The traditional out-and-about garment for Emirati women is getting a glamorous makeover for special occasions.
The abaya comes in for the designer treatment
A month or so ago, a fashion show nearly caused a riot at the Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai. The doors to the venue were closed to eager visitors and people were turned away as around 400 fashionistas squeezed around the catwalk at the Middle East Fashion Days event, a trade show for those in the fashion industry.
But they weren't there to see the latest international styles, or big luxury labels: the draw that night was DAS Collection's latest line of abayas. Afterwards, the mainly European designers and the French organisers could talk of little else. This might have been the moment that DAS Collection went international.
Equally, though, that moment could have been when DAS hit the floor of Harrods in London, beside Valentino, Marchesa and Elie Saab. That was not only a reflection of the Harrods customer ("It was nice to see some Turkish and Asian people buying, but mainly it's Gulf people, especially Qatari," says Reem Beljafla, who designs and co-owns DAS with her sister Hind). It was also a sign that the quality and sophistication of the garment had reached a level that allowed it to be stocked in London's most luxurious department store.
Not that elegantly embellished abayas are anything new in the UAE, of course: a glance around any shopping mall or workplace in Dubai or Abu Dhabi will be rewarded with a plethora of intricate surface designs worked in crystal, embroidery or appliqué. The difference now, though, is that Beljafla, Amal Murad, Huda Nuaimi, the owner and designer of Malaak, and numerous other designers are actually reconstructing the abaya, playing with cut and silhouette as much as with embellishment, and applying tried-and-tested couture dressmaking techniques.
Nuaimi cites an increase in opportunities for fashion education as the reason behind this. "It's always been a garment that people can play with," she points out, "but now people are going out to learn about fashion, and that's why the cut has changed and evolved: because people have the background and the education to back this up, to create. That's why you see a lot of the designers working and playing with the cuts more. It used to be a lot more about the crystal work and the embroidery, but now it's very much the designer using her or his background to create something a bit different."
Beljafla is living proof of this. She calls London her second home, and has long found inspiration there. "When I used to live in London I used to see every single trend on the street, whether it's high-street fashion or a luxury brand. I could feel it: if it was the season of sequins I'd see it on the road. I see the layering or the cuts in a short dress but think, oh wow, it would be nice in a longer version in an abaya. Sometimes it's a detail, like sharp shoulders, where Balmain brought it again, and I thought yes, why not, it's still covering the body, it still looks elegant, it can really make a statement."
Hind Baker, the entrepreneur behind the go-to e-commerce site for abayas www.3abaya.com, puts the success of this movement down to the Emirati woman's increased exposure to fashion through magazines, shopping and, most importantly, the web.
"The internet has opened so many doors to so many ideas," she points out. "We don't have to wait, now, for trends to come to us." It's not one-way traffic, either. "We're getting a lot of different markets; outside the Gulf, the US is the biggest market, and there's Canada, the UK, Europe, Japan. Some people are buying them, not just as an abaya but as a very chic dress or coat."
Certainly there is a perennial fascination among western designers for the shapes and designs of the East. The well-connected Beljafla reels off a list of iconic designers who have shown an interest in DAS's pieces during their visits to the region.
"When Diane von Furstenberg came, she was so in love with our cuts and our brand itself. As well, Roberto Cavalli was so fascinated. We've met Tom Ford, we've met Alice Temperley, they all gave good comments about our cuts."
Beljafla trained in London, as did Nuaimi, and their knowledge of tailoring has allowed them to reinvent the abaya using ruching, draping and layering. Wander through the corridors of Zayed University's women's campus in Dubai's Academic City and you will see many an imitation, with daring asymmetric ruffles and coloured panels, and that is something that drives the designers to keep their garments evolving.
"We always find the knock-offs of our brand," says Beljafla, "But the original would definitely look different, and all the time we have to come up with a new concept, a new cut, a new layering, a new draping."
She also emphasises, though, that these are not designs to be worn every day, pre-empting any suggestion that they might be considered a step too far away from tradition.
"Myself, if I'm going in public to a shopping mall, or markets, or even the grocery I won't wear DAS fancy abayas because it grabs the attention, it brings attention to the body shape. I do have a line where there is colour but it's still loose, it's flowy, it doesn't highlight the body. This is what we recommend our customers to wear daily. But there are events like film festivals and horse races, where they would want to look elegant and dress for the red carpet, and the only way is to have such pieces."
Nuaimi and Baker concur: the fashionable abayas, the glamorous ones, the sheer ones and the shaped ones are for evening events, with different levels of detail for a wedding, a public event or a girls' night out.
"People tend to go for the more toned-down for the daily use," says Nuaimi, "but for evenings or weddings you'll find a lot more extravagance and embellishment; and then you have the more trendy ones, for the evenings with the girls, that are not too in-the-face: fashionable, edgy, lovely to wear."
Baker adds: "People are wearing abayas at weddings more now - maybe transparent fabrics, with jewel work. That's catching on more than it did before. Women used to look for a dress for such an event, but now they look for an evening abaya."
It's not just the shapes that are changing: hemlines, necklines and fabrics are all up for reappraisal as long as the designs remain within the cultural and religious limits of the garment - although where those limits lie remains a subject for debate.
Sumayyah al Suwaidi owns the Grafika boutique in Abu Dhabi's Al Wahda Mall, which sells, among its dresses and jalabiyahs, fashionable abayas by Malaak and Miss Elegant, which is a collaboration between Noura al Hashimi and Amber Feroz. She points out that abayas now have a function beyond merely covering the body. "The concept is being considered fashionable and up-to-date," she says, "and at the same time it's a sign of prestige and luxury. But some people were saying the abaya lost the essence of it, the origin, the reason why we're really wearing it."
Beljafla has also come into contact with this view: "We've got many, many people who didn't get the message that we are trying to give. We say our abayas are mainly for ladies' events, gatherings that are really formal, where you can't take off your abaya when you are wearing a sleeveless dress or a short dress, with many people that you don't know personally.
"You cannot just wear anything at such an event. We have many of the Royal Family and the VIPs who wear our abayas when, let's say, they are visiting other Royal Family members in hospital, where you should look a bit more dressed. And you can't wear an evening dress at a hospital or at a reception. We always say our abayas are not for a shopping mall."
Nuaimi also insists that her designs in no way step outside the remit of the abaya. "We are sticking within boundaries. As designers we're maintaining the values, we're not going out to exploit it. A lot of people, when they hear international things they think we're bringing these trends into the abaya, but when I talk about international trends I'm using the techniques that they use, the methods, the background, the data."
Perhaps, then, it's simply that those very parameters allow designers to employ a more creative approach to their pieces, coming up with solutions rather than banging down doors.
Al Suwaidi puts it most concisely: "Our society has an equal number of people who are open-minded and people who are on the conservative and very traditional side. So some say yes and others say no. I'm open-minded. If it's something that I think doesn't go against my religion and my culture I don't mind wearing it."