Abaya couture is the latest in high-fashion, with top designers joining in the race to glam up one of the world's most traditional garmets, the abaya -- the long black overgarment worn by millions of Arab women -- ahead of the Paris couture shows.
Unveiled the same week that French President Nicolas Sarkozy unleashed a storm across the Arab world for criticizing the head-to-toe burka for women, the score of just-completed luxury designer abayas will be offered to the Saudi royal family by Saks Fifth Avenue of Riyadh and Jeddah.
Like something out of Arabian Nights, models clad in designer abayas -- all black but each unique -- strutted the catwalk amid clouds of smoke and Arabic music at the luxurius George V hotel owned by a Saudi prince.
An Arabian horse pranced into the ornate underground reception hall mounted by a Russian red-head riding side-saddle and clad in a rhinestone and sequined shawl designed by John Galliano for the Saks collection.
French fashion houses Nina Ricci and Jean Claude Jitrois, Italy's Blumarine and Alberta Feretti, Australian Martin Grant and U.S. designer Caroline Herrera also took part.
Abayas traditionally are black, body-covering and floor-length.
Globalization of fashion
The entry by world-famous luxury designers into the abaya fashion market marks a new trend as Western designers seek to compete with local and regional designers who have sought to take advantage of a previously underserved market.
"As Emiratis or women of the Gulf we are brand crazy, that’s something everyone knows about us!" explained Badr al-Budoor, a Dubai-native in her late-twenties who founded the Abaya Couture label.
Abaya Couture, an Emirati fashion label, launched in April to provide what it termed upscale “avant-garde” abayas that “make a fashion statement” according to the company’s website.
“It represent the globalization of this piece and that they undertand its beauty and signifiance," she told Al Arabiya, adding that the market for abayas is growing “insanely” and welcoming the entry of Western designers to the market.
"I think as long as it helps show the world that what we wear is something beautiful and elegant that’s really important regardless of who does it, as log as it’s done in the right way," she added.
British designer to the royals Bruce Oldfield already explored the concept of luxury abayas in 2008, designing a $365,000 dress that stole the show at the Saudi Gulf Luxury Trade Fair.
Conceptualizing across cultures
But getting Western designers on board has not been easy, according to the Lebanese general manager of Saks Fifth Avenue in Saudi Arabia.
"I realized that women in Saudi Arabia wear designer brands but outside have to cover up in a black abaya," said organizer Dania Tarhini, who has worked for the company since 2001.
"At first the designers were not that enthusiastic, they didn't really understand, they couldn't imagine how to make a designer abaya," she told AFP. "So I sent them abayas, explained that the concept was to link fashion with culture. I said that the same women who wear their designer evening gowns will wear their abayas."
Upcoming designer from Portugal Felipe Oliveira Baptista, one of the dozen taking part in the Paris couture shows starting early July, said that updating the traditional abaya had been a challenge.
"It was interesting to work on a garment that has very specific rules," he said, having created his out of a patchwork of three different black fabrics, cut to lengthen the body.
Others came with shimmering Swarosky crystals, gold, velvet or pearl embroidery, and even see-through lace and chiffon.
"It was not an easy exercise," said French designer Anne-Valerie Hash. "We were all very afraid."
The one-off pieces paraded in Paris are to be given as gifts to the royal family and other VIPs, but by September Tarhini plans to have a selection of designer abayas on hand at the boutiques for between €1,520 and 1,820 ($2,200-2,520).
New collections, to be created twice yearly, will hopefully introduce some color "navy blue, or dark brown, perhaps," she said.
"It is liberating," she said of the bid to update the dress. "It is conservative and daring. It is fashionable and doesn't go against the culture as long as the women are covered."
Hijab fashion is also an emerging trend in the Middle East, where women are making a business out of creating stylish headscarves that many Muslim women wear out of obligation and tradition. Whether the Western fashion heavyweights are ready to foray into hijab fashion remains to be seen.