"The culture of couture is in Rome,” declares Antonio Grimaldi, the fashion designer who has been dressing Middle Eastern clients for two decades in his timeless, Italian bespoke styles.
Antonio first went to Riyadh 20 years ago, when he was 29. “I saw it change completely,” he says, “there was only one hotel, nothing around. Now I’m seeing change, step by step.” This summer, Antonio debuts budding Saudi model Taleedah Tamer on the catwalk during the Paris couture shows. It is a fitting alliance of his Europe-based couture house with his customer base in the Gulf. He first met Taleedah on one of his many trips to the Kingdom, when the model was just 10 years old. He is intrigued to see the international reaction to her catwalk debut, given that the concept of a Saudi model is such an enigma to a global audience. “No one would have imagined this,” he says, “People think that behind the abaya, there is something very far away from them. That is not true. All women are the same, they like the same things. This is the perfect time to show that,” he says.
With the Gulf accounting for around 70 per cent of his customer base, Antonio is highly attuned to Khaleeji tastes and his relationship with his clientele is still very intimate – he collaborates closely with clients, sketching out dresses to suit their requirements. “Our collection is just to give an idea of what is in fashion now, but couture is so intimate. The woman has to feel the dress,” he explains. Antonio says that on the couture circuit lace is out of favour while more modern embroidery techniques, such as those employing metal, are finding favour. “And they want to show their jewellery and face,” Antonio says, adding, “I agree with that. The woman comes before the dress. There has to be an equilibrium.”
He relishes the analogue nature of couture in this digital age, when clients come to the atelier in Rome and he meets them in their Saudi homes. “I feel I’m doing something that is not in this time. Couture is something that doesn’t belong to the present,” he says, which is precisely what makes it so magical. Unlike his ready-to-wear peers in Milan, Antonio prefers the slow pace of couture, a more refined art form in which each of the 200 gowns a year produced by his atelier in Rome is treated as a work of art. “Fashion now is like a train that is running too much. This train forgets to stop. Now all the brands copy each other. It’s so commercial. It’s too much,” he despairs of the social media-driven ‘It product’ nature of ready-to-wear. “I prefer women who know what they want to have. Fashion victims make me sad. They only buy something because everyone has it. I like people that have their own style. You can be fashionable because you love it, not because you must have it.”
Which brings him back to his loyal Gulf clientele and his close ties with Saudi. “Saudi Arabian women love fashion. They know everything, they have good taste, they teach me,” he says. Aside from lavish gowns for weddings, Antonio also works on unique commissions to suit his clients’ lifestyles, such as a custom line of kaftans for Ramadan requested by one customer. “It’s another world,” he smiles, “I love to work with these people. They feel fashion. They make dreams. I want to be a part of them.” As his collaboration with Taleedah Tamer draws him ever closer to the Middle East, Antonio Grimaldi reiterates the shared humanity that is at the heart of haute couture, saying, “When we do a dress, it has to have a soul, otherwise it is just a product.” And that’s a sentiment as true in Europe as it is here in the Gulf.