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Volume 41, Number 2March/April 1990

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Fashioned with Tradition

"Akbar has reinterpreted traditional embroidery in his more contemporary styles."

Written by Piney Kesting
Photographed by Robert Azzi

On October dusk on the banks of the Seine in 1987. Among 200,000 spectators from around the world, excitement was growing. It was the Second International Fashion Festival, and in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, a 250-meter (820-foot) catwalk stretched across the Trocadero fountains at the Palais de Chaillot. Searchlights swept the darkening sky as 900 models, representing designers from five continents, waited nervously for a turn on the runway.

Also backstage was a Saudi Arab designer, calmly putting the finishing touches on one of his dresses. It was an important moment in his life: Not only was this the first time his country had been invited to participate in this international festival, it was also Adnan Akbar's debut before such a vast and sophisticated audience.

Finally the show began, and at last it was Akbar's turn. Twenty-five models wearing Adnan Akbar originals glided down the runway beneath a shower of golden fireworks. Flanked by 40 camels with riders in traditional Saudi costumes, the models' entrance was as dramatic and as creative as Akbar's gowns themselves.

Afterward, French critics described Akbar as the "Saint Laurent of the Middle East." Serge Vaissiere, president of the Comite de 'Excellence Europeenne, said that Akbar "created a sensation" at the festival with his "Thousand And One Nights, Scheherezade dresses," and "contributed to the prestige of Saudi Arabian creativity throughout the world."

The Second International Fashion Festival was a milestone in the life and career of designer Adnan Akbar, often a participant in various European shows but never before a well-known figure in the world of haute couture - at least not in that world's Western reaches. Today, with several prestigious European awards under his belt, and two successful fashion shows held in Washington, D.C. last August, Akbar is becoming an established figure in a world he once only dreamed about.

Born in 1949 in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, Akbar was influenced by his elegant and fashionable mother. By the tender age of eight, he had begun designing clothes, using his sisters' dolls as mannequins. Akbar notes that designing has always been "an inner urge" for him - an urge, however, that ran contrary to the more conventional expectations of his father.

Opposed to his son's interest in high fashion, not considered a man's profession in those times, Akbar's father sent him to school in Pakistan at 17 to study political science. Respectful of his father's wishes Akbar attended to his studies, but between classes and at night he sought out local embroiderers and diligently learned the secrets of their trade.

Akbar recalls that during his early years in Karachi he would sometimes meet privately with artisans and work until the early hours, setting stones into elaborate designs, practicing embroidery and applying spangles to velvet and satin. "I didn't want anyone to discover what I was doing," Akbar says.

By 1968, it was clear that Akbar's fascination with couture was more than a passing whim. His father acquiesced and sent him to Lebanon to study under Madame Sylvia, a well-kmown French couturiere in Beirut. From there he went to Paris, where he observed fashion trends and spent endless hours researching in Vogue's library.

Today, high fashion is no stranger to the Arabian Peninsula. A number of European designers have presented their fashions to women in Saudi Arabia and in neighboring Gulf capitals. U. S. News & World Report spotlighted Saudi designer Yahya al-Bishri when he unveiled his latest collection in Paris last autumn. But when Adnan Akbar returned from France in 1970 and - at 21 - established an atelier in Jiddah, his was the first and only house of haute couture in the kingdom. As a boy, he had made clothes for his sisters' dolls; now the first dress he designed in his atelier was a sister's wedding gown. It was a fitting beginning for a couturier who would become known in Saudi Arabia for his exquisitely hand-sewn, hand-embroidered wedding gowns and trousseaux.

Akbar has focused on designing one-of-a-kind gowns individualized with magnificent embroidery and intricate detail. His gowns are a graceful mixture of old and new, of East and West. Inspired by the rich traditions and cultural heritage of his country, Akbar says he "focuses on aspects of the Saudi environment and tries to re-express them in a totally new way." His designs, he explains, are based on "characteristics that are traditionally Arabian, adapted to meet the way the Saudi woman is changing, as well as how women around the world are changing."

Today Akbar's work takes him too around the world, to search for ideas and participate in shows. When he presents his designs, he feels he is helping Western women understand the beauty hidden within his culture. Since 1982, his fashions have been shown in Milan, Cannes, Amsterdam, Cairo and at home, in Riyadh and Jiddah. Currently, he is working on a line of ready-to-wear clothing and preparing to open his first store in Kuwait.

1988 was a landmark year for Akbar. Christian Lacroix, a leading French couturier, named him international designer of the year. In June, Akbar also became the first Arab designer to collaborate with Bianchini Ferier, a leading textile firm based in Lyons, France. The century-old firm supplies fabrics to such haute couture salons as Chanel, Lacroix and Armani. Under the terms of his three-year contract, Akbar designs 40 different fabrics a year, sold in exclusive shops around the world.

"Adnan Akbar is incredible," said Francois Guy Ferier, Bianchini Ferier's director-general when the agreement was signed. "He has more ideas in seconds than other designers have in days. This is the first time in fashion," he added, "where French and Arab tastes blend, a marriage between two countries more than between two companies."

"And it is so rare," added Christian Madoux, an associate of Ferier's, "to find a couturier who knows fabric, design, embroidery - in fact, everything from the thread to the finished garment."

In September 1988, Akbar was awarded the "Triumph" Grand Prize of European Excellence from the Comite de l'Excel-lence Europeenne in honor of the "original creativity, refinement and aesthetics" of his collection. Presenting the award, Serge Vaissiere said, "In less than 20 years, Adnan Akbar has established himself as the undisputed master of Arabian fashion, perfectly combining a touch of Occidental fashion within the Oriental tradition of The Thousand And One Nights."

Describing Akbar as a "creator of versatile talent," Vaissiere noted that the young Saudi is the first non-European designer to receive the award, which is presented to leading personalities and enterprises which uphold a "European tradition of excellence and good taste." In previous years, the award has been given to Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Cartier.

While European designers keep their eyes trained on Akbar, the Saudi couturier is turning his attention to the United States. Akbar premiered his fashions in two separate shows in Washington, D.C. last August, the first at Garfinckel's, a prominent Washington store, a second at the Park Hyatt Hotel. He also designed the traditional dress worn by female guides in the exhibition "Saudi Arabia: Yesterday and Today," which is currently touring the United States (See Aramco World, November-December 1989).

Akbar's fashions were enthusiastically received in Washington. "Part of the beauty of the premiere was that the audience didn't expect it," noted Johara Alatas, organizer of the fashion shows. "I think a lot of Americans still believe all Saudi women always wear black."

Jinny Eury, regional director of The Fashion Group International of Washington, D.C. admitted, "We probably had some pre-conceived ideas about Arabian fashion." Contrary to her expectations, Akbar's gowns were like "the plumage of birds, magnificent, a fairytale. I was delightfully surprised."

Nina Hyde, fashion editor of The Washington Post, thinks Akbar's clothes are "quite special." She described his designs as "extremely intelligent and well-targeted to his customers." His gowns have traditional influences that are used "in a very modern way."

From crisply tailored suits with embroidered jackets to silk taffeta and crepe after-five dresses and satin gowns, Akbar's designs reflect the same striking mixture of vibrant color, drama and elegance that characterizes traditional clothing in Saudi Arabia. Saudi women considered their richly colored, hand-embroidered gowns their main luxuries in life. Pat Fiske, executive director of the U.S. Committee for Saudi Arabian Cultural Heritage, who attended the show at Garfinckel's, said she was "delighted to see that in some instances Akbar drew directly from the kind of traditional costumes we've exhibited in Talms and Pomegranates'," a reference to the collection of historic Saudi costumes assembled by the committee (See Aramco World, September-October 1987).

Aniko Gaal, vice president of fashion and public relations at Garfinckel's, agreed that one of Akbar's fortes "is to take rich elements from his culture out of that context and put them onto Western styles."

According to Mokhless al-Hariri, president of Georgetown Design and acting producer of both Washington fashion shows, "The unifying thread in women's clothing in Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly the embroidery. Akbar has reinterpreted traditional embroidery in his more contemporary styles."

"It is important to feel the Oriental touch in my collection," Akbar says. Although he admires and is influenced by the fashions of French couturiers, his greatest source of inspiration remains his own culture. As a designer, Akbar would like Western women to become more exposed to Eastern styles. And as a Saudi, Akbar hopes his fashions "will continue to promote the silent beauty of Saudi Arabia to women worldwide."

Piney Kesting, who earned a master's degree from John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is a free-lance writer specializing in Middle Eastern affairs.

This article appeared on pages 30-35 of the March/April 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1990 images.