Friday, December 24, 2010

Parveen Shaath: The Legacy of a Saudi Fashion Icon, Part II

Parveen Shaath, seated left on couch, with friends in Riyadh, 1960’s

Shaath not only cultivated an appreciation for glamorous prêt-a-porter and European haute couture in Saudi Arabia, but was also instrumental in shaping the tastes of generations of Saudi women. "Part of my job was to educate women about the upcoming styles and collections,” she said. Prior to that, members of the royal family and upper class either had live-in-tailors capable of copying styles from fashion magazines, or they traveled to Beirut to purchase gowns.

Shaath was in constant search of “beautiful things,” and what she deemed “beautiful” was what she brought back to her Saudi clientele. “I’ve found that if you have an idea, a passion that occupies your mind, then nothing can stop you from doing it and that is how I built my business. I relied on my taste and on learning what styles would suit my clients when making orders,” she recalled in an interview.

"My aunt is soft-spoken yet feisty. She is a force to be reckoned with," said Rasha Shaath, about Parveen who started a business in fashion at a time when a single woman wasn’t expected to make it on her own.

To be sure there were other women in the Middle East at the time who also cultivated an appreciation for European fashion, by bringing back selected garments for the women in their own circles. Yet these women, like Shaath, became pivotal figures in establishing a sense of what was “fashionable” or stylish for their times.

A gown from Shaath’s vintage collection on display at Villa Moda Bahrain, April 2010; The early shows Parveen attended in the 1950’s and 60’s were much smaller affairs restricted to editors and buyers. Here, an Yves Saint Laurent show in 1958.

One important lesson Parveen learnt early on when dealing with clients was to tell the truth. “Sales people would always tell me I looked amazing every time I tried something on, even though I could see it wasn't true," she said, "I’ve always made it a point to be honest with my clients, and tell them not to be ashamed of their body shape and opt for what suits them best."

Nevertheless, Parveen readily admits she was the kind of woman who suffered for fashion. "I never hesitated to wear corsets; constricting innerwear and anything that would make a woman's body look shapelier. Now I dress for convenience and comfort,” explained Shaath who prefers to wear billowy kaftans these days.

Shaath fell in love with each one of the pieces she bought over the years, and could not find it in her heart to sell any of them at a discount, no matter how many season’s old they were. After health reasons forced her to shutter her boutique in the late 1990’s, Shaath carefully stored her entire collection of unsold gowns in five rooms at her two-storey villa in Riyadh. By hanging each garment up, carefully wrapped in plastic, she unwittingly preserved an extraordinary collection that chronicles over 60 years of fashion history. There they remained untouched for over a decade until her nieces discovered them while on a visit.

An evening gown by Nettie Vogues, who designed Princess Diana’s formal engagement dress. Shaath purchased several pieces from her collection each season; A vintage couture dress on display at Villa Moda Bahrain, April 2010.
"It was a shame to see those dresses gathering dust," recalled Rasha, who, along with her sisters and friend Abeer Seikaly, decided to give her aunt and her rare collection their rightful place in fashion history.

Last year, the sisters moved a few vintage dresses from Parveen's villa to their home in an attempt to label and categorize the collection, with the intention of creating an archive that could be used for retail and exhibit purposes.

The So Passé events were their first attempt at introducing the archive to a wider audience; selling two vintage evening wear collections of 40 gowns through Villa Moda in Kuwait and Bahrain. Despite this, their long term goal is not to sell off the collection but retain the most important pieces in order to create a solid archive that’s representative of their aunt’s legacy.

A vintage dress on display at Villa Moda Bahrain; A Dior show from the 1950’s, was the kind of intimate presentation Shaath would have experienced on her early visits to Paris as a buyer.
They next went about in search of a project that could place the collection in the context of an art exhibition, to demonstrate how fashion is a reflection of culture and history. While working in the media industry, Rasha had become acquainted with Elie Domit, the creative director of Dubai’s Empty Quarter Fine Art Photography gallery; founded by Saudi photographer Princess Reem Al Faisal. Together with Seikaly, Rasha approached Dormit with a concept for an exhibit that was a story waiting to be told; one that up until then was only known by members of the royal family and a certain generation of women in Saudi Arabia.

The result was “Fashion: The Story of a Lifetime,” an exhibition which combined nine vintage dresses and photographs from Shaath’s private collection, with the work of some of the most notable fashion photographers of the last century. When it opened on September 14th, it was the most talked about show of Dubai’s cultural season. Although Parveen Shaath herself was unable to travel for the opening, her niece took care of every detail. “I brought the gowns personally. Each one was selected to reflect the different periods that exist in the collection and show distinct elements of fashion, craftsmanship and design."

Baalbek, Lebanon, 1963… 'Summer furs', one of 70 portrait’s on display at “Fashion: the Story of a Lifetime,” at Dubai’s Empty Quarter Gallery; Two pieces from Shaath’s vintage collection on display at the gallery; A Villa Moda client tries on a vintage couture dress from Shaath’s collection, Kuwait, March 2010.

"We wanted to feature Parveen's story, because she has been involved with several iconic designer brands like Belville Sassoon, who dressed high-profile clientele for more than four decades, and Nettie Vogues that supplied Princess Diana's formal engagement dress. The result is a museum quality exhibition that offers a rare opportunity to experience the power of fashion," added Domit.

Parveen herself echoes that same thought, "I think any item of clothing sends a powerful message. You can walk into a room and demand attention. There are women who through their choice of clothes can make a roomful of people gasp and stare. Isn't that power?"

Images courtesy of Confashions from Kuwait Blog and the Empty Quarter Gallery
© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

1 comment:

Nicolas said...

Excellent 'virtual show' on the web. A beautiful insight through an era not known, even to many 'inside' the Arabian world. Beautifully presented and written. Makes one feel they are 'there'. Bravo!