"Jeddah ghair," muses designer Nora Al Shaikh, citing the popular saying in reference to Jeddah’s unique character, as she surveys Saudi Arabia’s cosmopolitan port city from the balcony of her new studio. Sprawled out beneath her are modernist experiments in architecture, jostling for presence amongst centuries-old coral stone mansions featuring intricate lattice screen mashrabiyahs. “Jeddah has always set itself apart from other cities in Saudi Arabia. There is something in the air here, a more relaxed vibe and an ease with the past and present,” says the designer, who recently moved here from Riyadh with her husband.
In front of her the city extends into the Red Sea, its rippling surface glittering in the setting sun. For centuries Saudi Arabia’s fabled port city has served as the Kingdom’s portal to the world, welcoming waves of pilgrims and traders from as far afield as Africa, Asia and Europe. The result is a city of cultural fusions that is reflected in the faces of its inhabitants and a cuisine rich in global references. “Here you see Saudis with Asian features and dishes such as a special kind of Saudi ravioli called matazeez. This mix of cultures and a relaxed atmosphere, really inspired my approach to designing my next collection,” observes 29-year-old Nora.
Nora Al Shaikh with a model in the designer's autumn/winter 2016 collection photographed for the July/August edition of Harper's Bazaar Arabia
For the globe-trotting designer, who has referenced everything from LA street art to Paris architecture in her designs, her most recent collection takes its inspiration from subjects closer to home. It began with her immersion into the city’s vibrant contemporary art scene, when Nora attended Jeddah Arts 21, 39, a citywide art fair. “This year’s main exhibit explored the theme Earth and Ever After, and got me thinking about my relationship to the environment and the ‘land’ as a Saudi and global citizen,” says the designer of the groundbreaking exhibition, which was co-curated by Mona Khazindar, the first Saudi woman to be appointed the director general of Paris’ Arab World Institute. “It featured intriguing installations that explored the mythology surrounding our relationship to the desert and sea, but always with a nod to the present,” observes the designer, pointing out installations of satellite dishes and a life-size kaleidoscope of hanging fibreglass leaves amongst the artworks that caught her eye.Before moving to Jeddah, the designer also travelled to the desert outside her native Riyadh. “Jeddah is all about the sea, but the desert is very special as well. It’s difficult for people to understand Saudis’ relationship to our desert, because all they may see is a repetitive monotone landscape, whereas for us it’s a connection to our roots and
a thing of beauty,” explains Nora, noting that for Riyadh dwellers, the desert on its fringes is their “beach and ski slopes all rolled into one.” A place where family and friends decamp to on weekends to relax in an atmosphere of beautifully appointed tents away from the stress of the city. “No two deserts are alike, and the desert outside Riyadh shifts in hue from a warm gold, to dusty rose and ochre red as the sun rises and sets, which informed the colour pallet for my collection,” says the designer, who also referenced tent construction in her designs and used tiny bead embroideries inspired by grains of sand.
Nora Al Shaikh in the Riyadh desert
The result is a collection she dubbed the Empty Quarter, in reference to the mythical swath of Arabian desert. Her love of form and structure comes through in designs featuring layered tiers of organza and chiffon recalling undulating desert dunes, but there is also a nod to her new home, Jeddah. “I wanted to create a modern relaxed collection in terms of attitude, so I’ve also included variations on the shirt dress in a light striped cotton as well as easy tops that look chic when paired with slouchy suede pants,” says Nora.
“About two years ago we started mounting trunk shows in LA, which has given me a chance to expose my line to an international audience,” says the designer, noting that daily direct flights from Jeddah to LA point to the popularity of the Californian metropolis amongst Saudis. “As a designer, I’ve always felt it was important for me to first connect with women from the region through my designs, but at the same time it’s been an enriching experience to watch women from different cultures wearing and responding to my clothes. Whether we are talking art, architecture or fashion, I think we are at an interesting moment in time, and there is a real opportunity to bridge and engage with cultures through the work we do as young Saudi creatives,” Nora muses.
“I started my line almost five years ago, and although I’m proud that we’ve been able to build and sustain it, there is still a lot I want to achieve,” says the Saudi designer, who points out that there remains a number of challenges facing young designers in the region. “Creating initiatives such as fashion prizes to encourage young talent is well intentioned and can create a buzz around a designer, but we still lack the infrastructure for a sustainable fashion industry here, from fabric suppliers who sell at commercial quantities to production and garment factories,” observes Nora, who sees her role and that of her peers as setting the foundation for such a network. “With the sustained support of the regional fashion press, retailers and more importantly women, we can create opportunities for young designers to succeed and build their labels. To achieve this we have to look beyond the initial desire for fame and focus on the long-term goal of crafting clothes with a unique regional point of view that stand up to international standards,” concludes Nora, as she embarks upon a new life in Jeddah.
– Words by Alex Aubry. Photography by Ethan Mann. Styling by Katie Trotter. The full version of this article appears in the June edition of Harper's Bazaar Arabia