Tucked inside an unassuming 18th-century Georgian townhouse at 40 Dover Street in London’s Mayfair, is a private members’ club with a storied past. In 1863, Charles Dickens and a group of influential friends founded The Arts Club as a haven for artists, writers and intellectuals. Over the next 154 years it would survive two World Wars, including a direct hit during the 1940 Blitz, and attract luminaries such as the artists Auguste Rodin and James Whistler. Since emerging from an extensive renovation in 2011, the venerable institution has continued to attract members from the worlds of art, architecture, fashion, film and music, amongst them Gwyneth Paltrow, David Adjaye and Stella McCartney.
On a particularly quiet Saturday morning in September, Saudi designer Daneh Buahmad entered through The Arts Club doors accompanied by the artist Manal Al Dowayan and the actress/filmmaker Ahd Kamel. Having reunited after months of separation, the three friends had much to catch up on; including the news announced four days earlier that women would be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. “It was a surreal moment because I don’t think any of us saw it coming. For most of us it’s been a very emotional time because we feel as if a weight has been lifted. I’m proud to be Saudi and I have faith in my country and our people,” says Daneh, turning to her childhood friend Manal, who heard the news while in London from her sister Maram in Saudi. She would spend the rest of the day receiving texts from friends celebrating the news across the globe.
Daneh Buahmad wears shirtdress from her pre-fall 2017/18 collection
“It’s a very personal cause for me because I’ve addressed the issue of Saudi women’s right to drive in my work and I’ll continue to tackle issues impacting women in my country through my art,” says Manal, noting that she’s grateful to the countless Saudi women who risked their safety by protesting in demonstrations that began as far back as 1990. “Shortly after the news broke, I was checking into my British Airways flight to Madrid at 4am and on seeing my Saudi passport the woman behind the counter congratulated me with such emotion that she had to hand me a tissue so I could wipe away my tears,” recalls the award-winning artist whose feeling of hope was echoed by Ahd a few minutes later in a suite on The Arts Club’s fifth floor. “I can honestly say I didn’t believe it could happen in my lifetime so I’m absolutely elated, but it’s also important to realise that this is a door opening that could hopefully lead to other reforms,” says Ahd, who is the first Saudi to graduate from the New York Film Academy.
Actress and filmmaker Ahd Kamel wears skirt, both from Daneh Buahmad’s pre-fall 2018 collection. Jacket, Ahd’s own
Later in the morning they’re joined by three other Saudi women, the fashion entrepreneurs Sakhaa and Thana Abdul, as well as the athlete and mountaineer Raha Moharrak. Taking time out of their busy schedules, they’ve gathered at The Arts Club to support Daneh and preview her pre-fall 2017/18 collection for Harper’s Bazaar Arabia. “I knew I couldn’t simply photograph the collection on a model, because so much of my inspiration comes from the strong and accomplished women who surround me,” says Daneh, describing the past year as one of radical change and transformation for her seven-year-old label; a success story based on well-made clothes with a subtle edge, which has garnered her a following amongst trailblazing women. “I realised the way the current system is set up to nurture talent in the region wasn’t working for me at this stage in my career, yet I still want to find ways to work within the industry to encourage positive change,” explains Daneh, who came to the conclusion that it was time for her to reimagine her brand.
While continuing to offer her loyal clients and retailers collections based on her best-selling silhouettes, she teamed up with a London-based branding and design firm to re-launch her website with a new logo and e-commerce platform. “The fashion industry is going through growing pains at the moment as it figures out how to engage with a new generation of luxury consumers, and as a Dubai-based designer it made sense for me to create my own retail platform to reach women beyond the region as the brand has steadily grown,” says the designer, who has spent the last year shuttling between Dubai where she designs her collections, London, to work on her new site and meet with her patternmaker, and Istanbul, where she maintains a studio and produces her collections. “I love going to Turkey because it’s where I roll up my sleeves and immerse myself in the making of the clothes,” says Daneh, who when not in the studio, indulges in long walks along the Bosphorus and explores the city’s colourful and ancient streets in search of haberdasheries, fabric stores and antique shops.
For pre-fall 2017/18, Daneh stepped out of her comfort zone by experimenting with new colours, prints and cuts that are a departure from the minimalist aesthetic that defined her early collections. Thumbing through images of her mood board on her iPhone, she points to fragments of references that formed the starting point for the latest collection. Amongst them are 19th-century portraits of Scottish noblemen in their ancestral plaids, ’90s girl bands such as Veruca Salt, Luscious Jackson and Sleater-Kinney performing in Doc Martens and plaid shirts, as well as traditional Bahraini weavers creating similarly patterned textiles that were worn as sarongs.
“Seeing these images made me realise how universal plaid is as a pattern and that it had multiple meanings attached to it depending on the culture and era. But it’s also a fabric that was predominantly worn by men, and I love the idea of infusing a masculine/feminine element into my collections,” says Daneh whilst pointing to Raha, who had just walked into the room in a floor-length plaid shirtdress from the designer’s pre-fall collection. “There’s an ease and comfort to Daneh’s clothes. You never feel like you’re trying too hard or look overdressed in her pieces,” says Raha, who, in 2013, was the first Saudi woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest and would go on to scale the highest mountain peaks in Africa, Russia, South America and Antarctica; expeditions that would push her to her limit both mentally and physically. “I never thought of giving up once, when I think of all the times I was discouraged from pursuing my dreams just because I was a girl,” says the athlete, who challenged convention when she was expected to return home to Jeddah to get married after a successful career as a graphic designer and art director in Dubai.
Athlete and mountaineer Raha Moharrak wears shirtdress
“Within our culture we’re taught that one’s life doesn’t begin until marriage and although I’m not against it, I found it hard to believe that there weren’t alternative paths to living one’s life fully, and for me it was about pursuing my passion for climbing mountains,” says Raha, who uses her position today to advocate greater access to sports for girls in Saudi schools.
“What links these women together, is that each took a different road than what was expected of them to pursue their dreams. It’s their journey to become well-rounded individuals, despite initial resistance from family and society, that I find so inspiring,” says Daneh, while walking down the Art Club’s grand staircase, over which hovers the artist Tomas Saraceno’s suspended sculpture composed of a network of Perspex biospheres. She’s wearing a crisp ivory shirtdress looped at the waist several times with a long belt, noting that it was influenced by a recent trip to Japan. “We typically think of the kimono, but I became intrigued by the functional clothes that were traditionally worn by workmen and farmers in Japan’s countryside.”
On another floor, the artist Manal Al Dowayan has snuck away during a lull in shooting to take in the club’s collection of contemporary art by the likes of John Baldessari and John Stezaker. She selected a belted khaki-green trench-dress by Daneh, someone she’s known her entire life. “Our parents are not only good friends and live close to each other, but we also ended up attending the same K-12 school and university, so it was inevitable that we’d become close and we’re alike in many ways,” notes Manal, who has worn Daneh’s clothes to major events in her career, from the opening of the Venice Biennale to the Serpentine Gallery’s annual summer party in London. “I always feel a sense of confidence when wearing clothes by a person who shares my vision and values in life. What I love about Daneh is that she designs for every body type because she believes each woman is beautiful and powerful in her own way,” she adds, noting that she faced her own set of challenges when embarking on her career.
Daneh’s childhood friend Manal Al Dowayan wears trench-dress
“I believe that deep inside we all know what we’re meant to be, even if those around us try to discourage us. I had to chart my own path independently because there weren’t any prominent Saudi female contemporary artists I could turn to as role models and I have no regrets today,” says the respected artist, who this month will unveil a public art commission in Al Ain Oasis, a Unesco Heritage site in Abu Dhabi, in addition to planning a museum show in Memphis, Tennessee, and an exhibition in 2018 at Madrid’s Sabrina Amrani Gallery.
A closer look at Daneh’s fan base also reveals a roster of women representing diverse ages. Amongst them are the sisters Sakhaa and Thana Abdul, who’ve built a large following as fashion influencers through their Instagram and daily blog posts. “I had to include them within this group of women, because here are two 20-something Saudi girls, who may be physically small in size but have built their careers around a much larger vision; something that takes intelligence, confidence and perseverance,” notes Daneh of the sisters, who are in the midst of re-launching Coded Nation, their multibrand e-commerce boutique that serves as a platform for emerging designers from around the world.
“At a time when there’s a lot of talk about the lack of diversity in the fashion industry, we still felt it was challenging to shop for affordable designer clothes from the Middle East, Asia, Africa and even South America, which is why we started Coded Nation,” says Thana, while seated next to Sakhaa at Kyubi, the Art Club’s sushi restaurant. Describing her style as pared down and minimalist, she selected a cotton trench from Daneh’s collection sporting multi-coloured stripes that she wore with a pair of pants and sneakers. In contrast, her sister Sakhaa picked one of the collection’s more dramatic looks, a one-shoulder gingham top paired with an asymmetrical tiered skirt. “Sakhaa has always been the more adventurous one in terms of style,” adds Thana, noting her sister’s penchant for dying her hair different shades, including pink.
Sisters and fashion entrepreneurs Sakhaa and Thana Abdul wear coat, trousers top and skirt, all from Daneh Buahmad’s pre-fall 2017/18 collection
“I was born in the ’90s and somehow that decade rubbed off on me stylistically. I’m always pairing denim with plaid shirts and Dr Martens, which is why Daneh’s clothes appeal to me,” notes Sakhaa, pointing to the collection’s easy-chic dresses and separates cut from cottons, jerseys and poplins printed with the distinctive gingham pattern. “It’s another one of those universal patterns that can be found in different cultures, whether in Indonesia where it symbolised the battle between good and evil or Dorothy’s dress in the Wizard of Oz,” says Daneh, who sourced most of her fabrics from Turkey and Italy.
Towards the end of the shoot, Ahd has found a perch by a window in the club’s drawing room, decked out with large modernist paintings and velvet armchairs in pastel hues. Snug and comfortable in her own leather jacket and a floor-length plaid skirt from Daneh’s pre-fall collection, she recalled how she’d first crossed paths with the designer. “I met Daneh while working on the film Wadjda in 2012. A few years later I was looking for a dress to wear to the premier of the film Zinzana at the 2015 Dubai International Film Festival. I ended up wearing her navy tweed dress, which was so chic in its simplicity that it remains one of my favourite pieces by her,” says Ahd, who went on to form a friendship with the designer and observe her brand grow with each season. “For someone who’s very humble, I have so much respect and admiration for Daneh’s determination and talent,” adds the London-based Saudi actress, who recently wrapped up filming alongside Carey Mulligan for the Netflix/BBC series Collateral, which will be airing early next year.
“Looking back on this past year of hard work and extraordinary change, is a reminder that it’s not only important to support each other as women, but that it’s equally important to work together with our male peers to build a better future,” says Daneh as she embarks on a new chapter in her career.
This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia
Photography by Sebastian Böttcher