What's Trending Under the Abaya? A Saudi Fashion Expert Weighs In

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Saudi Arabia-based fashion authority Marriam Mossalli discusses the popularity of vintage abayas, Melania Trump and the Dior "Feminist" T-shirt.

“The same way women love shoes and bags, we love abayas,” says Saudi Arabia-based fashion authority Marriam Mossalli, founder of luxury fashion consultancy Niche Arabia and the fashion blog Shoes and Drama. “That’s what you’re seeing everyday. It’s our national garment that we wear outside. We wear it [with pride] and it’s all about showing it off.”

In conversation with The Hollywood Reporter’s senior fashion editor Booth Moore, Mossalli addressed a small crowd at Los Angeles' Mondrian Hotel on Thursday night for an event titled “Under the Abaya: Evolving Women’s Fashion in Saudi Arabia.” 

Offering up an almost glowing take on what seems to be a thriving local Saudi fashion scene (spurred in part by the rise of social media and a population that is 50 percent millennials), Mossalli turned her attention to the controversial abaya — regarded by many around the world as a symbol of oppression — which is the standard of dress for women in public in Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich kingdom where gender segregation is the law and covering up is enforced by religious police.

“There’s obviously the idea that, OK, you don’t want anything that’s a forced garment on you,” says Mossalli, who has noticed a trend towards women wearing more colorful and deconstructed abayas in the city of Jeddah, where she lives. (The capital of Riyadh, in contrast, still leans toward more conservative styles.)

“I think women in Saudi have accepted, OK, this is our society, it is a conservative society, but we can still be modern women and we can still be prideful wearing our abayas," explains Mossalli. "So they have done the best within their circumstances and now they are showcasing their talent, their expression, their creativity with their abayas.” (She also notes that women collect abayas; Mossalli owns one in all-denim from the NSync-era 1990s, her mother has an '80s-era Versace abaya and there are actually vintage abaya stores in Saudi Arabia.)

The evening also featured a fashion installation showcasing up-and-coming designers from the Kingdom, including pieces by haute couture designers Norah Al Sheikh and Honayda Serafi and ready-to-wear from the likes of Abeer Oraif, Alia Oraif and Nasiba Hafiz. The event was hosted by the Washington, D.C.-based Middle East Institute and King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

Which style icons strike a chord the most with Saudi women today? “Kate Middleton is one of the ones that really resonates with Saudis. She has to be that kind of conservative,” observes Mossali. “She has to wear the tights with the short dress. We understand that. That makes sense to us.”

First lady Melania Trump and Ivanka Trump have also found an audience with Saudi women for their fashion, Mossali explains. On the Trumps' recent visit to Saudi Arabia, the women were praised for their fashion choices, including a conservative, floor-grazing number worn by Melania and designed by Beirut-born Reem Acra. “They were wearing the fashion that you see us wearing,” says Mossalli, who did not wear an abaya for the L.A. event, but instead a long black cape dress with 3/4 sleeves.

If something in fashion is trending in the U.S. or Europe, expect it to be equally popular in Saudi, she says of Saudi women's wardrobes under the abaya. “When you see the Dior sling-back shoes — which I have — sold out, they are sold out in Saudi. The Feminist T-shirt? It’s gone,” explains Mossali. “It’s very similar to international trends. The only difference is that they do support local talent. That’s one thing I can say has definitely changed over the years. Before you had to be validated abroad and then come back into the market for them to take you seriously.” (She also adds that the younger generation is discovering fashion entrepreneurship in greater numbers and that the Saudi government has opened offices in shopping malls where women can apply for business licenses themselves, instead of having to send a male member of their family to do so, as was previously the case.)

But that’s not the only thing Saudi women have in common with their Western counterparts. “A lot of them look like Kylie Jenner, unfortunately,” Mossali says with a laugh, referring to some of the fashion trends young Saudis opt to wear in private or showcase on social media. “We have a lot of the same problems you have in L.A. That whole sportswear, tights, crop top and heels. It’s a whole globalization.”