I can’t think of anywhere more inspiring,” says Sheikha Souad Al Sabah, as she thumbs through images of her most recent trip to Mumbai on Instagram, stopping to point out the chic emporiums she regularly visits, such as Sabyasachi, Bungalow 8 and Le Mill in the city’s hip Colaba neighbourhood. “The best time to go is from November to February when it’s less humid. I love staying at The Oberoi or the historic Taj Mahal Hotel, which serves a delicious afternoon tea in its Sea Lounge overlooking the Gateway of India,” she continues, over cups of fragrant Kashmiri kahwa and homemade pastries, noting that generations of Kuwaitis have travelled to India since the turn of the last century.
“Kuwaiti women have always been very fashion savvy, because we were exposed to other cultures early on through trade and travel. As far back as the 1950s and ’60s, it wasn’t unusual for women such as my grandmother to fly to Beirut and Europe to order their trousseau for their wedding,” notes Sheikha Souad, who on this particular afternoon is seated in her elegantly appointed living room, where she greets guests stopping by for her weekly open house. But unlike a typical women’s majlis, this is also a work day for the Kuwaiti designer, whose gatherings are an opportunity for her clients to shop her exclusive line of kaftans.
Debuting her label in 2002, she was largely responsible for launching the craze for modern kaftans throughout the region. “It’s hard to imagine now as an entire industry has blossomed around it, but wearing fashionable kaftans during Ramadan is a relatively new phenomenon. There was a time in the 1980s and ’90s when women in Kuwait ordered Dior suits and Saint Laurent cocktail dresses for Ramadan gatherings,” says Sheikha Souad, noting that a younger generation of women has helped propel the demand for fashionable kaftans. “I wasn’t really interested in kaftans while growing up, but I noticed that my mother would always change out of her elegant tailleurs and dresses into a traditional kaftan or dara’a when she came home, which is what most women did at the time,” recalls the designer, who wondered why women didn’t wear this traditional form of dress when leaving the house.
“It definitely came down to comfort. Even though dara’as featured traditional embroideries and colourful prints they weren’t considered fashionable, and were mostly relegated to loungewear around the house,” notes the Kuwaiti designer, who years later began creating kaftans for herself that soon caught the attention of family and friends. “In the beginning it was a hobby, as I experimented with ways to twist and modernise the traditional kaftan into something comfortable and chic that I could wear when going out,” recalls Sheikha Souad, who named her line Sirdab 6, in reference to the spacious gallery and studio located in the basement of her home; sirdab meaning basement in Arabic and the numeral in reference to her house’s number.
“I initially experienced some resistance from women, as I was creating kaftans with short sleeves and hemlines to reflect my own sense of style, which bumped up against the traditional notion of what a dara’a is. But I was stubborn and insisted on not altering my designs, which paid off in the end,” says Sheikha Souad, an accomplished artist who began painting before launching her successful career as a designer. Walking past a display of her large abstract paintings along one wall, she makes her way to her workrooms, where a team of tailors and patternmakers are busy producing her upcoming Ramadan collection, which will feature three distinct lines. Along one large table are stacks of antique-looking textiles featuring subtle embroideries, prints and hues that form the signature ingredients of her coveted designs. “I love clothes with a sense of history, which is why I wanted them to look like the aged remnants of Ottoman dresses and Islamic tapestries that had been pulled out of a trunk in an attic,” she notes, holding up a dusty rose swatch of fabric embellished with a pattern of tarnished silver arabesques.
“I like to combine fragments of Turkish, Moroccan, Japanese and Indian textiles into one look. What makes it modern is how you balance all these elements together in an elegant silhouette,” she adds, while pointing to a mannequin dressed in a knee-length kaftan from her new collection. “Most of my clients would wear this with a pair of Aquazzura heels while on vacation in LA or Boston. There is a timelessness and versatility to these pieces because they don’t have to be worn exclusively during Ramadan,” says Sheikha Souad, who is constantly in search of unique textures, patterns and colours, whether handpicking fabrics in the souks of Istanbul or browsing the offerings at Liberty in London.
“I’m particularly attached to India, which I visit regularly. It’s an amazing place for a designer, because you’re exposed to so many kinds of fabrics, printing methods and embroidery techniques,” notes Sheikha Souad, who was named the Designer of the Year at the first Kuwait Arab Women Awards in 2013.
Lining the wall on the way to her showroom is a collection of antique Singer sewing machines, a reminder of a time in Kuwait when every household made its own clothes. “I found these at the open air Friday Market, which is a treasure-trove of artefacts from Kuwait’s past. I also found some traditional stoves there that I converted into coffee tables for my showroom,” says the inventive designer as she walks into the warm and inviting space, where her latest collection is hung within niches along one wall. For the Sheikha, who produces only one collection a year, research plays a large role in her creative process, one which often blends Eastern and Western elements into one look. To make her point, she holds up a bestseller from her last collection, a thoub bomber jacket covered in metallic floral embroideries found on traditional thoub nashals throughout the Gulf.
Although this particular form of embellishment is associated with the Gulf, most of these embroideries were traditionally commissioned and produced in India and then brought here,” notes Sheikha Souad, who has also amassed an enviable collection of vintage kaftans from across the Islamic world, which she stores within a dedicated climate-controlled room. “I began collecting pieces over 15 years ago. Before the war I used to visit Damascus’ old souk, where I would come across the most beautiful embroidered kaftans dating back to the 19th century, while Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is a wonderful source of Ottoman-era textiles,” says the designer, as she carefully pulls out examples from a cabinet. They include jewel-toned Turkish kaftans shimmering with sarma embroideries, ikat prints from Bukhara and Uzbekistan, as well as delicate silver geometric threadwork from the Sinai Peninsula. “I’ve always been fascinated by other cultures and how they interact, and no item of clothing seems to encapsulate this cross-cultural meshing of ideas better than the kaftan,” she notes of her collection, which encompasses some 200 garments that have been carefully folded and categorised by country and region.
“I started collecting vintage kaftans as a hobby long before I became a designer. But over the years the act of collecting, as well as the pieces themselves, have become an integral part of my design process,” explains Sheikha Souad, noting that variations on the kaftan can be found in cultures throughout Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. “As someone who designs kaftans, it’s important for me to understand this history and preserve these costumes for the next generation, because they point to the origins of dress forms in the Arabian Gulf region as well,” says the mother of four, who also began collecting her country’s traditional costumes early on, noting that over the years it has become increasingly difficult to find uthentic vintage garments in Kuwait. “I’m typically looking for garments that are over 40 years old, and are representative of a culture or region’s textile and tailoring traditions. It’s also important that they be hand-sewn and hand-embroidered,” adds Sheikha Souad, who over the years has observed a growing interest in traditional costumes in Kuwait and the Gulf.
In 2010, she published a book highlighting pieces from her vintage collection together with her own designs. “It took six months to create it, including organising and supervising the photoshoots, as well as selecting which garments to include from the collection,” notes the designer, while carefully placing some recent acquisitions from Mumbai’s old antique market on a nearby table. “I typically collect kaftans but I couldn’t resist these when I saw them,” she says, as she lifts up layers of tissue paper to reveal a selection of stunning iridescent silk chiffon saris woven with Art Deco motifs. “These pieces were most likely made in the 1930s and ’40s when the Indian Maharanis began wearing French chiffon saris sporting geometric or Western-inspired embroideries. Even though these examples are paper-thin and very fragile today, they still inspire me,” says the Kuwaiti designer, who is also known to pair items from her vintage collection with more contemporary pieces in her wardrobe.
“I love wearing an open front kaftan with a pair of sleek pants and a top, which I’ll accessorise with a statement piece of jewellery,” notes Sheikha Souad of her approach to chic dressing, one that has rubbed off on both her daughter and daughter-in-law, who will occasionally borrow less fragile items in her vintage collection to wear. “Personally, I love seeing a younger generation embracing these pieces and adapting them to their own style. That’s the beauty of the kaftan in that it appeals to diverse women, ages and body types regardless of where they are in the world,” says the designer, recalling a time during the 1960s and ’70s when ‘kaftan chic’ was de rigueur amongst some of the most fashionable women in Europe and America, including style icons such as Marella Agnelli, Mica Ertegün, Lee Radziwill and the Comtesse Jacqueline de Ribes.
“When I first launched my line, we didn’t really have a fashion industry in Kuwait, let alone the Gulf, and it’s been very gratifying to see local designers emerging over the last few years,” says Sheikha Souad, who has continued to grow her label organically with each collection. In an age when most designers rely heavily on press and social media to gain brand recognition, the designer chose a different approach to attracting clients, who instead come to her through word of mouth from across the Gulf and internationally. “Even though I have a website and post some images of my collections on social media, I quickly learnt that the true meaning of luxury is exclusivity as opposed to over-exposure,” she observes, noting that at a time when modern kaftans can be purchased across the region and online, most of her clients come to her seeking the rare and the unique in the comfort of her private showroom or during one of her exclusive pop-up events. “I feel very blessed in that my work is my passion, and like one of my children, I’ve enjoyed watching it grow with each collection,” says Souad, who after years of innovation is still tasked with dressing the region’s most discerning women in her designs this Ramadan.