kept the front door shut tighter than that of a speakeasy. Once inside, some of the guests, including royal princesses, felt comfortable enough to take off their head scarves and abayas (robelike dresses).
The abayas have become less traditional and dour and more embellished and colorful since the more liberal King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud ascended the throne in 2005. And underneath the abaya, and on display in homes and at private functions, Saudi style these days is modern and often physically revealing. The country’s women are among the world’s most affluent consumers—Saudis spend more than $11.5 billion annually on fashion, according to the marketing research firm Euromonitor International. They also have access to the most expensive clothes: Well-known designers often travel to the kingdom to fit couture clients and sell their ready-to-wear collections at high-end department stores and boutiques.