Al Kanhal’s pieces played with Saudi gender codes—a somewhat subversive idea in a culture where men and women are in many ways segregated. The tassel of a man’s dishdasha (a long robe) was sewn onto the décolletage of a stretchy gold tube top, and a bridal mannequin wore a black turban with a veil of metal weave. Photographers had not been invited. In the local press, Saudi women willing to be photographed are invariably shown wearing head scarves and abayas, and the adherence to the Koran’s mandate that women dress modestly outside the home presents a conundrum for any Saudi designer trying to publicize under-abaya creations. Word of mouth is therefore crucial.
In 2007, Princess Adwa bint Yazid bin Abdullah, a niece of King Abdullah, opened ASI to offer Saudi women the opportunity to pursue a degree in art or fashion. For the 2011–2012 school year, just 26 full-time fashion students registered. The low enrollment reflected two social factors: the cultural stigma attached to tailoring, usually performed by Asian laborers; and the Wahhabi-oriented education system, which discourages depicting the human body—an act considered to be mimicking God’s power of creation and, hence, blasphemous. “I love art, but I had no place to learn,” said the princess, an accomplished painter. “It took me years of travel to take private lessons to learn not just how to hold a brush but also to think, see, use my imagination, and discuss my work. I want it to be easier for other girls.”
At 9 a.m. every Saturday through Wednesday (the Saudi workweek), students start arriving in chauffeured cars at the two-story building. (Women are not permitted to drive, so class times are flexible—depending on whether students from families without private drivers can spare a male relative to transport them to school.) Once inside, the women hang their abayas in a cloakroom, revealing outfits they’ve chosen with verve and, in some cases, a hefty budget. “I’ll spend 30,000 rials [$8,000] a month shopping at Saks and Harvey Nichols,” one 25-year-old confessed. “More, if I’m depressed.”
The creative director is Olga Kozlowska, a 56-year-old native of Krakow, Poland, who can be simultaneously demanding and nurturing. “I tell students again and again the words of [designer] Alfredo Cabrera: ‘If you don’t know how the garment you’ve designed will be made, you haven’t designed anything,’ ” she said with exasperation, noting that some students have access to family seamstresses and inexpensive souk tailors. “I know all the stitches I teach at this school, so I can tell when a student has taken a shortcut and asked a tailor to sew her pattern for her. I’ll rip the seams up and make her start over.”