“I didn’t chose to get into fashion; fashion has chosen me”, says Arwa Al Banawi when asked how she developed a passion for designing clothes. It might have not been a choice, but one thing’s for sure; the 31 year-old Saudi designer is making a name for herself in the industry with her delicate designs that blend traditional and contemporary influences.
With the recent release of the brand’s SS18 Banat (Girls) collection—which celebrates female empowerment, following the new law allowing Saudi women to drive—MILLE caught up with Al Banawi to find out her inspiration, the purpose of the brand, and her upcoming projects.
Growing up in Jeddah, how did you get involved in fashion?
I didn’t know what fashion meant when I was a kid, but I was already obsessed with fabrics. My mother is an artist and collected fashion magazines. And my father would get his suits custom made in Italy every summer. I would travel with him, sit in the chair and watch his tailor do his work.
In my house, religion is part of our lives. My mother owns many different praying scarves and I remember opening her cupboard and instinctively draping myself in them. My home really was the first place where I organically developed a passion for fashion.
Did you study fashion?
My father told me that if I studied finance, I could then do whatever I wanted to do. So while I pursued my studies, I started a fashion blog on the side, took sketching classes, and read all the Vogues I could get my hands on. At the time, social media didn’t exist and you couldn’t buy fashion magazines in Saudi. I would ask for people to get them from abroad when they travelled because you had to see the latest editorials to know what was on trend. I really educated myself alone.
After graduating, I started working in banking in Dubai, but I decided to quit after a year. The loss of my grandfather really affected me and I felt a strong urge to do what I really wanted to do, and that’s how I launched my label.
It seems like your upbringing and your family plays a fundamental role in your evolution as a designer?
For sure. My grandfather lived in Germany, and I travelled to Europe with my family since a very young age. I naturally blend both worlds in my designs, because that’s really who I am: a marriage of both cultures.
So how would you define your brand and what is its key purpose?
I define my label as “urban luxury”, it’s basically high-end fashion flirting with streetwear. Fundamentally, what I wish to do with my brand is to export my culture. I want the world to discover the richness of my nation, and the power of its women.
Who are the Banat (girls) you refer to in your latest collection?
By designing androgynous clothes, I address myself to what I’ve called the “suitable woman”. She is the young, confident, independent, ambitious woman, who’s always on the go. So, comfort is key, and I want her to be able to wear the same dress from the office to the party. I want to make the life of the busy workingwoman easier.
How are you seeing the fashion industry evolve in your country? It seems like things are really shifting.
Middle Eastern women from the GCC have always been stylish. We are lucky to have amazing buyers and we always had a great selection available. Also, since the 1970s, Saudi has a great government-funded education scholarship program to study abroad. We have been exposed to the outside world for a long time despite what people might think. I never doubted the potential of my country, and I feel like we always had a strong fashion sense. Now thankfully we’re getting government support in the arts and fashion industry, and that will inspire more designers to grow their businesses.
You have already collaborated with brands like Adidas and Levi’s. What’s next?
I’ve decided to launch a genderless, yearly capsule collection for Ramadan every year. My e-shop will also open this summer. And I’m working on two exciting collaborations: one of them is with a Saudi artist and the other one is with a brand. I feel very honoured to collaborate with people who trust my vision and can’t wait to share all of this with you.