Confessions of a Saudi thobe designer

Long gone are the days of the over-sized black abaya and pale white floor-length thobe in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom’s thobe designers are taking the Saudi fashion scene by storm, filling shops and ateliers with colorful and hip thobes for those seeking a modern flare to their traditional garbs. MENASSAT had a chat with pioneer women’s thobe designer Filwa Nazer in Jeddah.
From thobe designer Filwa Nazer's latest collection.

JEDDAH, April 14, 2009 MENASSAT - Contrary to the traditional thobes often associated with Saudi Arabia, a new hip modernized line of abayas appear to have become a hit selling item both for women and men in Saudi Arabia, redefining fashion in the ultra-conservative Kingdom. 

In the capital city Jeddah, young Saudi men crowd the myriad of giant shopping malls sipping lattes wearing thobes that are trimmed with large zippers and color stripes. Groups of women sporting giant black shades walk around squawking into their mobile phones, dressed in high-end thobes with shimmering gold sleeves and exquisite colorful designs.

Filwa Nazer, a Jeddah-based designer in her thirties, is one of the pioneers of the thobe design movement.  Nazer’s thobe line (thobes are normally worn under the traditional long robe 'abaya' in public), has taken the traditional, more conservative thobe design and turned it into a feminine and elegant dress-like abaya with flattering cuts and striking colorful patters, often made with handmade embroideries.

It’s been six years since her debut Ramadan collection hit Jeddah and the designer is now working on her sixth collection.

In that time, many new talents have emerged in the field. 

Jeddah-based male thobe designer Yahia Al-Bishri has been dubbed the “man who put color back in Saudi menswear,” with his bold and colorful line of thobes. His client list includes members of the royal family, including the Saudi monarch, King Abdullah.

Some of the designers even promote sociopolitical causes. During the Gaza war, for example, Hatim Alakeel designed a number of thobes using the colors of the Palestinian flag with patterns of the iconic black and white checkered scarf (keffiyeh).

MENASSAT sat down with pioneer designer Nazer in Jeddeh to discuss thobes, how she began in the industry and fashion as a tool for self-expression.

MENASSAT: So how did your thobe designing come about?

“I had been studying at a fashion school in Milan and did a training program with Italian designer Ferre before coming back to Saudi Arabia six years ago. It (thobe designing) actually started with me falling into it."

"I was going through somewhat of an existential crisis, asking myself whether I wanted to become a designer or an artist. I was trying out different things."

"Then my aunt who runs a boutique store in Jeddah where she’s been selling abayas for as long as I remember, asked me if I could make her a small collection of designer thobes for the Ramadan season. That’s when everyone buys new thobes here in Saudi Arabia.”

MENASSAT: Did people end up buying them?

“It was a very small collection. I wasn’t sure if people would like it or not, but I received good feedback on the collection. People wanted more.”

MENASSAT: Who mainly buys your thobes? Daring young trend setters or the older generation as well?

: “ Well, the older generation didn’t jump on it (the first collection). It was different from what they were used to. But now we have people in their fifties and sixties buying the thobes."

"They get excited about the colors. Demand for colorful thobes has increased and people now have a whole new definition of thobes. Before they were comfortable and traditional but never funky. Now they are young and fresh with a traditional element.”

MENASSAT: And you also do custom-made thobes?

“Yes. For example, the more conservative women usually add longer sleeves and close up the slit.”

MENASSAT: Thobes with a slit?

“Yes, of course. There are short options too. Many like to wear their thobes with leggings. The more you do this (thobe design), the more experimental you become and the more your work improves.”

MENASSAT: Can you expand on that statement?

“It lies in our human nature to express ourselves. There are limitations in doing that here. People want to express themselves here and are trying to do so. Fashion is one way of doing it.”

MENASSAT: What makes your thobes different from those of other designers?

“Not only are they feminine, but they’re elegant and come with an edge. We buy most of the fabrics from India and many of the thobes come with hand embroidery.  And the designs are always thoroughly researched.”

MENASSAT: And the inspiration behind the designs. Where do you get it from?

“I buy many books and attend exhibitions. I also travel a lot which serves as a great source of inspiration for me. The artist scene is still limited in Saudi Arabia and artists are just starting to receive recognition. Freedom of expression is a big part of beign an artist. So I soak up influences as much as I can from outside.”