It was well beyond fashionably late to begin. But models finally took to the runway on Thursday in Saudi Arabia’s first-ever Arab Fashion Week.
The event is one of the new entertainment opportunities opening up recently in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
The fashion show hit significant delays, with logistical problems forcing it to open two weeks later than planned. Designers and models had trouble getting travel visas, and the organizers had to change venues to tents on the grounds of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
As the event got underway, the backstage area was cramped and frenetic. Makeup artists and hairstylists worked their magic on the mostly Russian and Eastern European models, and designers made last-minute adjustments on their garments.
The first gowns by designers like Lebanon’s Tony Ward and Bibisara from Kazakhstan were ultra-feminine — with long trains and an emphasis on sequins, feathers and beads.
These are fashions Saudi women might wear in private. In public they usually don a black, loose-fitting, floor-length cloak called an abaya.
Saudi women regularly attend fashion weeks in New York, Paris and Milan. But the kingdom is still highly conservative and there are restrictions on what types of clothes can be exhibited at the Riyadh show — no cleavage, nothing above the knee and nothing too transparent. The audience was female only.
Organizers were the only ones allowed to take pictures inside the tent and photos have to be cleared by government censors before publication.
Still, Lebanese designer Naja Saade says Saudi women have extravagant tastes and love lots of special details on their clothes.
“Saudi women like the European style, they like to look like European women,” he says. “They like the handmade finishing. And the special dress, they don’t like to be like someone else.”
Saudi fashion designer Arwa al-Banawi says she wants to make life easier for an independent woman “who is juggling between her life, family, going to work.”
The government has recently taken strong steps to curb rampant corruption in the kingdom, including rounding up more than 200 of Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest and influential people and detaining them for about three months at the luxurious Ritz Carlton hotel — the same venue where Fashion Week is being held through Saturday.
Organizers are planning another fashion event this fall, hoping to turn Riyadh into a regional hub for fashion.
NPR’s Fatma Tanis contributed to this report in Riyadh.