When I received an invitation from Her Excellency Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad Al-Thani to the launch of Fashion Trust Arabia in Doha, I knew it would be a memorable experience. The Sheikha and Tania Fares, one of the main forces behind the Fashion Trust in the UK, had been working on the project for some months. They wanted to expand the program to Arab countries, offering opportunities to local fashion designers, many of whom are little known to the rest of the world.
Sheikha Al-Mayassa has always been interested in education in the region and decided to embrace this challenge in fashion, all under the patronage of Sheikha Moza bint Nasser – the mother of Qatar’s Emir and a pioneer of the arts.
On my first day in Doha, I happened to be at a private reception given by Sheikha Moza, a fashion icon herself, to some foreign luminaries in art and fashion. She welcomed everyone in a way that only Middle Eastern royals know, and talked about the importance of fashion in the region. The pavilion was sparkling with candles (and the diamonds worn by her impeccably dressed entourage). Jeff Koons, Carla Bruni, Giambattista Valli, David Linley and Naomi Campbell were among the crowd.
The morning after, I went to meet the 25 finalists shortlisted for the fashion prize. The young fashion and accessories designers were either from the Middle East or North Africa. What an eye opener it was: I have attended so many fashion weeks all over the world, but I didn’t know of any creatives from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
I met Sandra Mansour, and viewed her richly embroidered clothes; I admired the courage of former stylist Amine Jreissati, presenting his own fashion line, Boyfriend, which is very minimal in style; Salim Azzam (one of the winners for Best Ready-to-Wear) talked me through his collection, in which the delicate embroideries are handmade by women from small mountain villages in Lebanon; Karim Adduchi showed me the way he uses innovative fabrics, mostly environmentally conscious (I particularly liked a dress made with big tassels, each coming from a different village in his native Morocco); siblings Shouq and Fahad Al Marzook, from Kuwait, had the most playful handbags; best friends Zineb and Laura of Zyne (winner of Best Shoes) had worked on social projects to preserve the old techniques of handwaving, beading and embroidery, creating beautiful shoes in the shapes of the traditional babouche.
The new Qatar National Museum opened that same day, with a pompous reception in the presence of His Highness Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Emir of Qatar. Designed by Jean Nouvel in the shape of a Desert Rose, the museum stands out as one big sculpture. Its opening attracted some of the most influential people in art and fashion – from Miuccia Prada, Rem Koolhaas, Olivier Rousteing and Remo Ruffini to Takashi Murakami, Diane von Furstenberg, Natalia Vodianova and Maja Hoffmann.
The museum collects archaeological and heritage objects, manuscripts, documents and photographs, as well as jewellery (mostly pearls) and costumes from the origin of Qatar to today. The contemporary complex incorporates the original royal palace in the central courtyard.
On my last day, I attended the Awards Ceremony, a celebration of friendship and creativity. Best Eveningwear (a category very dear to this area of the world) was won by Krikor Jabotian. Best Ready-to-Wear was shared by Roni Helou, who trained at Creative Space Beirut and works with old stocks of fabrics, and Salim Azzam. The award for Best Handbag was snapped up by the Egyptian duo Sabry Marouf and Best Jewellery went to the three Mukhi sisters.
At the afterparty, Emilia Wickstead, Mary Katrantzou and Erdem danced next to Haider Ackermann, Farida Khelfa and Stephen Jones; Alexander Wang chatted with Shanina Shaik and Alessandra Ambrosio, while Olivia Palermo shared jokes with Tania Fares, and Pierpaolo Piccioli was entertained by Naomi Campbell and Remo Ruffini. The fashion set had come to Doha.
I couldn’t end my trip without a little more sightseeing. I went to check out the ravishing Syria Matters exhibition at the Islamic Museum, designed by I. M. Pei on an island off an artificial peninsula near the traditional Dhow harbour. I got lost among the one million books of the National Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas, a wonderful example of public architecture. I also managed to get into the equestrian centre of Qatar, one of the biggest in the world, which houses 700 arab horses. Here they get treated to jacuzzis and swim in the pools. The breathtaking Richard Serra East West/West East installation was worth a trip out of Doha: four 50ft steel towers reside silent and majestic in the middle of the Qatari desert.
So much energy and effort has been spent on the art and architecture here, and fashion will be surely next.