Entrepreneurs, investors, government officials and more gathered at The St. Regis New York for the latest stop on the Saudi Fashion Commission’s roadshow, which shined a spotlight on the kingdom’s efforts to build an apparel industry from the ground up. WWD moderated several conversations at the event.
Fashion is one of the industries getting a big boost under the country’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify its economy beyond oil.
Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, the Saudi Arabia ambassador to the U.S., noted in a video welcome how the program has brought “sweeping changes across the kingdom,” creating more change in the past seven or eight years than was seen in the last eight decades.
And style is right in the middle of it all.
“Fashion is a universal language that tells the world who we are and who we want to be. Fashion is about the material evolution of our society. It’s a reflection of the society, its attitudes, values and an expression of the shifts that are happening all across the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” she said, adding that the Fashion Commission has been able to highlight the talent in the country while stimulating and supporting economic growth.
As of last year, the kingdom’s fashion industry made up 1.4 percent of the Saudi GDP and employed 230,000 people, 52 percent of whom were women.
The changing tenor of the industry was underscored by some dealmaking at the event with Turmeric Capital officially announcing its investment in the streetwear brand 1886 and the ethical luxury label Abadia.
Fern Mallis, Avril Graham, Susan Rockefeller and Federica Marchionni were among the New York-based attendees in the crowd, which also included a raft of young Saudi fashion and tech entrepreneurs who were clearly ready to both build at home and take their place on a global stage.
Burak Cakmak, CEO of the Fashion Commission and the former dean of fashion at Parsons School of Design, told WWD that the effort to build the fashion sector has showed progress on a number of fronts over the past two years.
“It’s a greenfield industry, so we started really assessing what’s needed to build in the country and we have identified many opportunities across the full value chain of fashion and we started investing in these areas — from brand building … all the way to opportunities for education, partnerships with international schools, providing scholarships, providing workshops, master classes and training, and now we are even going deeper,” Cakmak said.
“Across the value chain we see many opportunities that can be supported including some infrastructure elements to support the value chain,” he said. “We are building, for example, product development studios, we want to localize as much as possible the full value chain in the country, offer opportunities for the brands to be able to support the growth of their businesses, grow their retail presence but also be able to do better products, but also be able to expand globally as well.”
In addition to building from within, the new Saudi fashion industry is looking to draw partners from abroad and succeeded in the case of Ravi Thakran, managing partner and chairman of Turmeric Capital, who is relocating to Saudi Arabia from Singapore.
Thakran said that fashion executives wanting to understand the Saudi market and maintain a long-term business there have to visit and walk the streets.
The country’s location is one of its biggest selling points, given the proximity to densely populated areas including Africa, India and Indonesia, where some of the fastest growing economies exist, he said.
In the years to come, Thakran expects to support many more brands from the region, with plans to engage with 10 fashion companies and 10 businesses in other categories.
While weaving contemporary ideas in with the country’s heritage is seen as key to building a successful fashion Saudi brand, Thakran advised making sure to really define “their souls and their DNA” at home first.
Often brands from Indonesia, Asia and Saudi Arabia are eager to open a store in Paris or New York, but wind up “losing so much money” for that one store in lieu of investing in what could have been 10 stores in a local market, he said. “Go to the West or any country when you are fully ready. All of this is easier said than done. It’s all about small, small details and getting all of them right.”
There are, of course, established Saudi brands that have spent years working through all the small details, building a more modern approach to fashion in the kingdom.
May Bahjat Kanounji, CEO of Blooming Wear, said her company targets women across all their different phases, selling them innerwear, loungewear, faith wear and more as they grow up, go to college and work and start families.
“All of these moments have universal emotions with the different customers and our understanding of the different generations is the main pillar of our strategies,” Bahjat Kanounji said. “There is a continuity in terms of the need from the mother to the daughter, but at the same time, the Generation Z and the younger [customers] are now looking for a more modern product where they customize it in their way.”
Even as the styles modernize, the brand’s deep connections to its culture remain.
“We as a luxury brand decided, for example, to launch faith wear product,” Bahjat Kanounji said. “It’s not only a piece of clothing that we were selling. We were selling all the traditional, all the religious values, all the blessings that come with. So when a mother gives the faith wear as a gift to her daughter or to her friend, there are so many values inside that product that the young generations will feel it.”
How to make connections in Saudi — between buyer and seller, past and future, business and brand — is going to be something that companies across the spectrum are going to have a chance to figure out anew as the government pushes the sector’s development.
Some elements — such as sustainability — are being baked in with regulations from the start.
Hande Sadic, chief product officer of The Giving Movement brand, noted that: “When you look at European or American brands, the sustainability has been a way of adaptation and coming up with new strategies. Whereas in the region and especially in Saudi, they are rewriting everything from the best practices with the failures and the successes of what has been done.”
With a greenfield mindset, there are plenty of chances to do things differently.
Jeffry Aronsson, founder and chief executive officer of the Aronsson Group, said one of the greatest opportunities is to provide designers with immediate access to not only development, but also production and services.
“What I would advocate for is an end-to-end vertical supply chain — fibers, design, a finished product, logistics and customer service,” he said. “Imagine a campus that is like a great medical school, where they have great hospitals and physicians. That becomes a destination in itself not just for the operation but also to learn.”
Noting how consumers want newness, experience and a sense of discovery, Gary Wassner, CEO and principal of fashion financing firm the Hilldun Corp., said he would love to see Saudi Arabia support the entrepreneurial design spirit.
Wassner said the “old concept of brand building does not resonate” with him anymore. When considering investing or lending money to a company, he prefers to look at product first, personnel and people management second and numbers third. “Numbers can be fixed,” he said. “You can change the gross margin, if you do it properly, but you cannot change the creative element of a brand.”
The younger Saudi entrepreneurs at the event made clear that they have plenty of culture and history to draw creatively from and a drive to take on the world.
“Saudi has 13 regions and each region is very diverse and has a different culture,” said Alaa Balkhy, Saudi entrepreneur. “And collectively we are this generation that wants to share that with the world. So you see designers that are creating items … inspired by their own story… That’s so important because we don’t need more items in the world. We don’t need more handbags, we don’t need more clothing, but we do need our stories and we are sharing ours.”