Fashion models are strutting the catwalks today in Saudi Arabia's capital city as part of the country's first-ever Arab Fashion Week. It's one of several new forms of entertainment that the ultraconservative kingdom now permits. But fashion week got off to a rocky start. NPR's Jackie Northam reports from Riyadh.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Saudi Arabia's first fashion week was actually supposed to start a couple of weeks ago. But there were problems with travel visas and a larger-than-expected international audience. Determined to keep on track, organizers rushed to find a new venue and get more visas and tickets. The new target date was yesterday, but workmen needed until today to build the runway and lay carpets.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And underneath, double knots underneath.
NORTHAM: Backstage, makeup artists and hairstylists work their magic. And designers made last-minute adjustments as the mostly Russian and Eastern European models stepped out in front of the audience.
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NORTHAM: The first gowns out were ultra-feminine with long trains, sequins, feathers and beads. These are fashions Saudi women would normally wear in private. Usually, they wear a full-length abaya in public. Organizers were the only ones allowed to take pictures. They have to be cleared by government censors before publication.
NORTHAM: 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 fashions can be exhibited at the show — no cleavage, nothing above the knee and nothing too transparent. Still, Lebanese designer Naja Saade says Saudi women have extravagant tastes and love lots of special details on their clothes.
NAJA SAADE: Saudi women like the European style, and they like the handmade finishing and the special the dress. They don't like to be like someone else.
NORTHAM: Jacob Abrian, the CEO of the Arab Fashion Council which organized the event, says Saudi princesses are the biggest collectors of haute couture. Abrian says it's not surprising Riyadh would see its own fashion week.
JACOB ABRIAN: We decided to host a fashion week in Riyadh considering the fact and the importance of Saudi Arabia as hub for the Arab world and the most important market in the Arab region for the fashion industry for their high purchase power and for the population for — 70 percent of the citizens, they are under the age of 30 years old.
NORTHAM: The audience was female only, no men allowed. Most of the designers are from Europe or the Middle East. Several are from Saudi Arabia, including Arwa Al Banawi. She says her designs send a strong message about female empowerment at a time when Saudi Arabia is offering women more opportunities, such as driving and going to work.
ARWA AL BANAWI: These changes happening now and to have a fashion week now, it makes sense because the timing makes sense. So it definitely is inspiring to me because women are now — they want to become more independent. They're working. So for me as a designer, I want to make an easy solution for this independent woman who is juggling between her life, family, going to work.
NORTHAM: Even a couple of years ago, it would have been unthinkable for Saudi Arabia to host this kind of fashion event. But the government has made an effort to make the kingdom a more welcoming place for business and leisure. Organizers are planning another fashion event this fall, hoping to turn Riyadh into a regional hub for fashion. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Riyadh.