When I visited the school, mannequins displayed clothing intended to embody the Harley-Davidson brand. Ahlam Almutlaq, 21, had made an ensemble of black leather pants and a matching jacket with a pair of motorcycle tires swelling from the back. The look suggested a giant insect unfolding its wings, or perhaps a Hells Angel molting. Almutlaq told me she had not yet been on a Harley but loved riding ATVs in the privacy of her family’s desert compound.
“People say the Saudi taste is ugly: too many colors, too much makeup, too many beads,” summed up Mashael Alfaris, a recent ASI graduate. “But I think the appetite for vulgar dress actually comes from copying those Lebanese singers on satellite TV.” Alfaris, 29, was sitting at the fabric-laden desk of the atelier for her line MousSHi, located in her house. When I mentioned that her white lace sheath reminded me of both Audrey Hepburn and Christopher Kane, she smiled politely. “The boutiques in Jeddah like to tell clients my designs are ‘European,’ ” she said. “It’s meant as a compliment, but it’s a sad image. We are inspired too much by the outside world. I want to stand out—to say, ‘I’m a Saudi designer.’ ”
In the single-sex setting of the RK Designs opening, Al Kanhal showcased her personal mix-and-match style: trim ankles encased in spike-heel Dior lace booties and a slender waist and arms accentuated by one of her own designs—a black calf-length circle skirt with an exposed lace petticoat and a fitted white T-shirt printed with the image of a turbaned Ibn Sina, a 10th-century Islamic scholar. Al Kanhal had cut her bangs and straightened her dark hair in an Anna Wintour–meets–manga–schoolgirl coif; at the end of one epilated arm, she wore a man’s Rolex, a Bulgari charm bracelet, and a fingerless black glove onto which her assistant, a 21-year-old ASI graduate named Noura Alhamad, had affixed black steel bolts, in a reference to medieval armor.
Al Kanhal was planning to take her collection to a Los Angeles trade show, where she hoped to be discovered by a Hollywood stylist. Still, it had been a challenge for her and other ASI graduates to gain traction back home. The biggest impediment to a fledgling female designer is women’s official status as lifelong minors: They cannot apply for a job, open a bank account, or travel without written permission from a spouse or a male relative. Al Kanhal is lucky to have a husband who is supportive of her work and allows her to travel alone for business, but the bureaucracy remains daunting. “Sometimes there is an exhibition she wants to go to and the permission doesn’t come in time,” Al Kanhal’s mother told me.