Style.com/Arabia sat down with Saudi designer, Hatem Alakeel, to talk about his new adventure into the world of womenswear. After six years of creating tailored thobes for dignitaries and international pop stars alike, this avid traveler settled into his studio to imagine a line dedicated to women inspired by their alter ego’s wardrobes.
I went to a boarding school in Switzerland. The school was a Lycée Francais in Villar, two and a half hours from Geneva. But my parents were based in Jeddah. At the boarding school, I was exposed to people from all over the world—from Kenya, to Australia, to Europe—and this was instrumental in shaping my perception, in getting me to where I am now, and in forming my perspective on fashion.
Later, I went on to study Marketing and Communications at college, in Boston. When I was in the States, I worked for the Ford agency as a model. I worked with brands like Armani—modeling, doing photo shoots, going to New York—and that’s where the whole fashion obsession started. From there, I moved back home to Saudi and started work in the corporate world.
Moving back to Saudi was a real wake-up call for me. I didn’t take working seriously until moving back and I had to push myself to get to do what I wanted.
I worked in marketing for a bank in Saudi, which is the most boring, horrible, cookie cutter, dry environment you can ever be a part of. I worked there for a while and quickly realized that it was not for me. Every day, I had to wear a thobe—the same thobe. I found a few tailors and I changed them up a bit, and then people started to pick up on them and asked, “Where is that from?” So, I decided to make a business and one thing lead to another. I thought, “Why not bring a bit of Saville Row to the thobe?” The finish, the quality, and the fabrics. So, I sourced my fabrics from Italy. I knew some pretty good suppliers—Thomas Mason fabrics, which is the best. And all these bankers at work were really into it; they loved it. I opened my boutique in 2007.
My Ramadan has evolved in the sense where now it is much more about me, rather than doing it because everyone else is doing it. I am not one to conform. I march to the beat of my own drum and now, more than ever, it is a time of spiritual reflection for me. I am doing it because I really want to do it; it has brought me a lot of peace. It’s a form of meditation and it’s one month out of the year where you really get to cleanse, be it physically or spiritually, and you can step back and re-evaluate things. I recommend it to anyone, because after Ramadan, I really put things in perspective.
In Switzerland, along with my cousins, I felt really homesick; we wanted to be home, to be around family. Ramadan is a time for being around the family.
Women can’t be overly seductive in how they dress during Ramadan—as much as I love it when they are. But they have to tone it down. I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to finally translate what I am doing with Toby—which is reinventing a traditional wear—and transform it into a women’s collection. Showing that being covered up and not showing too much skin can still be viewed as elegant and chic. That’s what I wanted to come across with this Ramadan collection. And as much as I have Sheikha Mozah in mind, I also have Carmen de Flores and Daphne Guinness in mind as muses.
I have only ever had two women’s collections in the past. They were for size 0 women as they were the only women comfortable wearing them and I didn’t get it right. It was far too European—too simple. So I thought, “How can I translate my aesthetic?” Toby is already established and people like it for a reason, so I thought, “Why not continue doing that?”
I want to show that being polished and elegant and going from day to evening can still be comfortable and traditional. I also want to envisage European women wearing my designs. I want to create a universal language. I want to show that traditional garments can be cool, chic, and wearable for any age and any style.
Toby is a masculine brand. Guys don’t like it when anything is too over the top. But with women, there is no boundary.
ON THE SAUDI WOWAN
Saudi women have been on the forefront of fashion since day one. Isabella Blow, may she rest in peace, once told me on attending a wedding in Riyadh, “I can’t believe that just three days ago those dresses were on the catwalk and now those women are wearing them.” Go to any wedding and you will see skinny girls to voluptuous girls all in haute couture. So, definitely, fashion is alive and well.
Saudi women are more fashion savvy and also more practical now. You can have the Zara outfit with the Dior bag, or you can wear the Jean Paul Gaultier total look. There are no rules. Once upon a time, it was about trends but it’s about style now. That’s what people look for: someone who gives them a sense of style.
As for myself, my Arab identity has definitely always been part of my design ethos. I am very proud of where I am from.