By JOSH WINTERS in NYTimes (Copyright, All Rights Reserved)
March 25, 2011, 5:00 pm
The Sultanate of Oman occupies the corner of the Arabian Peninsula nearest India, and lies between Dubai and Yemen. In broad strokes, this is a fair social description as well as geographical. The ancient city of Muscat is picturesquely nestled among a craggy collection of low mountains that run right into the sea. The bare rocky massifs yield occasionally to sandy beaches and the deep natural harbors that have made the city a hub of Indian Ocean trade for thousands of years.
Oman is an absolute monarchy that has been ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said since 1970. Unlike many of its counterparts throughout the Arab world, it had seen minimal unrest until February 25, when tensions flared in the port city of Sohar. (Despite the disturbance, respect for the sultan remains widespread, even among protesters.) As a part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Oman is a peer of the fabulously wealthy and tyrannical oil states of the Gulf.
Oman under Sultan Qaboos has pursued an unusual path to modernization, having closed its borders for much of the 1970s to put its house in order. This attitude of carefully planned growth is most immediately visible in its urban planning, with the whitewashed traditional houses still holding pride of place along the capital’s perfectly manicured streets. Oman does, however, face many of the other problems as its GCC neighbors: low functional literacy, insufficient white-collar jobs to satisfy the expectations of an overwhelmingly young population and the strain of being a traditional Islamic society in an increasingly wealthy and cosmopolitan context.
I was recently in Oman for Muscat Fashion Week, which featured 12 designers from Oman and elsewhere in the region. The event was the first of its kind in the sultanate — the first of many, according to the organizer, His Excellency Sultan Hamood, mayor of Muscat Municipality. Just hours before Tuesday’s shows, we stood on the stunning outdoor runway, set halfway up a rocky promontory overlooking Muscat’s quiet harbor. His Excellency is an energetic man with ambitious plans for his city to become the region’s fashion capital. He told me how the whole idea had come together in three weeks, in the hands of a Danish group that is responsible for Copenhagen Fashion Week. Despite the short preparation time, the production was as strikingly beautiful as it was effortlessly punctual.
The Gulf is perhaps the most gown-centric fashion scene in the world. The basic unit of socializing in conservative Arab societies is the wedding. Zeina, a 28-year-old Omani woman, said she receives two or three wedding invitations a week. She said the weddings have grown more lavish in the last decades, and now nearly all of them take place over several days. The weddings are strictly segregated along gender lines, meaning that Omani women are in a pitched and incessant fashion war, without many distracting social elements, nor men to get in the way of pure glamorous competition. The traditional black silk robe (the abaya) that is worn in public is shed in favor of lavishly embellished gowns once they’re inside the wedding venue.
The societal restrictions on dress make the logistics of runway shows a bit different from the usual fashion event. The first nine shows were open to ladies only. The models were Indian models from Dubai, as it would have been taboo for an Omani woman to be seen on a catwalk.
The opening show of the week was Robert Abi Nader, a designer whose flair for fabulous gowns has made his name in Beirut and Paris, producing outrageous event dresses and even a private jet interior for elegant clients whose fortunes are often of unconventional origin. Over double espressos at the Al-Bustan Palace, I asked him where most of his dresses go: “Central Africa, the Gulf, Russia, all over, you know,” he said. When I asked him if he dealt with any high-profile clients, he said, “I don’t name names, and I don’t work with Hollywood clients; my ladies don’t like that kind of attention.” In the audience for the Abi Nader show was Her Highness Sayyida Ghalya bint Fahar al Said of the Royal Family, whose presence created quite a stir among the other attendees.
Also showing that night was the Kabul-based line Zarif, designed by Zolaykha Sherzad. It is the best of a few fashion lines based in Kabul, making use of the extraordinary silks, brocades and distinctive cottons produced in the subcontinent. This show was strong on the impeccably tailored silk jackets that define the label. Several new silhouettes on the runway Tuesday night were from the collection I had reviewed in its Kabul studio in Afghanistan in May. Emphasis remained on detail, with distinctive Kabul-made alloy buttons and complex cuts on the cuffs and collars of the striped jackets, which covered the spectrum from long swallow-tail cuts to high-waisted jackets.
Over the next two nights, eight designers sent collections down the runway. The glittery, gauzy Punjabi suits of the Omani designer Anisa al Zadjali demonstrated the cultural proximity to India; Fadi Nahle, a Lebanese wedding specialist, sent a parade of fabulous ruffles and glitter; Shrekahnth, an Indian label, showed custom print kurtas and separates with jarring colors. Meanwhile, Hanaa al-Wahaibi stood out from the other Omani traditionalists. Her brightly colored pants and kurtas had precise fit and tailoring, a rarity in a scene where drape dominates.
The event closed with Dar Dibaj, the vibrant joint effort of Afaf and Aida al-Farsi. These striking Omani sisters are sophisticated traditionalists, whose restraint with the shiny stuff and use of black and white endeared them to Dubai buyers, among others. The two were clearly the darlings of Muscat Fashion Week, and their elegant gowns were the best demonstration of Arab fashion taking a stride forward without sacrificing cultural mores.