Historians might regard modest fashion as the game changing fashion trend of the new millennium akin to the way Dior’s New Look or the punk aesthetic revolutionized style in the 20th century. While it gains momentum with consumers across the faith spectrum, its prominence draws long overdue attention to Arab designers working in a wide variety of styles, redefining glamor, and rewriting the ready-to-wear playbook for the global digital generation of fashionistas. Nowhere is the impact of diverse fashion on social progress is more evident than in Saudi Arabia. A booming economy and a younger population have dramatically opened the country to the world. Saudi buyers and investors are actively shaping the art market (like the historic Salvator Mundi purchase for Louvre Abu Dhabi), the luxury real estate market in London and other cultural capitals as well as the high-tech startup scene.
Not all engagement is equally successful. The 2019 backlash over the tour of Instagram influencers is a case study in counterproductive PR. On the other hand, fashion diplomacy reigns supreme. Saudi consumers have long been luxury-savvy shoppers. Elite fashion labels were among the first international brands to be welcomed into the Kingdom’s market.
Now is the turn of Saudi designers to take centerstage. The Saudi-American designer Balqees AlQadeeb runs the award-winning bridal and couture line La’Beso from her studio in Riyadh. It is one of the most dynamic Saudi brands garnering international attention. AlQadeeb has a remarkable story as well: from working as a radiologist to running a prominent fashion house. I had the pleasure to connect with the designer. How does one manage a major career change? Which bad habits are good for business? Our conversation covered a lot of fascinating ground.
What is your definition of luxury?
Luxury is a feeling of confidence. What is luxury without a person who reflects that? The material side of luxury is just an extension of this principle. Luxury design is like writing poetry. You read between the lines, discover emotions in the folds and creases. A dress can speak eloquently if you know its language. For example, for me the key is always in the fabric. If you have the right textiles with great textures and colors, they can make your design 1000% better or worse. The secret to a luxurious feel of a garment is in the fabrics.
You had an unlikely start in fashion …
Yes, but maybe it only seems so. I was born in Connecticut but grew up in Saudi Arabia. Having graduated with a degree in radiology, I worked as an MRI technologist. However, I was always creative in my mind. In a way, even my career in medical sciences was about looking at different images and re-aligning, reinterpreting them to understand their meaning.
How do you take a leap of faith from a hospital to a runway?
One day we were chatting with my colleagues at the hospital. Someone asked what we would be doing if we were not working in the medical field. I said I wanted to have my own fashion brand. I didn’t have anything to do with fashion at the time. I just had a strong sense of my own style. I remember hearing myself say it out loud for the first time and getting this weird feeling, like a flash of the future. Shortly after, I began teaching at a medical university. It was a good job, but I didn’t enjoy being an instructor. I realized I wanted to be a creator. The dream was calling.
One doesn’t just drop everything and start designing couture gowns…
True! [Laughs] My first step was to understand the business side of fashion. I could allocate $ 2600 from my savings to see how it goes. In 2011, e-commerce was just starting. I brought some dresses and jewelry online from brands that we could not find in local stores. I rented space at an exhibition and arranged it into a popup store. I wanted to learn about the customers. What do they look at when they come in? What do they ask? It was very eye-opening and at the end of five days I had $ 3466 in my hands. I remember that number exactly, because I saw that I could not only get back my investment in fashion but make a profit too. Next, I self-taught myself design, pattern making, sewing, everything.
How was your first fashion collection received?
Do you want to know the truth? [Laughs] My first collection did not sell. I had to face this fact and think about it a lot. In the end, I decided that I enjoyed the process so much, the result didn’t really disappoint me. If I loved doing something, I could just do it better! So, I focused on getting better.
What made the most difference in launching your brand successfully?
One of my friends told me about a new platform… It was Instagram. We made a photoshoot and began sharing our designs on social media. This advice completely turned the brand around. More and more people were following us and inquiring about the designs. The next collection sold out exclusively through social media! We grew steadily from that. In 2015, we did our first runway show in London at Westfield with the support of the Women’s Growth and Success Foundation (WGSF) under the patronage of Baroness Karren Brady of Knightsbridge. Next, fashion editorials in magazines followed and international interviews. I hired my first fulltime staff to accommodate the demand. In 2019, our atelier and boutique opened in Riyadh. Now La’Beso has six employees in production and two in sales. It has been a challenging journey, but one I am very proud of.
Who is a La’Beso woman? How would you describe a Saudi fashionista today?
We say she is a modern person. She knows exactly how she wants to look and picks the right clothes to achieve that. She is aware of the fast changes in fashion. Therefore, she is never bored and never boring when it comes to expressing her style. At first, women came in out of curiosity. They discovered they could find what they were looking for: something glamorous, chic, yet traditional. Their confidence grew. Now we have women coming to visit our boutique from all over Saudi Arabia. It is such a great feeling to be able to bring women together through fashion.
How do you cope with the pressures of building a competitive fashion business?
I find solace in being with my family, playing with my daughter. Meditation is another daily routine that calms my mind and helps me keep going. Whenever I travel, I try to sneak a yoga class into my schedule to stay physically energized and focused. I am a big fan of spas. It’s one of my sanctuary spaces where I can rejuvenate in body and spirit. I also love to “disappear” for a little bit in quiet coffeeshops. Enjoying a great cup of coffee can be your private moment in a busy day. I try to let the simple things enrich my life.
What are the staples of your diet? Any favorite bad habit?
I’m the worst person to try any diet as I am an “addict” for sweets. Fingers crossed that with good genes on my side and moderate exercise I can keep my good health. When it comes to “bad habits”, I think mine is actually quite good! [Laughs]. It’s going to bed very late, when everyone else is already asleep. I enjoy the quietness of nights. It gives me time and space to think and dream freely.
What was the best advice you received while launching your brand?
Besides the Instagram tip from my friend? I was encouraged not to make big risky moves. It’s better to take clear small steps than gamble on leaps into uncertainty. This is how you build a sustainable business.
What is the most important question on your mind right now?
Given how far we’ve come in ten years, I wonder where will La’Beso be ten years from now? It went from an idea to a hobby to a career. How fortunate can one be to experience that in life? This marathon doesn’t end. It is a small success story, but a story of success nonetheless!