Veiled Threads

A fashion school in Saudi Arabia teaches young women all about the latest trends. If only they could wear the clothes in public, says Susan Hack.

by Susan Hack


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.

A smock with headdress by Reem Al Kanhal, a 2009 graduate of the Arts and Skills Institute.

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.

Above: Designer Mashael Alfaris in her home studio.

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.”

Al Kanhal adding pictures to her inspiration board.

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.

“Fashion is a kind of power, and I want to use it to change people’s mentality,” Alhamad said, adding that she, too, longs for international success. She recently graduated from ASI, and one of her last assignments was to come up with a redesign of the Saudi Arabian Airlines flight-attendant uniform. She showed me her prototype: a hip-length beige jacket over gray-blue Lycra leggings sprouting what looked like a rocket’s stabilization fins. Alhamad told me her ideal client is “the strong, independent woman.” The mannequin, at least, looked ready for flight.