If the headlines that have rolled out of the world’s news outlets the last couple months are any indication, Saudi Arabia is changing and it is changing fast, with a slew of reforms announced during Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s US visit, chief amongst which is his decision to rescind Saudi Arabia’s long standing law requiring women to wear the abaya (cloak) in public, telling CBS, “the decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire to wear.”     

The announcement came as very welcome news to many, and although it may not be the groundbreaking shift many Saudi women had hoped for, it is one Saudi fashion designer Hatem Al Akeel intends to work with.

Photo courtesy of Toby

Akeel, who has designed for global giants such as Matel, Evian, and Toyota, initially came to be known as a menswear designer after launching his fashion house Toby, in 2007, specializing in thobes (traditional men’s garments worn across the Arabian Gulf), and raising it to an art form. His spin on Saudi Arabia’s sartorial tradition redefines the thobes with fine silhouettes, restructures it with edgy shapes, and subtle yet unconventional colours, propelling it on the international fashion scene. Al Akeel has dressed Christian Louboutin, Snoop Dogg (Lion?), New York socialite and fashion influencer Eli Mizrahi, and Saudi hip hop singer Qusai, and the star-studded list goes on. “That was a point where everybody could look at the thobe as something that is international, something that can be worn by anyone,” he says. “The whole concept of Toby is to celebrate culture – the juxtaposition of East and West, like some of my pieces channel a Japanese aesthetic, so I’m influenced by that culture as well. It's a global way of embracing culture.”

The whole concept of [my brand] Toby is to celebrate culture        

Photo courtesy of Toby

In 2013, he took the daring step of designing for women in Saudi and across the GCC. And unlike many in the fashion industry who purport to understand Arab and Muslim women they target, Akeel actually has the added benefit of not only cultural proximity, but also a genuine interest in women’s welfare. He truly cemented his standing on women’s issues in Saudi Arabia when he became the first to celebrate the repeal of the driving ban imposed on the kingdom’s women. And he did it the only way he knows how: fabulously, complete with its own fabulous female empowerment-inspired collection, Sa’akoud (Arabic for I will drive/lead), and rolled out in a fabulous fashion film – which he also directed and created, featuring Saudi fashion blogger Bayan Lingawi behind the wheel, driving into the horizon. “We chose Bayan because she represents what empowerment is about. She is in her early 20s and has 2 companies. …I am very impressed by what she has accomplished, so I chose her for the campaign,” he says of the fashion film. “It is a very simple campaign. It's about a woman walking out of her house, the door opens, she is filled with the light of hope, and then she drives off, she's free. … Women have been looking forward to this for quite some time.”

I'm flattered and delighted to be seen as a modest designer, but I don't like to be compartmentalized in that way. My women’s jackets can be worn in Avenue Montaigne with jeans, or with a long robe in Tahli and Jeddah.


#SAUDIWOMENDRIVE Here is the  سأقودshort fashion film. Hope you enjoy watching it as much as I enjoyed coming up with the idea. I would love your feedback and point of view on the concept. I personally feel it’s high time that we are all given the opportunity to dream, but most importantly to be given the ability to turn our dreams into reality. This is how I envisage all my fashion films as I am a firm believer in the fact that all dreams can turn into reality… All it requires is a strong positive vision to help it come to fruition.#سأقود  #positivity #reality #saudiwomendrive #anewdawn #anewera ‎إليكم فيديو الموضة القصير الخاص بحملة #سأقود. أتمنى أن تستمتعوا بمشاهدته بقدر ما استمتعت بابتكاره. أودّ أن أسمع تعليقاتكم وأفكاركم عن الفيديو وموضوعه. أعتقد أن الأوان قد حان لنحظى جميعنا بفرصةٍ للحلم، والأهم من ذلك أن نحظى بفرصةٍ لتحويل أحلامنا إلى حقيقة. هذه هي الفكرة التي أطرحها في كل أفلام الموضة التي أقدمها لأنني أؤمن بإمكانية تحويل كل الأحلام إلى واقع. كل ما نحن بحاجةٍ إليه هو رؤية إيجابية قوية لمساعدتنا في بلوغ طموحاتنا. ‎#إيجابية #واقع #حقيقة #بإمكان_المرأة_السعودية_القيادة #عصر_جديد #وقت_جدي Videography by Emiliano Arganaraz @che.emiliano ; DOP Oliver Doran @oliverdoran Creative Direction : Hatem Alakeel and last but not least our star of the video @just.bayan #tobyfashionfilm

A post shared by Hatem Alakeel (@hatemalakeel) on

Akeel’s sartorial representation of Arab women is one that is deeply rooted in the very fabric of their identity, laced with the profound understanding of their unique character and the culture that shaped it and how it differs from their counterparts in other sociocultural contexts. “I don't encourage women to buy the whole thing off the mannequin the way it is presented to them. I encourage them to enforce what they have in mind, their own style, identity, and individuality. This is what Toby is all about,” he tells us.

Photo courtesy of Toby

And as such he has positioned himself in that growing intersection of East and West. While his women’s collections continue to fall in the conservative, traditional realm of fashion that is deemed appropriate for the region, Akeel doggedly refuses to be known solely as a ‘modest fashion designer’. “I'm flattered and delighted to be seen as a modest designer, but I don't like to be compartmentalized in that way. My women’s jackets can be worn in Avenue Montaigne with jeans, or with a long robe in Tahli and Jeddah,” he contends. “I went to a boarding school in Switzerland, so I have a very westernized way of thinking, but I also want to celebrate my roots. …I think it's amazing that fashion is giving us a platform, but it should also reflect that we are becoming more diverse.”

Akeel speaks of fashion authoritatively, like a well-adjusted Joan Rivers. His composure and presence hark back to the golden age of fashion, when Hollywood glamour and grace were ever-present, and the 'sartorial arts' commanded respect. In the age of fashion 'gramers, Akeel is a pleasant oddity, refreshing in his vast knowledge of fashion, design, and his pure unadulterated love for the craft. And he most certainly possesses a career that makes for great stories. “One time, Isabella Blow told me, ‘Hatem, I went to a wedding in Riyadh and I was astounded, completely astounded.’ I asked her what she was astounded by, she's like, ‘2 days before, I was in Paris at the Art Couture, and, 2 days later, I'm in Riyadh and I see the exact same dresses worn by Saudi women at the wedding,’" he recounts.      

Saudis understand fashion, we are cultured, we are international, it is high time people realised that.

Photo courtesy of Toby

It is not every day we get to see a war being fought with a sketchbook, but that is what Al Akeel does. In every piece, he instils his pride and seals it in with a cosmopolitan twist. It is how he wages war on the many prejudices that colour the world’s opinion, not only of Saudi Arabia, but also of its people. “Let's look at Saudi Arabia in a positive way, because I think the sky is the limit. I think it is high time people realized the potential here and saw how many people have tremendous talent,” he says. "We understand fashion, we are cultured, we are international, it is high time people realized that.”

Follow Hatem Al Akeel's Toby on Facebook or Instagram @tobyhatemalakeel.

Main image and video by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
Shot on location @NikkiBeachHotelDubai.