With its over-the-top extravagance, ultra-wealthy residents and burgeoning skyline, Saudi Arabia has played up the promise of better business tomorrow in courting international fashion consumers and brands alike.
While that welcome mat remains out, the country is undertaking a massive project to build its own fashion ecosystem from the ground up. Through its Fashion Commission, one of 11 specific commissions under the Saudi Ministry of Culture, the plan is to evolve the fashion industry through culture, while trumpeting local heritage and identity, responding to global needs and bolstering the national economy.
Leading this task as the Fashion Commission’s chief executive officer is Burak Cakmak. Along with laying the groundwork for an infrastructure for the industry in Saudi Arabia, Cakmak said he is trying to set an example for others in terms of “what it would look like if you were to dream of building an industry that’s sustainable, responsible, inclusive and diverse, etc.”
The culture sector — including fashion — is set to contribute more than $23 billion to the Saudi economy and create 100,000 jobs in the next 10 years. He said, “Hopefully, that is the ambition. As we build it, we will have a clearer map, as we go. Regulatory framework is the key work that needs to be in place to identify the areas that we will be able to push it even further.”
Perhaps in no other country could such projections be made, but the oil-rich nation is also mired down by its treatment of women and human rights abuses. Cakmak’s experience offers the kingdom a proven fashion industry leader. In addition to formerly serving as dean of fashion at The New School’s Parsons School of Design, he has worked with a bevy of luxury groups, including Kering, on sustainability practices and social responsibility. Cakmak has also served as a sustainability consultant to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
Potentially, those figures of $23 billion and 100,000 jobs could be exceeded depending on how quickly all the other sectors grow in the country and what happens with its population. In what he described is a “green field sector,” Cakmak said there are entrepreneurs and independent brands that have developed some forms of structure, but most are still at a small scale.
A base of well-heeled shoppers is already in place. Despite the fact the Middle East saw 10 percent of its mega millionaires lose a significant amount of their personal wealth last year during the coronavirus crisis, the number of high-net-worth individuals is expected to increase by 25 percent in the next five years in the region, according to Knight Frank’s latest “Wealth Report.”
Yet Saudi Arabia in particular continues to be plagued by reports of human rights abuses. Last year the authorities escalated repression of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful expression, according to Amnesty International. Among those harassed, arbitrarily detained, prosecuted and/or jailed in 2020 were government critics, women’s rights activists, journalists, and online critics of the government’s response to COVID-19 among others, the organization reported.
Following the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, some world leaders, international organizations and corporations called for visa bans, canceled conferences and business deals, and in some cases, boycotts. But while business relations may have cooled at that time, the country’s new fashion-driven initiative is already laden with supporters.
One key initiative is the reengineered Fashion Futures 2021, which will be a digital platform. Launched in Riyadh in 2019 as the kingdom’s first dedicated fashion event, the upcoming edition, “Fashion Futures Live: Moving Towards Sustainability, Diversity & Innovation,” will be aired live from studios in Riyadh and New York. Oceania’s Susan Rockefeller, Rebecca Minkoff, Urban Zen’s Helen Aboah and Studio 189’s Abrima Erwiah will be among the speakers. Fashinnovation is collaborating on the events.
During his first interview as the Fashion Commission’s CEO, Cakmak discussed the long-range strategy for building’s Saudi Arabia’s fashion infrastructure. As of now, more than 500 local brands are interested and more than 1,000 designers and brands are expected to participate in the commission’s efforts. In addition, at least a handful of local and international manufacturing partners are expected to help build facilities in the country. Opportunities for joint ventures are also being explored.
The current and planned future investment in the project was not revealed, nor were the length of Cakmak’s commitment or his salary.
Another initiative, the Saudi 100 Brands program is an open call for local brands and designers to ramp up their brand building. The effort is a reminder of the amount of talent already in the country’s fashion industry, Cakmak said. As is prevalent around the globe, many business owners and designers lack the abilities to grow their brands to the next level, whether that’s through merchandising, pricing, strategizing, targeting the right markets or determining the right supply chain, he added.
With that in mind, any Saudi-registered brand can apply for the Saudi 100, which will result in 100 brands participating in a 12-month development program. Through that, there will also be access to retailers and different markets, and attention from local, regional and international media, among other business improvement opportunities. It will also showcase the country’s diverse talent and act as an indicator of what Saudi is ready to do, Cakmak said. Executives from LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Kering, Valentino, Chanel, and Swarovski will offer insights to the designers and brands.
Consumer-facing activities are being planned to boost sales in the local market, with the first one being planned for Riyadh in December with e-tailers. A wholesale campaign geared toward drumming up global sales is planned for early next year. The Fashion Commission is partnering with Vogue Arabia and regional retailers for Saudi 100 Brands activations.
Last year there was a 186 percent increase
As for why such a unified fashion push hasn’t happened sooner and why there hasn’t been more exposure, Cakmak said creating government-level structures is important and the Ministry of Culture is relatively new. (The 11 commissions were approved in February 2020.) Previously, individuals were doing things on their own. The Fashion Commission — as well as the other sector-specific commissions like ones for Heritage, Film, Museums, Architecture and Design — have been established to formally help these sectors grow. All of this is part of Saudi Vision 2030, an agenda set by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that is designed to reduce the country’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy and develop public service sectors. “It’s just the natural progression of the country’s journey and what’s happening globally,” Cakmak said.
Asked about the criticism that this amounts to “fashion washing,” or a way to deflect attention from human rights issues, Cakmak said, “Clearly, I’m there for only one reason — to support young talent and give a voice to creatives. I want to be fair to all of the individuals who are benefiting from these programs — the local community and local talent. It’s about first and foremost supporting them. These initiatives are not intended for anybody else but that population.”
Helping them to develop their businesses, caring about their reactions and developing a “real” program that makes them successful are his chief priorities, he said. “Ultimately, this is not about celebrating the ministry. It’s about celebrating the individuals and their successes.”
Reminded how the pillars include sustainability, diversity and inclusion, but human rights are not singled out in that, Cakmak suggested looking at the overall fashion agenda and how it is evolving. As the Fashion Commission’s CEO, he is coming at it from what is needed to enable the brands to grow, he said. Individuals’ creativity and interests are linked to their backgrounds and cultures “and we are there to allow that kind of inclusion and diversity all the way to cultural appropriateness for Saudi to be part of the overall fashion agenda. We will let each individual in Saudi look at their personal values and beliefs. My role is to enable the sector with regulation incentives and providing the support that is needed, and not necessarily identify which values they should be supporting,” he said.
Agreeing that women are such a key part of the success of the project, Cakmak did not address how the treatment of women has been an ongoing issue within the country and outside of it. “I won’t be able to talk about the past. Based on my experience, I can tell you the Ministry of Culture’s employees are 50 percent female.…When I am engaging with the creatives, 50 percent are women-led. To be honest, they are some of the smartest, strongest women I have ever met. They are very ambitious and driven, and very willing to lead their businesses.”
A few of the commission sector CEOs are women, Cakmak said. The Saudi consumer sector accounts for 76 percent of women’s start-ups, according to the 2020 Global Entrepreneurship Model.
Noting how at Parsons he oversaw 2,000 students from 109 countries, Cakmak said, “There are many different perspectives and questions around individuals’ roles in their own cultures. My personal experience is it’s an empowered and engaged women population that is willing to make a difference for their own country. A huge percentage of my team are women and are definitely directing and influencing the way we have to shift the Fashion Commission’s agenda.…I think this will be a women’s empowerment agenda more than anything else.”
Acknowledging the massive undertaking before him, he said he was very excited to take on such a rare challenge. While every aspect must be examined, the number-one focus is the regulatory framework in the country — or the lack thereof. “The positive side is there is no regulation that is inhibiting us to build the industry. But on the other hand, there’s no regulation that is incentivizing it,” he said.
Therefore, the next 12 months will be spent on “an in-depth review” of all the regulations that will be needed to enable and incentivize the full value chain of the fashion industry. Textiles, garment manufacturers, logistics, retailers, e-commerce, fashion communications, photography, media and other aspects that support the industry will be considered to develop new laws that will be recommended to all of the ministries to adopt. On the simplest level, that could be providing licenses for fashion events, runway shows and presentations. Or it could be building a complete supply chain in the country “in a way that is relevant to local and regional needs, while being aligned with sustainability, innovation, technology,” he said.
“Very keen” to show how to build such an ecosystem from scratch, he and his team will be seeking input from stakeholders around the world to offer input about the regulations. The aim is to create best practices such as highlighting manufacturers with the best treatment facilities, the leading innovative machinery and sustainable business models.
“The goal is to build an infrastructure in the next five years that will be an example to the rest of the world,” said Cakmak. “Most of the other countries are dealing with legacy frameworks and infrastructures that need to be upgraded. It’s the biggest challenge even when you talk to some of the nonprofits working in this space, especially in relation to climate change and sustainability as it pertains to the fashion industry. Since we are doing this brand new, we have the advantage to leapfrog all of the challenges from the past, because now there are innovative solutions to address them.”
Fashion Futures will be digital as of June 17 and then a hybrid event will be held annually going forward. A December physical event is in the works with training, workshop and learning opportunities for local talent.
At the moment, Vogue Arabia is a partnership and will not involve sponsored content. The publication will provide knowledge from a media and business perspective, Cakmak said. As for whether he is wary about criticism of Vogue Arabia’s coverage, he said, “No, it’s important to bring different media partners. Vogue Arabia is an influential partner in the region. We know they will be able to add a lot of value to the program. It’s more than media coverage. It’s focused on learning for 100 brands and gaining insights about how to improve their businesses.”
Months after women in Saudi Arabia were given the right to drive, Vogue Arabia featured a cover story in May 2018. But the publication was criticized by some people for not covering the activists who had been imprisoned for championing the cause. Cakmak said, “I won’t be able to talk about their past decisions as well as past events. All I can say is that I also know they have been very supportive of Saudi women and Saudi talent, and giving them visibility, access and support. This is one reason we see a good synergy and having them continue to support the brands they have already been highlighting in their pages.”
While still the dean of fashion at Parsons, he made his first visit to the kingdom in December 2019 to explore ways to start scholarships for students from Saudi to study at Parsons. Supported by the Ministry of Culture at that time, Parsons became the first school to offer scholarships for any art or design degrees out of the country. That opened Cakmak’s eyes to the ambition of the country and what was happening there, he said.
He also participated in the first Fashion Futures event in December 2019. He said while there he was “most excited” about meeting the young generation that was studying design and fashion. Their eagerness to share their ambitions and excitement about all the people in the country and what they wanted to do long-term stayed with him. That also turned out to be the starting point in his engagement with Saudi Arabia, albeit in a very different role, and a learning opportunity.
Asked if there was anything in his background that he wishes were stronger for this project, Cakmak said, “Nobody is able to bring all of the background that is needed. One skill I have tried to cultivate in everything I’ve done is [incorporating] flexibility, tolerance, agility and understanding.”
Early on in his career he dealt with supply chains all over the world, and he said visiting so many factories taught him “it’s not about one individual’s perspective. It’s recognizing that we all come from different places [and have] different ideas, and being able to find a middle ground but also being cognizant that differences are always going to be there and being comfortable with it. Having said that, it’s obviously a learning opportunity. It’s the first time I am spending time in the Middle East and in the Gulf. If I had spent more time here, it would have been easier. But it’s also an opportunity for me to learn about the culture in a deeper way and really engage and support the creatives.”
Whereas neighboring countries have larger expatriate communities that detract from local cultures, that is not the case in Saudi Arabia. There, travelers discover the different heritages of local tribes, traditions and hospitality, Cakmak said.
Looking back at his first visit to Saudi, what jumped out at him was the amount of interest in creativity, Cakmak said. Prior to that, “For me, it was kind of a black box. You had no information” or sense for the level of interest, he said.
“Amazed” by the size of the younger generation, he noted that nearly 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30. He also was struck by their international connectedness, the prevalence of English speaking residents, and the number of fashion workers who had studied abroad and returned to “be part of the change that is taking place,” he said. “They also want to be part of this diversifying of the economy and the country. They see and rightly so that they are the local population — they are the first ones to be there before international brands to grow as part of the sector.”
Emphasizing that fashion is a broader term than just garments, and the Saudis are on board with that ideology, Cakmak said fashion, accessories and beauty are part of the conversation. “Part of the role is really building every aspect of the industry, as we know it. It’s not just going to be defined narrowly as garments or collections. It’s going to be the full scope,” he said.
As for whether part of the fashion industry’s infrastructure will be in the mega-smart city Neom that is being built in northwestern Saudi Arabia, Cakmak said, “Neom has a longer timeline. If you look at where the population is, it really starts with Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, some of the key cities. We always have to consider what’s appropriate for which location. Also, what are some of the ambitions of some of the projects such as Neom and what would be right for these spaces. There is a more immediate need to provide support in places like Riyadh.
“As Neom gets built, obviously we will look at more immediate to long-term opportunities about what can be present in these spaces, what kind of population will be there and who they can support,” he said.
For Cakmak, personal success will come down to the number of jobs created, growth in the creative economies, international visibility for the talent and the overall feedback from locals, especially younger people, who are interested in getting into fashion and design. One of the things that he is most excited about is how the framework that will be put in place will create new jobs and opportunities for new businesses to support local brands as well as international ones that may be coming into the country.
“Most international brands are very interested and are already engaging to understand the development in the region, and how they can partner not only for the initiatives, but also for their own businesses. They are all independently working in this direction but obviously we are open to any of the dialogue with the brands that are reaching out because we want to make sure we build a robust, creative economy in the country,” he said, declining to identify any of those companies without their consent.
Making the point that Saudi is the number-one place for fashion retail due to its population and spending power, Cakmak said, “You can imagine any brand operating in the region is definitely looking at how to be physically present in the country as well.”