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How the Saudi Style Council aims to help new talent as it opens doors to fashion creatives

September 30, 2020

The organisation aims to consolidate Saudi Arabia's nascent but budding fashion industry even while expanding its international reach, says founder Marriam Mossalli

A non-profit trade association to help “connect and protect” Saudi Arabia’s fashion industry launched this month. The Saudi Style Council will focus on celebrating and boosting the kingdom’s growing creative sector, says founder Marriam Mossalli.

The fashion consultant and author of Under the Abaya: Street Style from Saudi Arabia says: “We have always had a creative industry, but we have not been able to go over the water because we have been closed off for many years. With the Saudi Style Council, we wanted to build something that would become a connector and a resource platform for creatives.”

The council will be a one-stop shop for the fashion industry, and will have the access and contacts to help creatives in the style sphere.

Connecting and protecting talent

“If you are a company, agency or brand that wants to work with creatives, we’ll send you a bunch of photographers, creative directors or models, and you can connect with them directly. If you have zero to three years as a stylist, [we’ll tell you] the amount you should charge. Or if as a creative director, you don’t know how much to charge, this is when you go to the council.

“We want to provide a reference point,” Mossalli says. “One of the things that Saudi lacks is that reference point because it’s such a green industry.”

The council will also serve to protect Saudi talent. “They are young and enthusiastic, but need guidance. So it’s the responsibility of the older generation of Saudis, like myself, who have worked abroad and who have the experience, to guide them,” she says. “The other day we did a shoot with Saudi creatives for a magazine and the editor decided not to credit the make-up artist. The artist told us, we called the editor immediately and they eventually changed their decision. The new talents need that voice, they need that support, and that is what the Saudi Style Council is all about.”

A committee of creatives, from models and make-up artists to brand consultants, are the backbone of the council. “Everyone from a novice to someone with 20 years of experience is in it,” Mossalli says. “It’s very collaborative. I would like to say it’s made by the creatives for the creatives.”

Mossalli is also in the final stages of securing an endorsement from the Ministry of Culture, which she hopes will come through before the end of the year. “We need to make it a real grassroots organisation, like the British Fashion Council or the CFDA [Council of Fashion Designers of America]. It has to be something organic,” she says.

Under the abaya

An entrepreneur, Mossalli was educated in the US and moved back to Jeddah in 2007 to begin her career as a journalist. In 2010, she founded Niche Arabia, a communications company to cater to Saudi fashion, then an insular and scattered industry with little interest from the rest of the world. Today, along with fashion, her company works with some of the biggest government organisations to promote entertainment in Saudi Arabia. Last year, she helped organised MDL Beast, the first music festival of its kind in Riyadh, featuring performances by prominent regional and international DJs.

We wanted to show Saudi women are like everyone else around the world. We have the same dreams and aspirations.

Marriam Mossalli

But it is her 2018 coffee-table book, Under the Abaya: Street Style from Saudi Arabia, that Mossalli is most proud of, a second edition of which was launched on September 23, on Saudi Arabia’s National Day, after a successful digital pre-launch in June. “For too long Saudi Arabia has taken the passenger seat, especially with the media dictating how we are portrayed. And I wanted to give women the opportunity to be the narrators,” she says.

Aseel Hamad is an interior designer, engineer and Formula One driver. Courtesy 'Under the Abaya'

The latest edition of Under the Abaya has a forward by Princess Reema bint Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, and features a number of trailblazing Saudi women, including Formula One driver Aseel Al Hamad, motorcycle racer Dania Akeel and Formula Four racer Reema Juffali among others. The book has already sold more than 1,000 copies, Mossalli says.

“For the second edition, we wanted to tell a little bit more about the women featured, which we did not have the time to do in the first edition. We wanted to show the woman under the abaya and tell her story … to highlight those who may not be in the spotlight,” she says. “We wanted to show Saudi women are like everyone else around the world. We have the same dreams and aspirations.”

Proceeds from the first book were used to pay for five student scholarships at a photography school, a profit model that Mossalli will continue to follow. “I want it to become a resource platform that will lift up people in need, and with the coronavirus that has become even more necessary,” she says.

Modest but modern

Fashion, of course, is still the focus of the book and so is its celebration of the abaya and its evolution in Saudi Arabia. “When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced in 2018 that the abaya was no longer mandatory, I thought I would be one of the few people who was clinging on to this black cloth. But I was surprised to see 99 per cent of women still wearing it,” says Mossalli.

What is interesting is how the abaya has evolved with this new spirit, she says. “Earlier, our abayas fit our lifestyle. They were very decadent. We were women who lunched and who went out for social gatherings after the sun went down. But now, with women entering the workforce, there is a focus on a more active lifestyle. So the abayas have become shorter, so it’s easier when you are behind the wheel of a car, because women now drive.

“We also have more Saudi girls working out and getting active. We’ve maintained our foundational fashion and the actual functionality of the abaya, but the silhouette has changed.”

Saudi fashion a decade ago was very similar to Lebanese fashion, she says, with a big focus on gowns. “Now there is a whole generation of street-style kids. It’s tennis shoes and sneakers everywhere.”

As avenues such as the Saudi Style Council are created, Mossalli says fashion in the kingdom will evolve, but in its own way.

“Saudi Arabia has always followed international trends. But Saudis have always dressed just like we do if we’re in Cannes or London. We’re always stylish, but we’re always covered,” she says.

“We are censoring ourselves. It’s not a government mandate, it’s individual. To be traditional is not mutually exclusive with being modern.”

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