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PARIS – A redheaded horsewoman in a flowing, made-to-measure Islamic gown atop a snorting steed opened what can only be deemed Paris’ most unusual fashion show of late.
The display, a sumptuous affair held Thursday at the French capital’s George V Hotel, showcased haute couture abayas, the body-covering black robes some Muslim women don over their clothing in public and required in Saudi Arabia. They are usually accompanied by a headscarf and can be worn with a niqab, a face veil covering all but the eyes.
Designers who tried their hand at making over the abaya included Christian Dior’s artistic director John Galliano, French luxury labels Nina Ricci and Jean Claude Jitrois and Italian houses Blumarine and Alberta Feretti.
The show began with a bang, as the carrot-topped cavaliere – decked out in a Galliano-designed abaya exploding with firework of colored sequins and dangling fringe – rode her mount into the hotel’s subterranean salon.
Twenty models followed on foot, wearing abayas heavy with rhinestones or airy in gauzy fabrics.
“I realized that most of the Saudi clients are wearing designer brands, but they’re covered by a black abaya,” said the show’s organizer, Dania Tarhini, general manager of Saks Fifth Avenue in Saudi Arabia. “It is an obligation to wear the abaya there, but let them feel good about it.”
The timing of the Paris show was propitious: Four days earlier, French President Nicolas Sarkozy struck a nerve in the Muslim world by declaring that full-body veils such as the burqa are “not welcome” in France, saying they make women prisoners. A top Muslim group in Britain called Sarkozy “patronizing and offensive.” Lebanon’s most influential Shiite cleric called on Sarkozy to reconsider his comments.
Tarhini, a striking brunette of Lebanese origin who’s lived in Saudi Arabia for the past seven years, acknowledged “it wasn’t easy” to convince designers to take part in the project.
At first, “they couldn’t imagine how to make a designer abaya,” she told The Associated Press in an interview. “I explained to them the concept is to (make women) look good and also to promote their brands …. Then they accepted.”
Tarhini said the initial batch of made-to-measure abayas – worth between €4,000-€8,000 ($5,500-$11,150) – would be given as presents to Saks’ most faithful Saudi clients.
Ready-to-wear versions of the robes by the 21 designers featured in the Paris show are expected to go on sale in Saks stores the Saudi Arabian cities of Jeddah and Riyadh in September. The gowns, which are to retail for €1,800 ($2,500), could later be sold in the store’s branches in neighboring Bahrain and Dubai, Tarhini said.
Saks’ senior vice president for international business ventures, David Pilnick, said the project aims to build bridges between cultures.
“In countries like Saudi Arabia they have to wear these plain, very conservative garments and that’s not going to change, so it’s nice to have fashion,” he said in an interview after the show.
Most of the gowns on display Thursday adhered to standards considered appropriate for wear in Saudi Arabia: All were black, most were floor-length and many had a built-in head covering or matching veil.
The few translucent models, like a bell-sleeved gown embroidered with white and yellow flowers by Venezuelan designer Carolina Herrera, were meant to be worn over evening gowns, Tarhini said.
“Everybody’s waiting for a change in a good way,” Tarhini said. Some women in Saudi Arabia “don’t want to feel obliged (to wear the abaya). They want to wear it to look fashionable, as well.”
Associated Press – June 26, 2009
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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