Friday, December 24, 2010

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

Three sisters are on a mission to preserve their aunt’s extraordinary legacy, one that not only represents the Gulf’s earliest links to the fashion world, but also chronicles the region’s evolving tastes. The Polyglot investigates in a two part series.
Parveen Shaath at her Riyadh home in the early 60’s; A sampling of the 40 vintage couture gowns from Shaath’s collection which went on sale at Villa Moda Kuwait.

Back in March of 2010, Villa Moda Kuwait invited its V.I.P. customers to a special fashion event called “So Passé.” But this was no end of season sale, nor an opportunity for clients to open boxes of just delivered merchandise. Instead, that day the multi-brand store offered a rare glimpse into a vintage haute couture collection purchased over the span of 60 years by Parveen Shaath.

Although long considered a badge of fashion connoisseurship in Western capitals, collecting vintage clothes has been a hard sell in the Arabian Gulf region until recently. From fashionable private gatherings in Riyadh to art openings in Dubai, there is an almost competitive desire by the region’s well dressed to appear in the latest and most exclusive items from a designer’s collection. Vintage, long considered “dead people’s clothes,” held little attraction except to the region’s most fashion forward and daring.

Yet the forty gowns on display (and for purchase) at Villa Moda that day could hardly be described as “second-hand,” considering they had never been worn and were still in mint condition. If there was ever a way to convince potential Gulf collectors of the merits of vintage couture, this was it. The event generated so much positive attention that it was held the following month at Villa Moda’s Bahrain outpost.
Two vintage gowns on display at Villa Moda Bahrain, April 2010; A Sorelle Fontana fashion show at the Pitti Palace, Florence, 1950’s. It was typical of the shows Shaath would have attended during her early buying trips to Italy.

It was all part of a clever marketing campaign orchestrated by Shaath’s nieces Reem, Rasha and Haya, as well as their friend Abeer Seikaly, to reacquaint a new generation of fashion lovers with their aunt’s extraordinary legacy. Despite her achievements in the fashion world Parveen Shaath, who worked quietly for most of her life with little fanfare, never considered sharing her story.

"I wasn't seeking to be known neither was I concerned about what others thought. In all honesty, I was too busy living this opportunity that God gave me - one that wasn't available to everybody. I wouldn't say that my work had an impact on the region, but there was definitely a segment of society in Riyadh that learnt how to dress from the clothes I offered," said Shaath.

Parveen Shaath’s extraordinary journey began 81 years ago, when she was born in Tehran to a Palestinian father and Iranian mother. She would spend her early years in Gaza, before moving with her family to Syria and then Saudi Arabia. Being the eldest, she helped raise her siblings. Part of this responsibly included making sure each one of her brothers and sisters was well dressed. She taught herself how to sew by taking apart clothes and sewing them back together. She would go on to sew a wedding dress for one of her sisters, a skill that would serve her well in later years.

"I had finished my responsibility towards my eleven brothers and eight sisters, and I had also been married for a year and a half in my early twenties. So I asked myself, ‘What do I want to do with my life?' I wanted to do something that fulfils me. I used to read books and magazines and had an affinity for fashion. I toyed with the concept of a boutique and stocking it with clothes bought from foreign countries. I had heard that there is a certain time when Italy, France and England hold fashion shows," remembered Shaath of her early beginnings.

A Villa Moda Kuwait customer trying on one of Shaath’s vintage couture gowns; Shaath (in white coat) having ice cream with friends seated in front of Rome’s Trevi Fountain, early 1960’s, A display from Shaath’s vintage collection at Villa Moda Bahrain.

That opportunity presented itself while vacationing in London in the late 50’s. One day while having tea with a friend at the Dochester Hotel, Shaath overheard a group of designers milling about, that their clothes were being sold in one of the hotel’s suites. "Despite not having an invitation, I walked into the suite. It was stocked with designer clothes, and women taking orders. I had never seen anything like it. I asked for an appointment and on a whim decided to make an order. I chose from two fashion houses. I had nothing to lose."

In addition to her love of fashion, financial independence has been a key motivator in her life. "I never wanted to need anybody. I wanted to work to be able to live comfortably and support myself. It was easy because fashion is a wonderful industry."

Upon placing her orders, Shaath was informed that she would have to cover the shipping costs and that the delivery would take place two months later. During that time, she hatched a plan to create a profitable business. It would be a straight forward enterprise: double the price of the dress to cover cost and factor enough for a re-order. "Initially the plan wasn't about making profit. What was exciting was that ready-to-wear was unheard of in Saudi Arabia," she recalled.

Most of the 40 dresses which debuted at Villa Moda Kuwait and Bahrain sold in days, pointing to an untapped market for vintage couture in the region.

A year later, she began what would become regular trips to London, Paris, Rome and Milan, building relationships with designers who invited her to their exclusive presentations. "I would meet the same people year after year. There was camaraderie among buyers from all over. Back then, the buyers were mostly women," she says.

For the haute couture pieces, she would take her clients measurements ahead of time, while for prêt-à-porter she learnt to become conversant with client sizes and tastes. "A particular dress would look as though it belonged to a certain client; I would order it because she would trust me to make the right choice," said Shaath.

During her first trip to Italy she attended the winter collections, traveling alone from Rome to Milan and Florence to see the shows. "I was never afraid of travelling by myself. I could do anything provided it was within the boundaries I set for myself and those set by my father. It was a challenge because I'm from a conservative society having divided my childhood and youth among places like Palestine, Syria and Saudi Arabia. So you can imagine what a different world these new places were. After my first time in Rome, I decided I would do this for the rest of my life," said Shaath

Back in Saudi Arabia, Parveen initially began selling her dresses at women-only gatherings and clubs before establishing her own boutique in a sumptuous Riyadh villa in the early 60’s. Naming it “Azizati,” she created an atmosphere where her clients could both socialize and shop.

Images courtesy of Confashions from Kuwait Blog and the Empty Quarter Gallery

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