The abaya has a long, proud history in this region and now it has evolved from simple and unadorned to hand-stitched and embellished. As Manar Al Haidi reports, UAE designers are among those whose couture creations attract women across the Gulf and even internationally.
Just a few years back, an Emirati woman's search for a statement abaya was generally limited to the crystal-tipped pieces hung on the rails of small shops in traditional souqs such as Abu Dhabi's Old Central Market, mainly tailored by men with little fashion sense.
The history of the abaya in the Gulf region goes back hundreds of years. The origins of the veil are unknown, but historians believe it was prevalent in the Middle East before the birth of Christ. For generations, women of the region wore a plain black abaya, an overgarment made of a large square silk or wool fabric draped from the head, covering the entire body except for the hands and face.
All abayas looked the same and were made in one size. It was and still is a cultural norm for women of the region to wear abayas when they leave their homes for public places, or in the presence of male non-family members. It was not until the past 20 years or so that abayas began to include embellishments or embroidery and come in different silhouettes.
If a young woman were searching for the best of the best - an abaya tailored from the finest fabric at the time, Saudi crêpe or Bahraini silk, that not any woman could afford - her best option would be available at Khunji. Abaya prices at the well-known tailor, with outlets in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, range from Dh200 to Dh2,000, depending on the fabric and embellishments.
The design could take up to two weeks to be tailored by a team of skilled Asian workers. But if the woman had some talent, she could sketch a design herself and look for a skilled tailor, an option that many Emirati women choose to stand out.
However, women are now spoilt for choice thanks to the recent rise of visionary Emirati designers such as Huda Nuaimi and Sumayya Al Suwaidi. Nuaimi, 30, is a graduate of the London College of Fashion and owns Malaak, a couture abaya house in Dubai. Al Suwaidi, 31, is a digital artist who owns Seen, a couture abaya house in Abu Dhabi. Both women say abaya wearers can easily find fashion-forward pieces that incorporate the season's latest trends, whether they be studs, crystal adornments or shoulder pads.
Not only do we now have designer abayas - high-end casual-wear pieces that are available in limited numbers and are sold exclusively at the likes of Dubai's Bloomingdale's - but we also have couture abayas - ones so intricate that they could easily substitute evening gowns and are a favourite choice of many young Emirati women to wear at public events.
These designs generally incorporate the season's latest haute couture trends and European-quality craftsmanship in the finish, the hand-stitching and the beadwork, and are priced at Dh6,000 or more.
Designer abayas and couture abayas differ when it comes to the design and fabrics used; it is much like the difference between a casual outfit and an evening gown. The designer abaya made by a famous design house is casual, simple and tailored for daily wear. The couture abaya is a designer's more extravagant piece and is made from more expensive material, with the same work and time that go into making an evening gown.
Because Emirati women do not wear their gowns, dresses or other western-style outfits in public, a fashionable young woman could choose to wear a couture abaya to a red carpet event or strut down London's streets in the perfect piece to showcase her crocodile skin Hermès bag and her Manolo Blahnik heels.
And couture abayas are not limited to the UAE's glamorous boutiques. They have found their way to the world's luxury department stores such as Harrods and Saks Fifth Avenue. They have also graced the wardrobes of international fashionistas such as the American socialite and model Olivia Palermo, who wore one on the cover of the first edition of Haute Muse magazine in April 2011. She also donned one to an event hosted by a royal family member from Qatar.
Emiratis Mariam Al Rumaithi, 30, a computer engineering graduate, and her sister Dhabya, 26, a business graduate, work for McQueen Abaya Tailoring, a couture abaya house in Abu Dhabi. Both women attribute the increased popularity of the couture abaya and its presence on international runways -including London's and Dubai's Fashion Weeks - to an important factor: the incorporation of the latest fashion trends such as the season's colours.
The appetite for statement abayas has crossed continents, and the garments appeal even to western customers. Al Suwaidi says she is proud when she sees western women wear a couture abaya to events in the UAE and abroad. The Canadian equestrian Rebecca Howard was photographed wearing a Das-designed couture abaya by the Emirati sisters Reem and Hind Beljafla for a feature in Tatler magazine's May 2011 edition.
Designers such as Al Suwaidi believe that couture abayas are now competing with couture gowns.
"A woman wearing a couture abaya can wear it through an all-female wedding or a party if she does not plan to take it off to reveal an evening gown, and she will still look amazing," she says.
However, the Al Rumaithis and Nuaimi have a different view on the matter.
"Emirati ladies tend to wear amazing gowns for all-ladies events, so they would need a couture abaya to complement their look; the two garments complement each other and aren't competing," says Dhabya.
"Evening gowns are contemporary pieces while couture abayas fall under the category of traditional attire, different segments in the fashion industry," says Nuaimi.
However, mixing traditional garments and edgy modern trends could backfire on some designers. The older generation of Emirati women still prefers to stick to classical, wide-cut, plain abayas that are not eye-catching, do not emphasise the figure, and do not integrate colourful fabrics.
Luckily, Al Suwaidi says she knows how a designer should tackle this issue.
"As a designer, you don't want to offend your culture, and as a Muslim, you want to make sure that the abaya is conservative," she says. "Integrating the latest trend has to be stylish and conservative at the same time."
This is exactly what many fashionable, younger Emirati women are looking for.
Latifa Al Shamsi, a 24-year-old Emirati fashionista and blogger from Dubai, is the type of buyer couture abaya designers target with their creations.
On her blog, Al Shamsi makes the point that dressing in a conservative couture abaya can look just as fashionable as wearing a trendy outfit.
"I think fashion challenges exist only if you let them," she says. "I see an abaya as a tool that makes me look more fashionable instantly without having to worry about what to wear underneath."
With the pronounced increase in abaya designers and brands, a young woman could be overwhelmed by the abundance of choices. For fashion-savvy individuals such as Al Shamsi, quality and innovation are key factors that help determine which abaya is worth spending money on and that propel some designers to fame over others.
The rise of numerous couture abaya designers in the UAE and in the region could present a challenge to designers such as the Al Rumaithis.
"It is challenging but it is also a healthy competition," says Mariam. "You always have to keep up to date with new trends, and what the ladies are looking for in a design; but this is what makes this business field exciting."
However, other designers such as Al Suwaidi do not believe that the continual emergence of designers presents any challenge to her business.
"I believe every designer has her own followers and fans, and as long as the designer is working hard to stay unique and keep up with the latest trend, then she never has anything to worry about," she says.
Fashion is not about competing as style is related to individuality, says Nuaimi, who believes that the real challenge arises when a designer wants to place her collection in department stores. She says things were more difficult 10 years ago if a designer wanted to display her abayas at international retail chains such as Saks Fifth Avenue, but says it remains challenging, even if retail buyers are now more accepting.
"Doors will open and close; when one closes, remember that another one will open," she says. A big door opened for her when she was signed on the spot by Saks in Dubai after a meeting to present her Autumn/Winter 2011-2012 Collection.
It is no understatement that the popularity of the traditional garment has been a thrill for many Khaleeji women, who are proud to see their cultural dress become recognised, especially at international fashion shows.
The Beljafla sisters, both in their 20s, of Das couture abayas, have showcased their Spring/Summer 2012 Collection at London Fashion Week and are regular participants in Dubai's fashion shows.
However, couture abayas are not designed solely by designers of Arab descent. Just like carrying a bag designed by a famous European brand, fashionable women can now wear a couture abaya designed by a famous European fashion house.
In 2009, Saks Fifth Avenue of Riyadh and Jeddah held a fashion show at Paris's George V Hotel that featured abayas made by renowned designers, such as John Galliano, then Christian Dior's artistic director; French Luxury label's Nina Ricci and Jean Claude Jitrois; and the Italian houses Blumarine and Alberta Feretti. The prices ranged from US$5,500 to US$11,150 (Dh20,075-Dh40,698) and the abayas were then sold at Saks's stores in Saudi Arabia and selected branches in the region.
Similarly, in 2010, Swarovski, the international jeweller and crystal house, collaborated with Sweet Lady, an abaya house in Abu Dhabi. They joined forces to launch Jawaher ("jewel" in Arabic), an initiative by a Swarovski Crystallized concept store in London. Jawaher showcased highly embellished abayas by featuring the latest collection of Atelier Swarovski.
But given the short lifespan of fashion trends, how long will couture abaya designers such as the Beljaflas continue to succeed?
Emirati designers are confident that the high-end abaya is a staple in Khaleeji women's wardrobes and will remain so.
"I believe the couture abaya will continue to evolve, and before we know it, it will account for a strong segment in the fashion industry," says Nuaimi.