The Saudi designer who dresses the stars

He has dressed celebrities like Beyonce or Cardi B, to royalty and millionaire women, but Mohammed Ashi prefers to remain in the shadows to better serve his creations.

“In the 1990s I was the only designer of Saudi Arabia. But he never said he was a Saudi. She wanted the clothes to go in front of me, ”Ashi explained in a rare interview given to AFP in her Paris studio.

It’s partly shyness (she shies away from photographs) but also the fact that Western fashion was taboo in her country for a long time in her youth, especially for women.

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Ashi made a name for himself abroad, first training in the United States, then working for Givenchy and Lebanese couturier Elie Saab, to end up in France.

Saudi Arabia created a commission for the promotion of local fashion in 2020, and asked it to take the reins.

“A few months ago I was publicly asked to speak in Saudi Arabia for the first time, and a lot of people came to see me later. I am achieving recognition among the younger generation that I never would have expected,” he explains.

“They are giving people scholarships to do something that was prohibited in my time. It’s an iconic moment,” she adds.

Fashion capital?

Voices critical of the Saudi regime believe that this easing of social restrictions is a publicity campaign, intended to hide serious human rights violations.

But there’s no doubt that young creators benefit from that relative openness, like Reem Alsabhan, 27, a designer just opening up. way in the local market.

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“Since I started studying, I have been repeating a phrase that I totally believe, although it surprised people: Riyadh will become one of the most important fashion capitals,” he told AFP in his workshop in the capital.

“And those signs of the future are starting to emerge,” he says.

Saudi Arabia now holds public events, such as gala concerts or the brand-new Red Sea Film Festival, where Alsabhan can showcase his creations.

But the foundations of the industry were laid much earlier, says Burak Cakmak, head of the Saudi Fashion Commission.

“Many local creators have built local fashion companies in the last 20, 30 years for the domestic market, but they didn’t feel the need to tell their story abroad – or didn’t dare to do so,” he explained to AFP. “That allowed the system to be built in a controlled way,” he adds.

Money for French Couture

In Ashi’s view, Saudi Arabia has all the ingredients to become a center of the fashion industry, from the time when the oil manna kept major European haute couture firms afloat for decades.

Saudi Arabia buys “60% or 70% of French haute couture,” especially wedding dresses, he explains.

“Most of the big French houses depend on it, but they don’t like to admit it because they don’t want to be seen as just seamstresses – they want to be a brand,” he reveals.

Ashi’s schedule it is a mixture of meetings to prepare the next collection and client visits for the final touches.

The American pop star Beyoncé dazzled with one of her creations in fuchsia at an event dedicated to the memory of the South African leader Nelson Mandela in 2018.

Ashi claims to be a “citizen of the world.”

And showing a detail of one of her dresses, she explains: “The print was made in London, the fabric in Italy, the embroidery in India and the tailoring here in Paris.”

“This dress has had to travel to exist, as it happens to me”, he concludes.

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Elton Gardner

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