Middle Eastern Style: The New Tradition

BY Harper's Bazaar Arabia / Dec 27 2015 / 19:05 PM

As fashion becomes ever-more globalised, with external influences helping shape the future of tradition, Emily Baxter speaks to four GCC designers about modern Middle Eastern style, the new norms of national dress and how the abaya is enjoying an evolutionary moment

Middle Eastern Style: The New Tradition
Fatma Al Taher and Mthayel Al Ali

The Brand: OE-O by Hernan Hoentsch and Maggie Jonk
“Having lived and studied in the Middle East, and now based in Dubai, I launched OE-O with Hernan last November, after meeting at Design Days Dubai in 2014,” says the abaya label’s Canadian co-founder Maggie Jonk. “We launched our first collection of abayas, Matter, because we saw an opportunity to challenge ourselves and to produce something unique and as yet unseen in the market. We researched the cultural significance of the abaya, and the importance it carries when viewed through a global lens, and we channel that into our designs. Using both our backgrounds to create the concept development – mine in fashion design and Hernan’s in product design – what we make is a reflection of the world and the time we’re living in; a more modest garment which is in line with beliefs that date back thousands of years, but still with a sense of individuality, for a woman who has unique ideas and a desire to express herself. We use 100 per cent cotton throughout, hand-print our fabrics, and do absolutely everything in-house, all in a bid to create something clean, strong and impactful. Our design approach allows our pieces to be worn by everyone. We’ve had a lot of interest internationally, and from women who don’t wear abayas, which opens Middle Eastern dress up to an international market.” 
Mariam Al Badr wears: Abaya, Dhs4,450; underdress, both OE-O. Hernan Hoentsch and Maggie Jonk wear: Jeans and T-shirt, their own. OE-O is available in Abu Dhabi at Minbart and 1971 Design Store (opening this month) and Oe-o.com

The Muse: Mariam Al Badr
“The abaya represents my Emirati culture and heritage, linking the past to the present. I wear an abaya every day with pride, and it gives me a sense of unity with all the GCC women who’ve helped build our region to what it is today. The evolution of the abaya also emphasises the role and position of women in our society, a timeless classic that will never go out of style.”

The Brand: Raw by Ayten by Ayten Alkhayat
“I started RAW by Ayten in 2015 because I was getting frustrated with the direction of abaya fashion design in the region. I wanted to create my own and break away from the norm, to start experimenting with fabric, colour and cut. I then thought, ‘What if I can change the face of how women dress by giving them quality and style... almost like educating them?’ I also wanted to create an affordable luxury line where women can feel a sense of empowerment and beauty, style and elegance. The abaya may simply be a tradition, but I feel we need to move ahead with the times, and that the abaya, or the wrap as I like to call it, needs to be updated, to change, both in colour and style. More importantly, I want to modernise the fabric, by reintroducing natural materials, and the cut of the garment, where it was essential to bring back simplicity, elegance and fluidity. There is no rule to colours, either. Black is the unspoken accepted colour in our society and I love it, but why not revolutionise the colour codes of the abaya too? I want to widen choices and change perceptions.”

Deema Al Asadi wears: Abaya, Dhs1,700, Raw by Ayten. Shoes, her own. Ayten Alkhayat wears: Dhs1,900, Raw by Ayten. T-shirt, jeans and shoes, her own. Raw by Ayten is available at House of Fraser, Abu Dhabi; O Concept, Dubai; Maison Bo-M, Riyadh and Jeddah; and Rawbyayten.com
The Muse: Deema Al Asadi 
“More than just a link to our traditional roots, the abaya is a vital and unique piece of Arabic culture – past, present and future. The evolution towards more contemporary designs allows me to wear it in more casual ways, with jeans and shirt or over a dress. My dream is to one day see an abaya in every girl’s closet.”

The Brand: Nafs Designs by Fatma Al Taher 
“For myself and my three sisters, Noora, Alia and Sara, wearing an abaya is a symbol of pride. I remember begging my mother to wear one and finally received my first abaya when I was 13 years old, just before Eid. I was immediately treated differently by family members, I was respected more. So it gives me much pride and status to wear one. And so, we founded NAFS four years ago after being frustrated with the limited local abaya market. The brands were ridiculously expensive, limited in scope and didn’t define our style underneath the abaya. In the last few years, especially as Middle Eastern garments and modern, global fashion become more interrelated, the concept of the traditional abaya has been redefined, with more complicated cuts, tailoring, and colour; now lighter tones are more socially acceptable. It’s a beautiful evolution. Girls now want an abaya to reflect their own sense of style and personality. So not only do we design affordable luxury abayas, we want our customers to stand out in our designs. We take risks in our cuts and fabrics, and make our designs more edgy, which allows them to be styled more diversely, which we love to see.”

Fatma Al Taher wears: Abaya, Dhs1,450, NAFS Designs. Shoes, Fatma’s own. Mthayel Al Ali wears: Abaya, Dhs1,500, NAFS Designs. Jumpsuit and shoes, her own. Nafs Designs is available at Boutique Muscat, Oman, and Nafs.ae
The Muse: Mthayel Al Ali
"The abaya symbolises how important a woman is in our society. Rather than changing that, we try to emphasise it, so the abaya will always be the way we stick to our traditions and values, yet modernise it through the centuries, such as through colour and playing with fabrics, which is revolutionary.”

Prices approximate. Photography: Richard Hall. Production: Nina Ross: Hair by Ricci Capricci Salon. Make-up by Revlon.