Whether donning an abaya, kaftan, cocktail dress or ball gown, one thing is certain: Arab women have style. And thanks to Muscat Fashion Week 2013, held on January 15-17 at Riyam Park, and organised by Malik Al Hinai, fashionistas got to see the latest collection of 12 of the region's best designers. This year's lineup featured collections from Dibaj Oman, Nawal Al Hooti and Endemage from Oman, Kanzi, Das Collection, C'est Moi and Mauzan from the UAE, Qatar's Toujouri, Razan Alazzouni from Saudi Arabia, Jordan's Tatyana Aceeva, Ahmed Talfit from Tunisia and Morocco's Zhor Rais. The clothes highlighted their abilities to blend their own cultures with the world around them.
"It's a fusion. Old and new. West meets East. The silhouettes are very modern, maybe more European, and then there are touches of our culture in the detailing," said Afaf Al Farsi, one of the sisters behind the fashion house Dibaj Oman. Dibaj Oman's collection was filled with rich velvets, lace, sweeping skirts, and as always, Omani-style stripes and embroidery bringing them back to their roots. It's this combination of high fashion and heritage that has made them a favourite at Muscat Fashion Week, and even got them a nod from legendary fashion journalist Hilary Alexander, who was most impressed with their collection.
"I'm a complete pushover for tribal jewellery and ethnic costumes, so that was a draw for me. But I was really impressed with the way some of the designers are able to keep an inherent heritage of where they come from, but make it look very cosmopolitan. I thought particularly Zhor Rais of Morocco, and Dibaj of Oman, were my two favourites on that score," said Hilary, sporting an Omani necklace from Mutrah Souk.
Oman's Nawal Al Hooti, who recently opened her second boutique in the Opera Gallerias, also captured the spirit of mixing European and Omani designs in her collection. With colourful, flowing kaftans paired with Omani belts, and mini denim skirts edged with traditional motifs and patterns, Nawal reminded the audience why she's one of the Sultanate's top designers.
Also gaining a strong following in Oman and the UAE, thanks to their talent for designing for all occasions, is Endemage, the label founded by sisters Lubna and Nadia Al Zakwani. They started out making abayas but have branched out to include pants, shorts and dresses. They use Islamic detailing in the embroidery, but aren't afraid of cuts that are edgier and more international. "It's more of a modern touch with strong Arab influences. We design for a woman who is confident with what she wears. She's not afraid to be different. She has a fashion eye, and she's very elegant," explained Lubna and Zakia, standing on the runway after the show.
Endemage seems to have the contemporary Arab woman pegged, and most of the designers at Muscat Fashion Week shared the idea that these days women in Arab World are comfortable wearing both traditional and modern styles. "Arab women are really fashionable. They're either fashionable in a modern, Western sense, or they're fashionable in a very traditional Arab sense. But they're all fashionable in their own way. The majority of young Arab women tend to have a perfect blend. They manage to be traditional and add some flair to it," explained Iraqi-Jordanian designer Tatyana Aceeva, who has also shown at fashion weeks in Dubai and Amman.
She said the woman she has in mind when she's designing is fashionable and modern, but also traditional. Her designs are sexy but tasteful, and comfortable to wear. Tatyana's collection of gowns and cocktail dresses tend to have European cuts, but adding a bit of "bling," as she calls the sparkling embellishments, is in her Arab blood. Casablanca-based Zhor Rais, who designs kaftans and dresses for the Moroccan royal family, said it's crucial for Arab designers to stay true to their roots while at the same time modernising and trying new things. She focuses on traditional, conservative shapes but the material, embroidery, and decorations she uses for her exquisitely handcrafted pieces are often the best available in Europe.
"Each has her ethnicity. I like it a lot when designers work within their own culture. I'm Moroccan so I don't copy French, Italian or Algerian designs. I come with my culture," Zhor said.
The UAE label Kanzi, making a third appearance at Muscat Fashion Week, started out designing more traditional clothes, but over the years has become more adventurous, fusing Eastern and Western styles. They stayed away from short skirts, but brought flattering, comfortable and elegant kaftans and dresses to the runway, as well as some fabulous abayas. Designer Sheikha Amal Al Maktoum described the collection as easy to wear, but with a luxurious touch. There were a lot of geometrical embellishments involved in the pieces, pointed shoulders, and straight pencil skirts. "It's more trendy and fashionable. There's more colour and more embellishment. It's more evening dresses, and not limited to people from the Middle East. It can be worn by any person around the world," said Amal.
Kanzi's designs do indeed attract an international following, as they are sold in Harrod's in London, among other places. They are in good company there alongside Qatari designer Lama El-Moatassem, whose line Toujouri (Arabic for "treasure box") is also sold at Harrod's. For Toujouri, Muscat Fashion Week 2013 marked a regional debut, as it was the first time Lama participated in a fashion event in the Middle East. Though she has a flagship store in Doha and sells her line at boutiques in Riyadh, Dubai, Kuwait and Tokyo, she reveals her collections in the Paris fashion weeks. Despite her international success, Lama was delighted to present her designs to a local audience.
"It was quite exciting for us to be part of something of a high standard in the Middle East with a variety of really great talent and up-and-coming designers. It's great to be able to interact with the women in the Middle East. The collection really caters to that Middle Eastern woman who holds onto her background, culture and traditions, but is also modern in her lifestyle," Lama explained at the Opera Gallerias the day after her show, as women browsed through her colourful, printed kaftans, cocktail dresses, resort clothes and evening wear.
Lama said there is a growing interest in the Middle East, and Arab women are now considered among the most fashionable. Thanks to being more educated, well-travelled, and exposed to international trends, women in the Middle East have become more adept at blending the best of both worlds. "In the past maybe there was a bit of mystery about what goes under that black abaya, but everyone travels a lot more and shops more, so they have a taste for more exclusive designs as well. It's changing for the better," said Lama, who studied fashion in London.
Tunisian designer Ahmed Talfit, the lone male design at Muscat Fashion Week, said fashion goes beyond borders now. He stole the show with his fierce, gothic styles, inspired by concepts he calls the "New Oriental Woman" and "Apocalypse." With spikes shoulders, huge collars and puffed sleeves, combinations of leather and lace, and models instructed to really stomp down the catwalk and pose like beautiful, ferocious creatures, Ahmed's collection embodied just how far from an abaya Arab fashion can go.
After three nights of fabulous fashion at Muscat Fashion Week, there is no doubt Arab women have got style, and the fashion industry is growing in the Middle East, drawing on international trends and shapes, and reflecting age-old traditions and heritage. The designs on the runway have appeal for women everywhere, Arab and foreign.
When it comes to fashion in the Arab world, perhaps Ahmed Talfit says it best: "There isn't one style for Arab women and one for Western women. For me, style is international."