Arab Fashion Scene Is Lively and Creative

The Institute for Foreign Affairs introduces fashion as well as fashion designers from the Arab world. The fascinating garments dispel a great many widespread myths and provide evidence of a lively fashion scene. By Florian Wagner

exhibition poster
Arab fashion designers navigate between the traditional and the modern

​​A sparsely lit space containing only a television set, with more than a dozen pictures hanging on the wall. The woman on the screen is scantily clad, absentmindedly devoting herself to her erotic play with the veil.

The photographs also show unusual ways of using the veil and the chador – for example, when they cover the whole body in the colors of the French flag. Or when they are made of leather and have straps for tying, making them look more like a straitjacket than a piece of clothing.

The installation, by the Moroccan designer Majida Khattari, is part of the exhibition "Arab Worlds – Worlds of Fashion" at the Institute for Foreign Affairs (ifa) in Stuttgart. Its central theme is the covering of the body, presented as a playful, sometimes dangerous game of veiling and unveiling which is intended to arouse the spectators' curiosity about the garments' meaning and function.

photo: ifa
Adiba Al Mahboub (right) and model

​​Europeans have been pre-warned by the legal conflict surrounding traditional headscarves and are well aware of the societal and political difficulties associated with this subject – one which had hardly been noticed previously. Here it is the central theme: fashion in the Arab world. And the makers of the exhibition in Stuttgart are able to prove here that Arab fashion consists of much more than the familiar stereotypes of headscarf and caftan, chador and djellaba – or of belly dancers draped in pearls and peeling themselves out of robes as if they were shedding the layers of an onion.

Connecting Arab traditions with the modern age

In the very next room of the gallery, the idealized images from "A Thousand and One Arabian Nights" are shattered. Here, the visitor is presented with Arab haute couture of the highest order and receives an introduction to the very lively fashion scene of the Middle East and the Gulf Region.

The Lebanese fashion designer Khaled Al Masri, who studied in Milan and then founded his own label, "Khaled Couture", in Beirut, could be called the star of that scene. He translates the richness and symbolism of Arab culture into the formal language and materials of the 21st century in an innovative and creative fashion. His collection was included in the Paris Fashion Week in both 2003 and 2004.

photo: ifa
Mohamed Lakhdar tries to reinterpret the traditional caftan and to reimbue it with new life and a contemporary quality

​​Under the name of "milia m", another Lebanese designer, Milia Maroun, also builds on Arab traditions. Her cuts and materials seem a bit plainer at first glance – but like her unobtrusive colors, they reveal themselves to be truly exquisite creations which are full of surprises. After completing her studies at the ESMOD fashion school in Paris, Maroun settled down in Beirut. Meanwhile, her collections are appearing in boutiques all over the world.

Along with Beirut, Casablanca is one of the great cities of Arab fashion. This is where Mohamed Lakhdar and Najia Abadi began their careers. They subsequently studied fashion design in Paris and eventually returned to their native country. Both designers interpret the traditional Moroccan caftan in new ways.

Abadi, for example, sees the development of the caftan as a mirror image to the achievements of Moroccan women. She offers her clients an up-to-date version which she has developed into something comparable to an evening gown.

Orientalism in fashion

In contrast to all this beauty in simplicity, the evening gowns and wedding dresses designed by Adiba Al Mahboub of Kuwait are real eye-catchers. These elegant garments are made from exquisite materials, brilliantly colored and embroidered with pearls. Now the visitor's mind does go on a voyage to the land of Arabian fairy tales – until, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that here, too, the shapes are based more on Occidental wardrobes than on Oriental traditions.

The exhibit deserves credit for dispelling persistent myths. Fashion, after all, had its own period of "Orientalism". At the beginning of the 20th century, designers like Paul Poiret adopted the stereotypes of the "East" which came from painting and literature and created "Turkish pants" or turbans for their collections. These images still persist.

Furthermore, the exhibit makes it clear that neither haute couture and extravagant clothing nor modernism and secularization are exclusive to Europe and North America. The “world of fashion” is alive in the Arab world as well – and with its rich artistic tradition, it can create new impulses. Creative, colorful and fascinating competition like that presented in the exhibit in Stuttgart should no doubt make established fashion gurus afraid of a revolution.

Florian Wagner

© 2005

Translation from German by Mark Rossman

In Between Nomad Tents and Cashbahs
The Vitra Design Museum is exploring the myths and realities of the Arab world in its new exhibition "Living Under the Crescent Moon," which offers a comprehensive survey of Arab domestic cultures. The exhibition, which runs from July 2003 – January 2004, stands under the patronage of the German Foreign Ministry.