A young Saudi Arabian princess, inspired by her time living in Tokyo, is the new face of fashion in an ultraconservative kingdom, where dramatic reforms have sparked equal parts optimism and scepticism. Princess Noura bint Faisal Al-Saud, the great-granddaughter of Saudi Arabia’s founder, was named honorary president of the Arab Fashion Council in December.
The royal, who turns 30 on Sunday, this month oversaw her country’s first Arab Fashion Week, headlined by Jean Paul Gaultier and Roberto Cavalli. With a shayla headscarf draped over her hair, the princess is warm, welcoming and eloquent, the exact image that fans have hailed as the future of Saudi Arabia, and critics have dismissed as little more than window dressing in one of the most restrictive countries in the world.
“I understand people’s perspective,” Princess Noura said to AFP in an interview in Riyadh. “Saudi Arabia has strong ties with its culture. As a Saudi woman, I respect my culture, I respect my religion. Wearing the abaya, or being if you would like to call it conservative in the way we dress, is something that is part of who we are. It’s part of our culture … this is how our life is, even while travelling,” she said.
Saudi Arabia has witnessed rapid policy change since the June appointment of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, son of the king and heir to his throne. From this summer, women will be allowed to drive in the kingdom. The crown prince has also hinted that the abaya, the neck-to-toe robe worn by women, may no longer be compulsory.
The first Saudi Arabian edition of Arab Fashion Week opened on April 11, two weeks behind schedule, under the eye of Princess Noura. Organised by the Arab Fashion Council, the event drew international attention both as a watershed in Saudi Arabia and for its controversial configuration, which saw the shows restricted to women — and banned to cameras. The line-up included Saudi Arabia’s own Arwa Banawi, whose The Suitable Woman range is adored by fashionistas across the region, and Mashael Alrajhi, the eponymous gender-inclusive label of a rarely seen Saudi sheikha.
Princess Noura said the limited access was part of the restrictions that they have to follow as part of the culture. “It was a women-only event and most of the women coming to event would say they feel safe. ‘I’m coming to see fashion without having to worry about anyone taking my picture. I want to enjoy it’.”
Pictures of the event were taken by the fashion council’s photographers and released after the approval of Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority.
Fashion for everyone
The princess graduated from Tokyo’s Rikkyo University with a Masters degree in International Business with a Japanese Perspective. She cites her time in Japan as a major influence on her approach to fashion, business and people at home. “That’s where the whole love of fashion started,” she said. “So I think I bring back a lot of Japan to Saudi … The respect of others, the respect of other people’s culture, of other people’s religion.”
The cultural influence of Asia is visible in Riyadh, where the crossover between the kimono and abaya is growing in popularity among fashion-loving youth. Ready-couture, the halfway point between haute-couture and ready-to-wear, has also skyrocketed in the region with the rise of social media and influencers, and Saudi Arabia has an eye on that market — as a future manufacturing hub.
“Couture is no longer affordable to a lot of people,” said Princess Noura. “It was something that was part of fashion and still is … but these days, people are focusing even more on ready-to-wear which is something that everyone can indulge in, everyone can wear, everyone can be part of.”
The princess also has her eye on introducing textile manufacturing to Saudi Arabia, which is seeking to reduce the economy’s dependence on oil. “Even if it’s just 10% of the production line, or the manufacturing line, we can have the finishing … the last stages of assembly in Saudi Arabia,” she said. “I believe that we can do something great.”