Nora Al Shaikh Brings Riyadh to Decades

Nora Al Shaikh turns her head away from the camera while modeling her own dress because it is unacceptable for Saudi women to flaunt their faces publicly; photo: Frances Anderton

In our selfie-loving culture it is unusual to find someone — especially a very beautiful young woman in the world of fashion — who won’t show her face to the camera.

But that was the case when DnA met Nora Al Shaikh, a Saudi designer whose dresses and gowns are on display at Decades, the famed vintage clothing store on Melrose Avenue co-owned by Cameron Silver.

Such public modesty is just one dimension of a cultural heritage that is reflected in clothing by Al Shaikh, who says her collection of flowing, organza dresses and gowns is intended to be a “bit conservative” and “have a Saudi feel in everything,” but at the same time be “modern and suitable for all people around the world.”

This is the second outing at Decades for Al Shaikh, a graduate of business school who went on to study at Riyadh’s Arts & Skills Institute, reportedly the first fashion program of its kind in Saudi Arabia, and launched her namesake label Nora Al Shaikh in 2012.

Never the wallflower, Cameron Silver models an Essa Walla kaftan at the Nora Al Shaikh Fall 2015 Presentation in his store Decades; (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Nora Al Shaikh)
Never the wallflower, Cameron Silver models an Essa Walla kaftan at the Nora Al Shaikh Fall 2015 Presentation in his store Decades; (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Nora Al Shaikh)

Cameron Silver, who presided over the launch party earlier this week resplendent in a kaftan by Essa Walla of Dubai, told DnA, “I am very enthusiastic about Decades functioning as a United Nations of Fashion and certainly Nora Al Shaikh is an ideal representative from Saudi Arabia.

“We have always had a very strong Gulf clientele, and I have a strong affinity for my Arab brothers and sisters who have extraordinary style. It’s ideal to bring everyone together in August and it’s nice to celebrate the fashion coming from the Gulf both with local and visiting fashionistas. It’s good for business and it’s good for our collective consciousness through international community building.” 

Al Shaikh’s presence on the L.A. fashion scene coincides with a burgeoning Saudi presence in Los Angeles, particularly in Beverly Hills where, according to the Hollywood Reporter, hotels are reportedly offering prayer rugs, store owners book vacations around Ramadan, and luxury cars shipped from SA can be seen rolling along Rodeo Drive.

One guest at Al Shaikh’s launch party this week (laced with spicy Arabian coffee) told a design journalist that Saudis visited the US less in the years following 9/11, choosing instead London; but now the preferred vacation spot is Los Angeles.

“In the last couple of years L.A. has definitely become a destination for Saudis,” says Nora Al Shaikh, “partly because it’s very similar to Riyadh and other parts of the Kingdom in terms of its weather and topography. It’s during vacation that people feel they have more time and are relaxed enough to shop. I definitely kept this in mind when deciding to partner with Decades here in LA, as it’s wonderful to see Saudi women supporting my label and wearing my clothes.”

DnA spoke to Al Shaikh about the inspiration for her designs, her intended customer and why, in her view, the body-covering abaya is far more liberating for Saudi women than Westerners might think.

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 03:Guests attend Nora Al Shaikh Fall 2015 Collection Presentation And Trunk Show on August 3, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Nora Al Shaikh)
LOS ANGELES, CA – AUGUST 03:Guests attend Nora Al Shaikh Fall 2015 Collection Presentation And Trunk Show on August 3, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Nora Al Shaikh)

DnA: Last year’s collection at Decades was described at sci-fi. How would characterize your Fall 2015 collection?

Travel has always fueled me creatively, and I took inspiration (from my recent honeymoon on the islands of Bora Bora. Back at my studio in Riyadh, I explored construction and draping through a pallet of soft textured and plain organza that flowed in delicate hues of peppermint, ivory, biscuit and periwinkle blue.

After my last collection, which was very structured, I was in the mood for a softer more relaxed way of dressing; one which reflects Bora Bora’s laid back attitude.

DnA: Who is your usual customer?

Nora Al Shaikh: My usual customer, she’s a woman who loves to wear things first before anyone else, because I always have new cuts in my designs. She loves to take risks with fashion. She’s edgy. She’s funky. And she loves new experiences.

Fashion is an incredibly powerful tool to bridge cultures, and being a Saudi designer has given me the opportunity to connect with women from around the world. It’s very much a reflection of how global we’ve become today and that we can be a part of a larger creative community.

DnA: Is she primarily in the Gulf States? Or is she overseas?

NAS: Well she’s everywhere. I can’t say that she’s only in the Gulf or she’s also overseas, because I sell very well in the Gulf countries, and I’m starting to sell here in Los Angeles and am doing very well. So I’m recognizing that I am targeting international women with a certain lifestyle.

As a young Saudi designer working in an increasingly global industry, I’ve also had to think outside the box in terms how to connect with potential clients. In the last two years we’ve been increasingly looking at trunk shows and partnerships with other stores as a way to generate sales and expose the collection to new audiences.  These have included our first successfull trunk show in L.A. at Decades last year as well as Trickponi’s Middle East-meets-West pop-up showroom in New York.

Through events such as the one at Decades we gained increased exposure in noted publications such as WWD, Style.com, the LA Times and Harper’s Bazaar. It also made me realize that fashion can be a powerful tool to bridge cultures, and I see the work I do as a form of cultural diplomacy. As Saudi designers we have the opportunity to expose international audiences to contemporary culture in the Kingdom.

DnA: Would you say you bring anything of Saudi culture to your aesthetic?

NAS: When I decided to launch my line I wanted to create modern beautifully made clothes that could appeal to women all over the world. At the same time I still want to infuse my own Saudi heritage into the pieces I design but in a very subtle way. This could be reflected in the proportions of a dress or a specific color combination.

I am actually creating a lot of long dresses, a lot of flowy dresses, a bit conservative. So I use some fabrics with cultural prints. I try to have the Saudi feel in everything, but at the same time it’s modern and suitable for all people around the world.

 

The  Nora Al Shaikh Fall 2015 Collection in the storefront window of Decades  (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Nora Al Shaikh)
Nora Al Shaikh says her dresses were inspired by “the French Polynesian islands’ Technicolor landscape, with its saturated shades of emeralds, jades and sapphires, as well as the earthier tones and textures of the sun-bleached local architecture and white sandy beaches.  (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Nora Al Shaikh)

DnA: And what fabrics would you normally use?

NAS: For this collection, I used organza and some wool and tulle fabric. A lot of Gulf women love organza, because it’s so fancy. They like to wear it a lot at night, we have a lot of parties. But my collection is more focused on daily wear, not night wear.

DnA: You know the people in the West assume that Saudi women have to be very covered up, and there’s an emphasis on showing as little as possible of oneself. Is that true and does that impact how you design?

NAS: It does not impact my design. We still wear abayas when we go out, we hide our bodies but we have the full fashionable look underneath the abayas. Whenever we go to a place we take off the abayas and show off our clothes.

DnA: So in a way it’s about revelation. Is there a kind of moment of of revelation when you walk into a into a into a home and you can take off your abaya and then show off what you’ve got underneath?

NAS: Exactly.

DnA: So in a way it could be more theatrical than in the West.

NAS: We always have a surprise underneath.

Nora Al Shaikh Fall 2015 Collection Presentation And Trunk Show  (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Nora Al Shaikh)
Nora Al Shaikh Fall 2015 Collection Presentation And Trunk Show (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Nora Al Shaikh)

DnA: When you walk into a house, just how much can you reveal of the body?

NAS: We can wear whatever we want. There’s no rule to what we wear underneath. It’s just the abaya that we have to wear.

DnA: And that applies to everybody of sort of every economic class or is it different if you’re more affluent?

NAS: It applies in Saudi Arabia, mainly, but for example in Dubai and Kuwait it’s different they don’t wear it. But here we wear because we have a very strong culture and we have very strong roots, so we still love it and we love actually wearing it sometimes when we don’t have the mood to dress up; we just put on sweat pants and the abaya and go out to the super market or for an appointment.

DnA: Would you ever redesign the abaya?

NAS:  Of course. I have actually created modern abayas with hoods, and they look like a trench coats. And it’s short from the front and a little longer from the back. It has a dramatic feel.

Abaya redesigned, by Nora Al Shaikh
An abaya, reimagined by Nora Al Shaikh

DnA: Are there any particular fashion trends outside Saudi Arabia that you follow?

NAS: I travel a lot, and most of my inspiration comes from traveling. I can mix my Saudi culture with inspiration I get from around different cities, different people,  meeting new people also can also inspire me.

DnA: Is there anything in particular you’ve seen in L.A. that excites you?

NAS: I love how the sky is blue and the trees are green here. The colors are so amazing, I want to do something green and blue only for L.A.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Nora Al Shaikh’s Fall 2015 collection will be on display at Decades through August 31, and after that will move to the Walker Drawas showroom; Decades is located at 8214 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90046