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Saudi Arabia’s bid to be the next global fashion powerhouse

Yataghan jewellery
The Saudi fashion industry 'is raw talent at its finest', says Saudi Fashion Commission CEO Burak Cakmak
  • Designers from the kingdom making waves on international catwalks
  • Saudi apparel market expected to nearly double by 2025
  • Fashion Committee keen to promote local sustainability and inclusivity

It will not be long before Saudi Arabia produces a global fashion powerhouse brand to rival Louis Vuitton and Chanel, according to the man tasked with fulfilling the kingdom’s catwalk ambitions.

“I have no doubt about that, the sky is the limit,” Burak Cakmak, CEO of the Saudi Fashion Commission told AGBI as designers from the country begin to make their mark internationally.

“There are Saudi designers stocked at Harrods [in London], dressing big name celebrities and making waves in the industry. Saudi Arabia is now very much part of the global fashion scene.”

The Saudi Fashion Commission, created in February 2020, is one of 11 projects launched by the Ministry of Culture to manage the cultural sector as part of Vision 2030.

It has partnerships with international educational organisations and offers full scholarships to Saudi students at some of the world’s leading design schools. 

The commission recently opened applications for a new costume course offering designers the chance to curate looks for TV and film. It is also launching a digital programme with the Istituto Marangoni fashion school on how to use new technologies, such as 3D software, to create virtual clothes, shoes and accessories.

There have been many achievements since the commission’s launch, but Cakmak stressed that it will continue to focus on the infrastructure for product development in the kingdom so that designers can create items at home rather than move to more traditional fashion hubs elsewhere.

Ethical fashion brand Abadia, for example, will open its purpose-built product development studio this year, which will be the first time Saudi Arabia has engaged in the manufacturing space with genuine scale. 

“The Saudi fashion industry is raw talent at its finest,” Cakmak said. “Our designers bring new experimental ideas that put Saudi Arabia’s rich heritage on the world stage, such as Abadia’s hand-crafted date pit jewellery.”

The commission’s aim is to enable the development of a thriving Saudi fashion sector that is sustainable, inclusive and fully integrated to support local talent, he added. 

Its Saudi 100 Brands initiative is at the centre of this mission. This year-long mentorship programme helps designers with key aspects of brand building and commercial development and has exposed Saudi fashion designers to audiences around the world. 

Out of over 1,400 applications, 100 Saudi fashion designers are chosen to participate, with support from experts hailing from the likes of LVMH, Valentino, Chanel, Bulgari and Swarovski.

The designers, some self-trained, are from all regions of the kingdom and aged between 20 and 70. Females represent 85 percent of the take-up.

Last year, they exhibited in Milan and on the Times Square billboards in New York to showcase their collections for the first time in front of a wholesale market, including buyers from luxury department stores Bloomingdales and Harvey Nichols.

And last month, some of the designers from the initiative made their red carpet debut at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, dressing celebrities including supermodel Elle Macpherson and actor Ed Westwick.

“Saudi designers dressing celebrities on the red carpet shows they can not only compete with the biggest international designers but also offer unique selling points,” said Cakmak, who was previously Dean of Fashion at Parsons School of Design in New York.

Cakmak added that modest fashion is also in high demand, which he said that no one did better than Saudi Arabian designers. 

The recent State of the Global Islamic Economy Report showed the global fashion industry is expected to grow 6 percent annually to reach $375 billion by 2025, with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey likely to dominate the market.

“More and more, the world’s biggest brands are designing collections for the modest wear consumer, and the abaya can be a real fashion statement,” added Cakmak.

Promoting ethical fashion production

Most Saudi nationals wear the traditional thobe and abaya. However these are produced using polyester fabrics that require significantly more energy to make. They are also not easily recyclable and end up in landfill.

The global fashion industry has a high environmental and social cost and leaves a high carbon footprint, and Cakmak highlighted that promoting sustainability and ethical fashion was one of its key objectives.

He revealed there are plans to open a sustainable textile and fashion research centre in the kingdom, while work is also ongoing on a centralised research unit for data analysis which will look at sustainability trends.

In September, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Kaust) signed an agreement with the commission to support new initiatives that devised sustainable polymer fabrics for traditional garments. 

As the Saudi apparel market is expected to nearly double by 2025, this presents a major opportunity for eco-conscious fashion brands and solutions.

“There is a real need in the kingdom to deliver long term solutions for the fashion and clothing industry and we look forward to working together to develop new technologies through our innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems,” said Dr Kevin Cullen, vice president of innovation at Kaust.

Cakmak added: “As we transform Saudi into a fashion hub, the Fashion Commission is paying close attention to sustainability, ensuring Saudi leads the way in creating a cleaner, greener, brighter future.”

Pants, Clothing, Sitting
Ethical fashion brand Abadia says it believes in giving artisans, especially women, a sustainable source of income and employment that in turn preserves Saudi Arabia’s craftsmanship and heritage. Picture: Supplied

Empowering Saudi females

In the past five years, the number of Saudi women in the workforce has doubled to 35 percent and, as seen by the high volume of applications for the Saudi 100 Brands programme, there is huge demand from women for professional development opportunities. 

Cakmak said empowering Saudi females is at the heart of the country’s cultural, economic and technological transformation, and the commission’s Elevate programme that supports future Saudi female leaders is part of this.

One programme member is Anan Albraikan, the founder of Abx, a brand inspired by traditional Saudi design and 90s European style. 

“The programme has helped me by highlighting me internationally as a Saudi entrepreneur and allowing me to build relationships with fashion experts worldwide,” Albraikan, who graduated with a bachelor of science in business and finance from Riyadh’s Prince Sultan University, said.

“I feel my duty to support, encourage, and inspire Saudi women, especially the young generation. Believe anything is possible and take risks. Don’t fear failure and never give up. I’m super proud of our ambitious designers and artists.”