Worn by three generations of UAE royals, an Arabesque abaya is something unique – an composite of traditional elegance and French couture design. Laura Collins meets its Abu Dhabi-based designers, Judith and Gonzague Duriez.
French fashion meets Middle East tradition in Arabesque abaya
You don't need to spend much time in Judith Duriez's company before it becomes apparent that she makes style appear effortless - as if it were entirely innate rather than learnt, cultivated and honed. Perhaps, to some extent, it is a quality with which the Dutch designer was born, but businesses and reputations do not drop like fruit from a tree. And although Judith and her husband Gonzague's success is founded on their sense of style it has been hard won, one suspects, through a disarming combination of charm and sheer graft.
It is 11 years since Abu Dhabi-based Judith and Gonzague founded the design label Arabesque. They left behind a lifetime of haute couture and began focusing exclusively on creating sheilas and abayas. Back then, the company was pretty much born in the studio of the couple's first home in the Tourist Club Area, and transported to the small client base in the back of Judith's car - her "shop on wheels" as she calls it.
Today, that "shop on wheels" is a regular fixture in the grounds of palaces across Abu Dhabi, while Arabesque's broader client base runs to the thousands, and reaches not only across the UAE but also to Bahrain, Saudi, Qatar, Kuwait and farther ... into the United States, Malaysia and beyond. There is a boutique in Abu Dhabi Mall, and last year saw the launch of a flagship store in Dubai - a minimalist space designed by the award winning architects NORR. From the very simple to the most exquisitely ornamented and elaborately stitched set, every piece made is, according to Judith, "entirely personal" - personal to the client in the case of the bespoke garments and personal to the designer always.
When we meet in the family home in Khalidiya, Judith has just returned from Paris - the city in which she met Gonzague more than 20 years ago; the city in which she trained as a designer and worked for houses including Dior, Lacroix and Chanel and the place to which she returns several times a year to meet artisan suppliers, and source materials. Within days of landing back in Abu Dhabi she was planning a trip to Bahrain to show her latest collection, and Doha, where she will showcase her designs in a pop-up boutique later this month. Work is well under way on the forthcoming Ramadan collection and on top of all this, the entire family - Judith, Gonzaque, daughters Soraya, 16 and Athenais, 13; their three dogs, Einstein, Charlie and Bacardi; all moved house only two weeks earlier.
She might be forgiven, then, for allowing a little bit of stress to seep through. But she does nothing of the sort. Instead, she speaks animatedly about the "the more gentle pace of life," in the UAE and the space it allows for creativity while exuding an energy that can only be described as a sort of calm verve.
"Middle Eastern art heritage is so rich," she explains. "There is always a new inspiration, and the traditions of family and hospitality mean that for a designer there is always a new occasion for design. Life is such a rush in Europe. In Europe, there is no time for anything, and everything suffers. Here, there's time for family, and you can be very creative.
"When they were little my children would come with me everywhere. They grew up with the business, they spent half their childhood in palaces. The VIPs I design for - three generations now of the Royal Family - they know the girls because they were always with me. That could never have happened in Europe."
That sense of balance, Judith explains, informs every aspect of her design: the balance of family and work, tradition and invention, timelessness and edge. It is a balance that pivots on quality. Two of her lace suppliers also supplied lace for the wedding dress worn by Kate Middleton, although Judith is too discreet to name them. The crystals that adorn her garments are all Swarovski because they have the finest light-reflection. They are either sewn, embroidered or hot-fixed onto the garments.
"When we first started making the abayas and sheilas there was very little choice of material, really. It was a quite heavy Crepe Saudi. This material only comes in black but now there is so much choice. There are so many different thicknesses and qualities - there is the very light crepe for summer and the sheer crepe for wedding abayas, some is pure silk and really very fine."
As Judith talks, her enthusiasm for her subject is clear. But isn't there an inherently limiting quality to the work she has chosen to do, the garment on which she has chosen to focus her talents?
Her eyes widen. "Not at all. There is so much you can do with the abaya. You have a black background and so everything you do with that stands out: how you cut and stitch and join the basic thobe dress, the different colour pieces, lace and textures you use.
"I feel I can be more creative doing abayas than dresses because it's such different work."
It takes around three months for one of Judith's collections to make it from mood board to boutique. The Ramadan collection is, she says, rich with gold and silver damask in keeping with the special, celebratory feel that she identifies with that time.
But between collections there are calls from her royal clients needing new wardrobes for weddings, for travel, for the birth of children and all the social rigmarole of visits that event brings with it.
A simple set for sale in one of her boutiques costs about Dh1,000. As for the sheilas and abayas created for royalty, those rich with embellishment and embroidery or fused from the most delicate and intricate pieces of lace; those garments to which Judith refers without hubris as, "museum pieces", the sky is the limit. "There is no limit to what they can afford," she says. It is simply about what the client loves. After all, if a client has just chartered a private jet to come and see you - as some of Judith's clients do - they are unlikely to quibble over the cost of a bead or two. As long, Judith reiterates solemnly, as the work is of "the very highest quality".
"You have to have the skill there in the cutting and the stitching. My husband and I both have that training.
"Everybody wants to go to Paris to work in fashion," she smiles. "But we learnt the skills there and we exported them here. We did it the other way round."
Judith lived in the French capital for 10 years, studying and working. She graduated first in her year from the highly respected Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture before "hopping", as she puts it, from Lacroix to Dior to Chanel building up the experience that, she says, is reflected in Arabesque today.
The time she spent working for a Paris-based Japanese company was, she recalls, one of the most formative experiences of her life. There, she learnt a method of cutting unlike anything she had encountered to that point. Its influence is visible in some of her abayas today which feature wide, geometric sleeves redolent of kimonos, and embroidery as delicate as cherry blossom. And she met Gonzague, a fellow design graduate born in Lille, and who became her husband within the year.
The Middle East was never part of any grand plan wfor the couple. In 1993, Judith was offered a job in Jordan working for a haute couture house whose clients included Queen Noor. She visited Abu Dhabi for the first time that same year. None of it, she recalls, seemed so very alien - the local women for whom she was designing eveningwear at that point were the same clients for whom she had designed in the Paris fashion houses.
"We never intended to stay here as long as we did," she smiles. "And we could never have imagined that Arabesque would become what it has.
"Sometimes, I create designs and it is too early," she admits. "Ten years ago I put long leather fringes on the abaya and tassles of handmade rope with gold rings made in Italy and big beads woven in. It was amazing but it was too soon. Now I know my clients and they know and trust me; that is what we have to work hard everyday to maintain.
"It is wonderful though, to see your clients and their families grow up with your own. The younger girls travel abroad much more, the world has changed even in the time I have been here, the local ladies are more up to date now with their fashion. It is never dull because you can make anything. There are no limits to the sheila and abaya, only what the customers like and what they want to buy."
Arabesque, Abu Dhabi Mall, 02 644 4355, and Sunset Mall, Jumeirah 3, 04 346 3050, www.arabesque-hc.com