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The Saudi designer to the stars

Mohammed Ashi's outfits show up on red carpets from the Oscars to Cannes, and his clients include Beyonce, Deepika Padukone and Zendaya

Lady Gaga wearing a Mohammed Ashi creation in 'American Horror Story'
Lady Gaga wearing a Mohammed Ashi creation in 'American Horror Story'

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He has dressed celebrity royalty around the world from Beyonce and Deepika Padukone to Zendaya and Cardi B but for years few of Mohammed Ashi's clients knew he was Saudi Arabia's first big-name designer.

"In the 90s I was the only designer from Saudi. But I never said I was Saudi. I wanted the clothes to be out front, not me," Ashi told AFP in a rare interview at his Paris studio.

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It is partly shyness—he still prefers not to be photographed himself—but also the fact that Western fashion was largely taboo in public, certainly for women, when he was growing up in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s.

Ashi made his career abroad, training in the United States and working for Givenchy and Lebanese couturier Elie Saab before settling in France.

Now, with Saudi Arabia going through momentous social changes, he has been welcomed home as a mentor for its Fashion Commission, set up in 2020 to help build a homegrown industry.

"A few months ago, I was invited publicly to talk in Saudi for the first time, and so many people came up to me afterwards. I'm getting recognition from the younger generation that I never expected," he said.

"They're giving scholarships to people for something that was prohibited when I was growing up. It's an iconic moment," he added.

Critics of the country's de facto ruler, Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, see the easing of social restrictions as a PR campaign designed to distract from continued human rights abuses.

But there is no doubting the opportunities it has opened up for young creatives, such as 27-year-old Reem Alsabhan, whose outfits now grace local events.

"From the beginning of my studies, I kept repeating a sentence I really believed, even if it surprised people: Riyadh will become one of the most important fashion capitals," she told AFP at her Riyadh workshop.

"Now the signs of this future are beginning to appear."

Previously unthinkable public events—concerts, galas, the new Red Sea Film Festival—mean Saudi Arabia now has red carpets on which to show off Alsabhan's designs.

Nonetheless, the foundations of the industry were laid much further back, said Burak Cakmak, head of the Saudi Fashion Commission.

"Many local creatives have built fashion businesses in the past 20, 30 years for the local market but didn't feel the need to tell their stories abroad -- or dare to do so," he told AFP.

"That allowed the system to build up in a controlled way... and now people can see there are hundreds of brands, very connected to their culture but also inspired by the rest of the world."

For Ashi, it makes sense that Saudi Arabia should become a fashion hub since, he says, its oil wealth has been keeping European labels afloat for decades.

Saudi Arabia takes "60 or 70 percent of French couture", especially wedding dresses, he said.

"Most of the big French houses rely on this but they don't like to talk about it because they don't want to be seen as just tailors—they want to be a 'brand'."

Ashi's diary is a hectic whirl of client fittings and preparations for the next haute couture week.

His outfits show up on red carpets from the Oscars to Cannes. A highlight was seeing Beyonce in his extravagantly ruffed fuchsia gown at a memorial show for Nelson Mandela.

Though proud of being a role model for young Saudi designers, he still prefers to see himself as "a citizen of the world".

Stopping to show the detail of an elaborate lace couture dress, he said: "The pattern was done in London, the fabric in Italy, the embroidery in India and it was assembled here in Paris.

"It's a journey for these clothes to happen, just like me."

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