Riyadh, SAUDI ARABIA — “We were simply paused.”
With those four words, HRH Princess Reema bint Bandar al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S., made a room full of aspiring young designers and entrepreneurs catch their breath, ponder their country’s complex past and dream about a future of creative and personal freedom, something that would have been impossible even a few years ago.
Delivering her keynote speech this week at the inaugural Fashion Futures conference, an initiative backed by the newly minted Ministry of Culture, the princess praised the country’s heritage and traditions; its embrace of trade, textiles, color and craftsmanship over thousands of years — and said Saudi is ready for a renaissance after living for decades “in black and white.”
She has been working closely with the new ministry to shine a light on Saudi’s heritage in the arts, culture, fashion and textiles and to encourage the country’s millions of young people to become entrepreneurs in the creative industries. Millennials and Gen Z are Saudi’s largest demographic, with 70 percent of the population under the age of 35, and 50 percent younger than 25.
The narrative of Arabian culture from 3,000 years ago until the last century, she said, “was one that was rich, magical and colorful. Unfortunately, at a certain point in our time, due to the socio-political environment that we were living in, and to the politics of the environment in our neighborhood, our cultural narrative, which had been diverse and colorful, became a binary narrative, a narrative of black and white.
“When one goes into an isolation period, one’s color — of material, fabric and culture — simply begins to disappear. For 30 years the richness we saw was paused. We were simply paused. But the richness was not extinguished. It was there, it was growing and it is growing with the young generation, who today have a vision to take us from a binary narrative of black and white back to embracing our culture, back to color, back to joy, activity, connectivity.”
In a minute, the royal summed up where Saudi was until very recently, with its women swaddled in black, and with the religious police prowling streets and shopping malls — and where she’d like it to go. “I wish Princess Reema’s comment about ‘a pause’ could have been blasted around the world. What a moment for this country,” said a Riyadh-based Western expat during a coffee and networking break.
There were more emotionally charged moments to come, including Saudi’s first large-scale runway show at Tuwaiq Palace, a cultural center adorned with pools and palm trees and surrounded by desert.
Guests at the gala on Monday night included government officials, international visitors and a mix of local men and women, all of whom sat together to watch a show of Western designs — from labels including Off-White, Stella McCartney and Simone Rocha — and Saudi fashion, styled and produced by local volunteers.
Burak Cakmak, dean of fashion at The New School’s Parsons School of Design, called the show an historic moment for the country.
“That fashion show may have felt small to people from the West, who normally experience these things on a regular basis. But few Saudis could have ever imagined something of this scale happening in their own country,” he said. “It was a demonstration that Saudis can rise to the global stage and empower women. This is the start of a new beginning.”
Cakmak pointed out that few people have ever heard of Saudi designers, yet “there is a wealth of diversity, and females and individuals who are now building this culture from the inside out. The Ministry of Culture and the government are giving a voice to the creatives who were hidden from the external world and who are now finding a place to showcase their creativity.”
The Ministry of Culture, which was founded last year, has set out an action plan to spotlight — and fire up — the country’s creative industries, part of the Saudi government’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify the economy, become less dependent on oil and create tens of thousands of jobs for women and young people.
Princess Reema, who lived and was educated in Washington, D.C., when her father Prince Bandar bin Sultan al Saud served as ambassador to the U.S., even encouraged the Saudi guests at the conference to leave and explore the world — at a time when travel restrictions for women are rapidly being lifted under reforms enacted by the Saudi Crown Prince and deputy prime minister Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, known as MbS.
“Travel and see the museums, understand other people’s cultures. Be fascinated by them. But come back and look at your own culture, look at your craftsmanship, look at the inspiration and the color of your past. It will be the root of your future,” said the princess.
“Uplift each other, engage with each other, guide each other. The Ministry of Culture is realizing every opportunity that for the past 30 years young people wished they’d had. Artists, designers, producers, manufacturers, storytellers — today there’s a home for all of us, for the creative community.”
As Saudi looks outward, the world is looking in: On the opening day of the conference, which ran Nov. 4 and Nov. 5, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton pledged a $500 million fund aimed at investing in, and supporting, young designers and creatives in the GCC, which comprises Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.
Ravi Thakran, group president, LVMH South Asia and South-East Asia, Australia and Middle East, and chairman and managing partner of L Catterton Asia, said the fund will allow LVMH “to work hand in hand with the Ministry of Culture to develop and promote talent” in Saudi, the largest GCC country, and to enable “regional entrepreneurs to develop businesses” and disrupt the market.
Thakran said that instead of focusing on “hipsters in the West,” LVMH planned to pay more attention to 100 million digital consumers in the Middle East and North Africa region.
Earlier that day, Hamed M. Fayez, vice minister at the Ministry of Culture, unveiled a five-year scholarship program for young Saudi designers at Parsons in New York.
“Nurturing young talent is absolutely vital to our goal of developing a thriving cultural sector in Saudi Arabia,” said Fayez. “Parsons is the number-one fashion school in America and Saudi designers will now be able to listen and learn from the best, as well as contribute their own ideas and work to the ever-changing world of design and fashion.”
The scholarship program is one thread of the ministry’s plan to address the needs of Saudi’s burgeoning fashion community. Fayez said the country also plans to set up an incubator for entrepreneurial businesses, a residency program to develop talents, and strategic partnerships with key players in the industry.
The confidence, and investment in Saudi youth, comes as part of Vision 2030 and as the crown prince lifts some of the restraints on the everyday lives of Saudi Arabians – and women in particular. Still, many people and organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, point to ongoing corruption and criminal behavior in the country and argue that the changes currently sweeping Saudi need to be more profound and stretch to all corners of political, social and cultural life.
The country is leaving much of its recent history behind: Over the past months, the mutaween, or religious police, have disappeared, prompting cheers from women who were used to being told off for not wearing headscarves, or wearing them the wrong way – pushed back too far on their heads; for donning abayas not in regulation black, or for not appearing demure enough in public.
Women have been rejoicing about their new right to drive and to travel abroad more freely (there are still some restrictions on both) and to eat alongside men in restaurants, which are now allowed to play music. Women can even go to the cinema rather than being forced to watch their films behind closed doors.
To many Saudis, the 34-year-old MbS, the driving force behind Vision 2030, is a pioneer, a liberator, and an object of adoration despite the questions that remain over the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was killed a year ago inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. While the prince has taken full responsibility for the events — so shocking they temporarily derailed the country’s international tourism push — it remains unclear whether he knew about the killing in advance.
Saudi is a country of contradictions right now, and its march into the future is going to take time.
This week, as Fashion Futures was taking place, the country was prepping for what may be the biggest public listing in history, the IPO of Saudi Arabian Oil Company Aramco, a project backed by the crown prince as part of the country’s liberalization and growth drive. Estimates are that the IPO could value Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company by far, at $1.5 trillion up to $2 trillion — and Western bankers are flocking to the country to try to get a piece of the offering.
Also this week, Human Rights Watch published a 62-page paper on the country, “The High Cost of Change: Repression Under Saudi Crown Prince Tarnishes Reforms.” The New York-based organization argues that “important social reforms enacted under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have been accompanied by deepening repression and abusive practices meant to silence dissidents and critics.”
Sara Murad, a presenter on the TV show “Good Morning Arabs” who served as master of ceremonies at Fashion Futures, said the country is moving rapidly toward reform.
“Ten years ago, I was so eager to leave Saudi and discover the world, but today the whole world is looking at Saudi,” said Murad, who was born and raised in the country, but lives in Dubai.
“The crown prince is young — he is very close to us — and he is leading the younger generation. He’s given women in particular so many rights — it’s easier to divorce, to get custody of your kids. We don’t need permission to travel. Women have proven that we can handle ourselves,” she said.
They certainly have a terrific sense of humor, too: During the two-day conference, the American journalist and biographer Bob Colacello let rip descriptions of his years working with Andy Warhol, and whiling away his evenings at Studio 54. Male and female audience members alike could not stop laughing when Colacello admitted to leaving his liver at Studio 54, and described those years as ones of debauchery. “It was when the Sixties really happened. Love was in the air and we were in our 20s.”
The French stylist Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele was another crowd pleaser, with her luscious, fat pearl necklaces, clanging gold jewelry, studded aviator glasses and tiny Chanel crossbody bags. She drew endless rounds of applause talking about her love of “powerful women,” the importance of trusting one’s instinct and how dressing with simplicité was the height of chic.
After the talk, women of every age waited to take selfies with her.
The self-taught photographer Hayat Osamah, who has worked with brands including Polo, Farfetch and Off-White despite never having left Saudi, was another star. She told the audience that she watched YouTube videos until she got the hang of photography, and then was able to train under a local film photographer.
Other speakers over the two days included Iris van Herpen, Frédéric Fekkai, Wil Beedle, Giles Deacon, Walid Damirji, the Somali-American model and humanitarian Halima Aden, and the founders of Saudi sports brands Tima and Running Abaya, Fatima Batook and Eman Joharjy respectively.
Speakers and participants also took part in a separate series of workshops for budding entrepreneurs and designers, while the audience at Fashion Futures was packed with locals, expats, designers, retailers and people hungry to start businesses — or just do business.
“Fashion Futures was not going to be about having a fashion show, it was not going to be the local version of ‘America’s Next Top Model.’ It’s about modeling an ecosystem around culture and design,” said Princess Reema.
The princess also helped to mount a fashion and textile exhibition at the Cultural Palace, where the conference took place. Called “The Hidden Kaleidoscope,” it featured historic and modern pieces, artisanal robes and veils from different corners of the country as well as creations from Christian Lacroix and Jean-Louis Scherrer, wedding gowns and formal clothing belonging to the princess’ mother and grandmothers.
The royal said she plans to take the show to the U.S., and when it’s done touring it will be installed at the Art of Heritage Museum, a proposition similar to the Victoria & Albert Museum, and which is set to open in Riyadh in the next few years.
There is much pent-up creativity in the country, argued Koran Dasoar, a guest at the conference and the creative director of the multi-brand concept store Personage, in Riyadh.
The pioneering store, which is owned by Princess Deema bint Mansour, has three floors — one dedicated to retail, another with a café and a third for art shows. It stocks sneakers and streetwear from local labels such as 1886, a fragrance line called Mansour Saud and styles from the likes of Craig Green and Martine Rose.
Dasoar said that every few weeks young designers from the region — often collectives made up of men and women — come to the store to market their wares. “They’re working on the side and saving money to do this, and often they have no formal fashion education.”
Princess Reema said it’s crucial that Saudi Arabia feeds those creatives and gives them business know-how so they can flourish — and honor their aesthetic and cultural past.
“We are not Norway, we’re not Sweden, we’re not America, we’re Saudi Arabia, and this is our heritage. We should be proud of what our heritage is, and represent it as equal to everyone else’s,” said the princess before the opening of “The Hidden Kaleidoscope” exhibition.
She also pointed out that, last month, The World Bank’s “Doing Business 2020” report lauded Saudi Arabia for its rapid pace of reform and for the major improvements it was making with regard to trade and doing business.
“I am thrilled,” she said. “Saudi Arabia also just signed with the U.N. to have the first database on human rights metrics. We are saying: ‘Give us the framework. This is where we are, and this is where we’d like to go. Measure us, and hold us accountable.’ Part of Vision 2030 is about accountability and transparency.
“We truly believe we’d like to be a leader. And if you’d like to lead, you need to have the ability to stand firm on your accomplishments. We want to make sure the standards we are abiding by are global standards. We buy into sustainable development goals, too, and would like to lead in that narrative.”
For Princess Reema, there will be no more pauses in Saudi Arabia’s progress.