Meet the creator of the sports abaya taking over Saudi Arabia's fitness industry
Lojain Alrefae, the creator of Saudi Arabia's first sports abaya, has also fronted a campaign for Adidas
The inability to exercise outside with her husband was the final straw for Lojain Alrefae. That, and the actual movement-related restrictions of the abaya itself.
In 2016, the Saudi Arabian woman decided to take matters into her own hands and she created Mulu, a special sports abaya – which she says is the first in the Kingdom. In the years since, the fitness-friendly version of the robe, which is akin to a loose, zippered jumpsuit, has swept through Saudi Arabia’s athleisure scene, fast becoming the new norm in the country. Pictures of female athletes running in a sports abaya in Jeddah went viral last year, sparking debate on sartorial freedom.
Alrefae, meanwhile, has become an ambassador of Saudi Arabia’s sports industry. The mum-of-two was recently shoulder-tapped by Adidas as part of its Ultraboost campaign, alongside mountaineer Raha Moharrak and footballer Saja Kamal, to champion female empowerment in the region. “It is absolutely amazing – it really is a great time for women to be in Saudi,” she says. “There are so many positive initiatives and opportunities being put in place to enable and highlight our importance in the community, and a spotlight on the future development of our country, which makes me extremely proud. I want to be part of this transition we are going through.”
Alrefae knows a thing or two about change and adaptation. Until a few years ago, she and her husband were living in the United States, where they had spent the majority of their lives. In 2012, the couple decided to move back to their homeland to experience living and working in Saudi Arabia, and to “build our lives around our family”. But it wasn’t easy, she says. “However, we made sure to keep a positive view towards our new reality, and quickly established how we could benefit our community through health and fitness. That really helped make the transition easier.”
Alrefae has been involved in fitness since 2006, when she took it up as part of a lifestyle change. She is a certified fitness trainer, holds a BA in fashion and had earlier toyed with the idea of starting a T-shirt line along with her husband. “Fear got the best of us and we never followed through with it,” she says. However, when she was faced with restrictions around exercising, Alrefae revisited the idea of creating an apparel line – successfully this time. “We wanted to bring value to the community and fill a gap that we faced in our lives, which is me not being able to be active or exercise outdoors with my husband due to the restriction of the abaya.”
We wanted to bring value to the community and fill a gap that we faced in our lives, which is me not being able to be active or exercise outdoors with my husband due to the restriction of the abaya.
And thus, Mulu was born – a name created with the first two letters of her husband Mohammed’s name and her own, with the “o”s swapped for “u”s for phonetic appeal. The Mulu Free Flow abaya was the brand’s first product, specially created for working out. It is stretchy, uses Dri-Fit technology and a breathable fabric to allow women to keep cool, and is appealing to look at. There are two other versions of the abaya: one has a low arch at the bottom, like low-slung trousers, and the other has a higher arch, which makes it more riding- and running-friendly.
As the athleisure label expands, Alrefae is also focusing on helping Saudi women keep healthy in her role as a trainer in Jeddah’s Pulse Studio, where she takes cycling, boot camp and Pilates classes. Her next mission: to “inspire an entire family to live a connected and active lifestyle”.
Updated: March 14, 2019 08:45 AM