The Saudi Designer Using Fashion As Advocacy
Shahd AlShehail on sustainable fashion and the future of Saudi Arabia
Sarah Ben Romdane
“I grew up around my aunt Naeema, who always had a unique and very refined approach to fashion. I remember she had a huge collection of fabrics from all over the world that she amassed from her different travels. She was the first to show me how fashion can be an expression of identity and personality”, says 32-year-old Saudi entrepreneur Shahd AlShehail on how she developed her strong passion for craftsmanship and detail. With her label Abadia, Al Shehail she is kick-starting a conversation around fashion, sustainability and Saudi identity.
As part of a new generation of self-conscious Saudi creatives, AlShehail is convinced it’s possible to bring change in the Kingdom by preserving heritage. “Whether we recognize it or not, we are affected by those that came before us”, she says referring to how much she’s so inherently attached to culture. Concerned about the huge human and environmental cost of fashion, AlShehail has made it her mission to infuse a new way of understanding fashion and approaching shopping in the region. So, she decided to go back to her roots and showcase the timelessness of local craftsmanship. Handmade in Saudi Arabia, her contemporary designs are characterized by long cuffs and wide-legged trousers. “Clothing really has the power to tell a story of who we are and where we’ve come from”, she explains.
By putting sustainability at the forefront, the young entrepreneur is using fashion to make bold political statements. On top of her avant-garde brand, she launched Project JUST five years ago, her NGO challenging the exploitative practices of fashion. Back in 2013, as a global fellow with Acumen—a non-profit focused on tackling poverty—AlShehail was sent to India, during the tragic Rana Plaza collapse. “I had to bring dignity to people, while something like the shirt on my back could be causing poverty or death somewhere else in the world. It didn’t make sense”, she says.
But since dedicating herself to finding sustainable alternatives to fast fashion, along with her heritage and values, AlShehail is convinced her vision and message will resonate with the heart of Saudi Arabia’s youth. Having recently re-imagined the farwa (an oversized floor length coat traditionally worn by men to survive the cold desert winters) into a women’s contemporary luxury coat, AlShehail’s designs are carefully defining modern Saudi identity, by connecting it to its past.