Under the abaya
Saudi woman vogue
Saudi fashion
Abaya fashion

Rana often organises photo-shoots to publicise her abaya collections. However, her models are rarely Saudi due to the strong social stigma attached to the profession. The model above is of Ethiopian descent. 

The Fashion Designer

Rana, 31, Riyadh

On the role of women

I feel that women are more creative than men; I see it all the time in my work. You know, I think in Saudi in particular we have the advantage of being looked after; this leaves you with a lot more time and energy to be creative, without the pressure of having to provide. It gives you so much freedom to be creative, to explore new angles, to concentrate on design. 

In this respect I think that here, men carry a far heavier burden. According to our culture and our religion, it’s always his responsibility to pay the bills. It doesn’t matter if I have my own job, if I’m earning a great salary, I am under no obligation to support the household. 

On design

I started nine or ten years ago, just creating abayas for friends and family. At that time there weren’t many Saudi or regional designers around. All our abayas and traditional clothes were designed by Indian or Yemeni men, who didn't know our culture, who didn’t know what’s comfortable for women.

I thought, this is crazy, under my abaya I wear clothes from designers all over the world. Why should these men design what I wear every day? That’s why I started. I wanted to show everyone that a Saudi designer could produce something beautiful, something wearable. I wanted Saudi women to start designing for Saudi women. 

I think it’s more challenging to create modest fashion, even in high couture and for international designers. It’s very easy to make people look at you if you’re revealing a lot.  But to create something decent, and at the same time very fashionable - these are the classic pieces. You can wear them anywhere and you always get compliments. 

On wearing the veil

Our religious obligation is to dress modestly, to cover our hair; this is hijab. But the niqab, even the abaya, this in itself not a religious garment, this is our culture, this is tradition. It’s not something I wear when I travel abroad. 

Another misconception is that it has to be black, again this is tradition, not a religious requirement. When I first started designing, you could only buy black, so I went wild; my first two collections were very colourful. I had to careful about where I exhibited at that time, not everyone appreciated my flamboyance.

Hijab is all about your own personal principles, how much you cover depends on you. But the abaya in itself is quite a beautiful garment. We don’t get bored of it; you always feel you are well dressed. 

On driving


I think ladies should be allowed to drive, for sure, we should have the option, but it’s not on my checklist to go and get a license.

To me, having a driver is a luxury. In other countries it’s something associated with royalty; here, most ladies have this privilege. We don’t have to worry about parking, we don’t have to get into the car when it’s hot. Just yesterday I had an accident; I was able to call another driver and go home, my driver had to wait around in the sun and the heat for over two hours.

That’s the thing, I wouldn’t want to be in that kind of situation myself. I think that’s why it’s taken so long to change the law. Our community, they’re afraid for women. If you were alone for example, and your car broke down, anything could happen; you could be assaulted, you could be raped. 

The idea is to protect us. Even when women do start driving, there will probably be certain conditions. Perhaps only women over thirty-five, and so on. But for me, I find the roads scary enough as it is. It’s very luxurious to have a driver; why would I want to change?

On change

The Kingdom is changing so fast. For me, even in the last five years, we’ve seen far greater change than the ten years before. My mother’s life was much simpler; she could sew clothes for herself, she could do domestic crafts, as a hobby. But to study, to make it as professional designer, that simply wasn’t an option. 

In the future, I would like to see us becoming stronger in our own identity. Right now, all the restaurants, the fast food, even the workers; it’s all imported. When you go to Italy for example, the restaurant owner, the food, the hotel staff, the babysitter, they’re all Italian. It’s a very authentic feeling. I hope it's something we'll see more here. 

Vogue Veils

As sinonimous with women's Islamic

dress as it has become, the preference for

the colour black seems to stem more from a

desire for uniformity than any religious obligation.  

Any yet, you would be mistaken in thinking that all Saudi women are dressed the same. From kimono-style wraps, to tassels to shoulder pads, an enormous amount of care, and money, is invested in choosing an abaya for the season.

It's a fact that has not escaped the attention of major fashion houses. Dolce & Gabbana debuted elaborately embroidered abayas ​and shailas in their 2016 collections, and other

big names are expected to follow suit. 

Interestingly though, the response from their highly discerning target audience has largely been scathing, "when I see their designs, I see the same cut-out abayas that

the Yemeni and Indians were making for us,"

sighs Rana, "I think you need to come from

inside to do it well."

This interview is an extract from the book Queens of the Kingdom, Simon & Schuster (2019)

What would the world look like if women were in charge?

Honestly, I don’t think the effect would be positive. Women tend to get very wrapped up in their emotions; it makes us easy to manipulate. When it comes to making the big decisions, I would rather have men in charge.