Make way for the modern abaya

Make way for the modern abaya
Fashion blogger and luxury consultant Anum Bashir flaunts a more contemporary design of the abaya

How the good old Arabic cloak is marrying style with tradition.

By Sujata Assomull

Published: Fri 25 May 2018, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Tue 29 May 2018, 2:34 PM

In case you think I am talking about a dress or a blazer, rest assured I wasn't. I am talking about the abaya - the Modern Abaya, to be precise.
Just like the saree in India or the kebaya in Indonesia, this is a region where traditional dress is worn on a daily basis. What has kept the saree, the kebaya or the abaya at the forefront of a woman's wardrobe is that you almost always find contemporary versions of these. Staying true to its original form, the 'Modern Abaya' is modest in its feel, but has been updated with elements that ensure it is a much sought-after item of clothing among young Arab women who are style savvy.
The traditional abaya is a loose-fitting robe that is worn in black, an ode to the cultural and religious sensibilities of this region. However, the abayas that you find today at concept stores, such as Dubai's Symphony or the luxury e-tailer Moda Operandi, belong as much on the streets of Milan or London as they do in Dubai or Jeddah - they not only uphold the cultural heritage but are also stylish.
Farah Mounzer, the head buyer at Symphony, says while the traditional abaya differs from country to country, what is common in most modern abayas in the GCC countries is the fabric (made of one piece of cloth) and colour (black). "Fabrics are now more fluid and experimental, with the use of organza, jacquard and pleats, in earthy colours such as nude, pale pink and beige."
For the past five years, Symphony has been putting together a special pop-up show called Tasyourah that is all about modern Arab fashion. It has expanded from being an in-store promotion to a standalone five-day event that has become a go-to for all your style needs during Ramadan. "We organised a small fair of 16 booths the first year, and then 40 in 2017, and this one had 61." Its growth speaks volumes about the successful marriage of fashion with tradition in this part of the world.
Farah credits Faiza Bouguessa of the fashion label Bouguessa as being one of the first fashion designers to introduce the new look abaya with her debut collection 70° in Spring 2014. A former flight attendant with Emirates, the Dubai-based French-Algerian started her label with the idea of making the 'Global Abaya'. "When I started working on my concept using the abaya as my inspiration for my first collection, I wanted to bring colour to this garment, but time went by and I was too late. Somebody else did it, and others after that. It forced me to consider using something more elaborate that just had a different colour. So, it is through a different cut that I found it interesting to bring innovation. My process was very simple: I was taking familiar pieces from a woman's wardrobe and making them longer," says the designer.
With a collection that was mostly about the abaya, it featured the power shoulder, cape styles, a mostly monochrome palette and had a graphic feel to it. Such details may sound 'regular' now but four years ago, fashion critics viewed it as a new chapter for the good old abaya. Today, Dubai-based labels such as Bint Thani, All Things Mochi, Dima Ayad and Bambah have brought in a new wave into Arabic fashion.

An interesting twist on the abaya from Bambah
Just last year, Beyonce Knowles posted a picture on Instagram wearing a red figure-hugging dress with an emerald green velvet abaya, designed by Faiza, thrown over. The moment clearly proved that Faiza had taken abaya to global destinations. In fact, you will notice that abaya-style robes are now part of many resort collections this year - you can spot them on the look books of Italian labels such as Etro and Prada. "Personally, I believe that it is actually the abaya that influenced the trend of the long outerwear. When the abaya started becoming more colourful and with prints, I started seeing all these long fluid robes over swimsuits and jeans," says the pioneering designer.

Contemporary abayas from Bouguessa
Of course, it has been a while since Middle Eastern designers began to experiment with the abaya. Every season, you see them aligning it with a global fashion trend. Three years ago, when the trench was having its moment in the sun, one saw many trench-styled abayas. With the kimono trending this season, the abaya is being injected with Japanese robe details.
In many new collections, the abaya is being treated as an overlay - an outer piece of clothing. It's not just something that covers, it makes its own fashion statement in a very modest and dignified manner. The Modern Abaya can now replace a jacket, a cape and cover-up. Saudi Arabian fashion consultant and author of the coffee table book Under The Abaya, Marriam Mossalli, says just like any outer wear, abayas have also followed trends. "I had a denim one back in the 90s, thanks to N'Sync and Britney Spears. I have a vintage 80s' Versace abaya with shoulder pads that I inherited from my mother. The abaya will continue to adapt to trends, but what has remained constant is its purpose. We must not forget the abaya is a functional garment," she says. The current trends for the abaya revolve around metallic colours, pastels and prints. Also, look for details such as raglan sleeves and ruffle design.

A drape designed by Dima Ayad
Today, you'd find many a UAE fashion blogger post pictures of their abayas, styling them with everything from jeans to kaftans to pyjama-styled trousers. These fashion interventions have resulted in an abaya renaissance. As Farah says, "Since it is considered quite trendy and there are many options to choose from to express one's personality, it simply ticks the boxes of comfort, respect for the culture and style."
With modest dressing becoming a global trend, international designers from Dolce & Gabbana (who came out with the first abaya collection two years ago) and high street labels such as Bebe have also joined the abaya bandwagon. Though when it comes to this silhouette, international labels have not been as successful as the local ones. Marriam puts it succinctly, "I believe this is simply their attempt to tap into a lucrative market. I think the problem arises when there is an obvious lack of market research and the attempt appears superficial." 
Most of Dubai's fashionable set prefers to support designers from their own region, which is a good news for local labels. Bambah's Maha Abdul Rashyed opened her first store in Dubai in 2010, and her own label four years later. "There is a strong pull to supporting local talent; people love to shop in local exhibitions, pop-ups and events where fellow designers usually exhibit." Maha feels the interest international fashion has shown in abaya can help fashion in this region gain more global attention.
No matter whether the abaya is Made in Italy or been designed by a native label - it makes a style statement. Dima Ayad, a Dubai-based designer known for making clothes for real women, sums it up the best when she says, "It has become a staple in a woman's wardrobe and like anything, even our little black dresses, they keep reinventing themselves. We as people adapt with time, fashion adapts with time, we infuse fabrics with each other, we bring back old traditions with new ones." Exactly what the Modern Abaya stands for.
Why the abaya had to be reinvented
Dubai-based Anum Bashir, founder of, a blogger and luxury consultant known for her trailblazing style decodes the Modern Abaya:
"Clever and talented regional designers have found a way to modernise a traditional garment, making it more appealing for us (non-traditionalists) and millennials to wear as a trendy and chic garment, and not so much as a cultural obligation.
I've now seen abayas replacing trench coats, or that Fall jacket we're looking to invest in. Reinventing and reinvigorating the abaya was necessary, given our social climate in the recent times. Women are increasingly becoming emancipated from patriarchal rules and traditions, and that, most definitely, translates into the way they dress. The abaya has become Céline-esque, Balenciaga-esque, if you will, and feels a lot more democratic in terms of appealing to a wider variety of age groups. The trendy and fashion savvy no longer have to feel alienated by wearing an abaya. If anything, those who typically don't wear one are tempted to dabble into the trend because of how 'cool' and uniquely designed some of them are now. The best and most appropriate example of this I can give now are the ones designed by Faiza Bouguessa! She's a genius."

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