S (AFP) - Ahead of the Paris couture shows, top designers have joined a tricky exercise to glam up one of
the world's most traditional pieces, the abaya -- the long black overgarment worn by millions of Arab women.
Unveiled the same week that French President Nicolas Sarkozy unleashed a storm across the Arab world for
criticising the head-to-toe burka for women, the score of just-completed jazzed-up designer abayas are to be
offered to the Saudi royal family by Saks Fifth Avenue of Riyadh and Jeddah.
The presentation of the madeover abayas, held this week at the luxury George V hotel owned by a Saudi prince,
seemed just another catwalk show in the world's fashion capital, but within minutes morphed as a scene out of
the Arabian Nights.
To music and amid a cloud of smoke, a mighty grey Arabian horse pranced into the ornate underground
reception hall mounted by a Russian red-head riding side-saddle and clad in a rhinestone and sequinned shawl
designed by John Galliano for the Saks collection.
Following the horse came a score of models parading the abayas, each of them black but each very different.
Other couturiers taking part in the scheme include French houses Nina Ricci and Jean Claude Jitrois, Italy's
Blumarine and Alberta Feretti, Australian Martin Grant and US designer Caroline Herrera.
"I realised that women in Saudi Arabia wear designer brands but outside have to cover up in a black abaya,"
said organiser Dania Tarhini, who is Lebanese and the general manager of Saks Fifth Avenue, Saudi Arabia.
"I wanted them to be able to wear something with pleasure, not just as an obligation," she told AFP.
But Tarhini, who has worked for the company since 2001, said it had been difficult to get Western designers on
"At first the designers were not that enthusiastic, they didn't really understand, they couldn't imagine how to make
a designer abaya," she said. "So I sent them abayas, explained that the concept was to link fashion with culture.
"I said that the same women who wear their designer evening gowns will wear their abayas."
Upcoming designer from Portugal Felipe Oliveira Baptista, one of the dozen taking part in the Paris couture
shows starting early July, said that updating the traditional abaya had been a challenge.
"It was interesting to work on a garment that has very specific rules", he said. Abayas traditionally are black,
body-covering and floor-length.
His was a patchwork of three different black fabrics, cut to lengthen the body.
Others came with shimmering Swarosky crystals, gold, velvet or pearl embroidery, and even see-through lace
"It was not an easy exercise," said French designer Anne-Valerie Hash. "We were all very afraid."
The one-off pieces paraded in Paris are to be given as gifts to the royal family and other VIPs, but by September
Tarhini plans to have a selection of designer abayas on hand at the boutiques for between 1,500 and 1,800
euros (2,000-2,500 dollars).
New collections, to be created twice yearly, will hopefully introduce some colour "navy blue, or dark brown,
perhaps," she said.
"It is liberating," she said of the bid to update the dress. "It is conservative and daring.
"It is fashionable and doesn't go against the culture as long as the women are covered."
As to pieces that showed a glimpse of leg, "these are for ladies only evenings", she said.