Dar Al Aseel: Abaya Design for the Gulf Power Woman
One of Oman’s most acclaimed fashion designers, Amal Al Raisi, stumbled upon design after shopping for a wedding dress. Unsatisfied with offerings, Amal designed her own traditional Omani wedding dress. Later, she would occasionally design dresses for close family and friends. Her business started growing as she progressed from designing traditional Omani dresses to abayas and jalabiyas. In 2007, Amal opened her own boutique in Muscat, Dar Al Aseel, showcasing a clothing line including traditional abayas and Omani dresses as well as jalabiyas. Her ready-to-wear collection is a tribute to women who are “feminine but not delicate.” She admires today’s “power woman” who “prioritizes family but also pursues her career dreams.” In October, Amal’s garments appeared on international runways as she launched her Spring/Summer 2018 collection at Paris Fashion Week.
AGSIW spoke with Amal about her beginnings in design, abaya trends in the Gulf, and Western perceptions of abayas.
AGSIW: How did you learn to design traditional garments and what inspired you to open Dar Al Aseel boutique?
Amal: It all happened by coincidence. I never thought I would take up designing as a career; I thought it was a hobby, something I liked to do and did in my spare time only. I was a government employee for two years, but from day one I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I said to myself that I would do fashion, as I enjoy working with colors and fabric, until I discovered what it was that I really wanted to do. At the time, I was getting married and looking for a special traditional wedding dress but wasn’t convinced with any of the dresses I saw in shops. So I decided to design my own and look for a tailor who would make it for me. Everyone loved the dress and started asking me who designed it. This is how this whole thing started.
I enjoyed the entire process of making the dress. So, I thought for now, I want to design. I began designing for friends and family at first. It slowly started getting bigger and I never thought it would be this big and that I would end up opening my own boutique. I never thought so because I am a self-taught designer and had to learn everything from scratch as my background is in business and not fashion.
AGSIW: How has the abaya trend progressed over time in Oman, and the Gulf more broadly?
Amal: The concept of an abaya is the same, but trends have changed a lot. Ten years ago, women would have a few pieces of abayas in their wardrobes that were similar: plain, black abayas to put on top of their clothes. Now, abayas are like wearing a new suit every day. Abayas are colored; they have fine embroidery, lace, etc. There are more abayas in a woman’s wardrobe than there used to be due to new trends. Women now want to show more style in their everyday abayas, unlike the past when an abaya was simply a plain piece to put on top of clothes. It is trendier now and women wear it to make a statement in fashion.
AGSIW: In the past, black was the dominant color in abayas. Now we are seeing more Gulf women wearing colored abayas alongside the black traditional abaya. What do you think of this change?
Amal: Despite the growing colored abaya trend, black abayas will always remain on the highest demand everywhere in the Gulf. Trends come and go, but black will consistently remain number one. More women are starting to accept colored abayas than before, especially working women. With the increasing number of women in the Gulf workforce, women like to have a variety of choices. Sometimes it’s too much to wear black every single morning so they want a change.
AGSIW: As a designer who showcases her pieces internationally, what misconceptions exist surrounding abaya wearing in the West?
Amal: Ideas that Westerners hold about abayas are changing, but the majority still think that abayas are something that we (as Gulf women) are forced to wear, which bore us and we can’t do anything about it because we have to cover up. I don’t view abayas the same way. I was asked at Condé Nast’s International Luxury Conference in Oman earlier this year why we wear abayas and why do I design them. I told them an abaya is a wardrobe essential for every Gulf woman. It’s like the basic little black dress for the Western world, which comes in different shapes and styles. Women in our region don’t like their bodies to be exposed, so the abaya is perfect for them and, coming from a warm region, it’s flowy and comfortable.
AGSIW: High-end Western fashion houses are introducing abaya collections like the Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana. How do you view this?
Amal: I think this is a sign that they know how important the abaya is to us and because they are aware that Arab women do spend money on their appearance, they started creating abaya lines. Abayas are not something on which they are experts. I have seen a few abayas that prominent designers have done and you can clearly see that this is not what an abaya should look like. Compared to other designs they have made, it is not their strong suit. I completely understand why they wouldn’t produce good enough abayas because they come from a background where they don’t really know what an abaya is, but they realize its importance to Gulf women and most importantly, Gulf women’s purchasing power.