7 October 2012

Footsteps in the Sand

Follow Sarah Thelwall (MyCake.org) in her discovery of pioneering fashion and design entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia.

Sarah Thelwall

The retailer/design collective Sofra, in Jeddah.

'It’s my first time in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and I’ve arrived in Dammam in the Eastern Province. It’s 35 degrees outside and I’ve opted for a t-shirt and shorts underneath my abaya. It’s already been pointed out to me that the joy of an abaya is that if you’re running late you only need to attend to your hair, face and feet to look respectable! As the trip goes on I’ll see just how much women focus on accessorising their hands and feet.

Although we’ve got a workshop full of creative businesses to meet the day after tomorrow, my first day is spent meeting creative entrepreneurs and getting a bit of a feel for the creative scene in Dammam and Al-Khobar. It feels to me like there are pockets of activity around places like AlBaylasan art, Desert Designs and a community in the Aramco compound, but that in general these micro clusters don’t necessarily know each other or intermingle. I’m rather surprised by this as my experience elsewhere is that the mavericks (as so many creatives are) tend to stick together and in smaller communities and kind of join forces with other parts of the alternative scene.

Until very recently in KSA, art and artists have been restricted to very private activities and people, and it's only in the last few years that we have started to see publicly accessible exhibitions. The challenge for AlBaylasan art is how to build the organisation now that the environment is changing, how to harness their successes and grow a more sustainable venture. As a result of the Start-up to Success workshops that I delivered, they have new ideas to play with that look at models such as the UK’s Affordable Art Fair and which combine income streams from a percentage of sales value and stand hire to artists.

Sarah Thelwall

Abaya designs from a designer based in the Aramco compound in Dammam/Al-Khobar.

At Desert Designs' Art Gallery there is a show called Loud Art Exhibition, which is showcasing a dozen local creatives in the fields of fashion, product design, jewellery, sculpture and fine art. This work would not be out of place in a western design fair and clearly the creatives have a wide design education that covers both Middle Eastern and Western aesthetics.The questions in my mind these first days mostly have to do with local audiences: i.e. where does the work of young designers fit in to the lives of the Saudis? What is the customer profile of those who buy local design? I have a chance to discuss this once I reach Jeddah and catch up with Khouloud Attar and Rakan Al Sharif who run Design Magazine (KSA’s first such publication) and the answer is very different to what happens in other parts of the Middle East, say Lebanon. In fashion, for example, the majority of Lebanese young and wealthy customers prefer to buy big name brands. The purchasing of the work of young local designers is more likely to be limited to couture dresses rather than prêt-a-porter, which obviously limits the growth of the market for young designers in Lebanon. KSA is very different. Whilst there is a strong market for couture dresses and a separate market for abayas there is also a growing market for prêt-a-porter by local designers; both Western style and Eastern style jellabyas and more modest designs. There would seem to be less of a need to display wealth and therefore the focus is on achieving a certain individuality of style and the pleasure and social value of supporting and being seen to support local designers.

Jeddah is very different in feel to Dammam and feels like much more of a creative hub. I’m invited to a wide range of cultural events in public spaces and private houses. These include music, poetry and visual art spaces/events - all of which would have been much more private affairs even three years ago. Khouloud, Rakan and I all attended the opening of The Gallery which is a part public exhibition space, part drop-in space for creatives, and part commercial gallery. We end up having a fascinating discussion about the conceptual proximity or distance between the work of Saudi artists and the international art market. The sense of unconnected groups is replaced by a picture of a spider’s web of interconnected individuals with lots of freelancers acting as connectors between different firms and parts of the supply chain. In Jeddah we’re overbooked for the workshops but we still manage to squeeze in a few more as word gets out. In addition to their very active participation in the workshops, attendees have a lot of ideas about how they can build on these workshops, meet more often, what they’d like to learn next, etc. The momentum is certainly building!

Pablo Rossello

Riyadh's Kingdom Tower.

For the Jeddah and Riyadh workshops I’m joined by Tarek Abououf, who is a business professor at the College Of Business Administration-CBA. Part of the goal is to see how the work that I deliver around marketing and finance might connect up to the courses that Tarek delivers (usually to folks other than the creative crowd). The good news is that his ideas and mine are in tune so he adds not just a local perspective and local detail but can also reinforce my key messages! By the time I leave Jeddah I’ve seen a variety of boutique retailers who specialise in local designer talent (Sofra, Maison Bo-M amongst others), a couple of galleries (The Gallery and Athr Gallery), visited the BRJ funded women’s incubator space and met the nargile pipe makers in the old town and talked to a few of the local traders. I’ve had my eyes opened to abayas made in colours other than black and met several women who really know how to work this garment to the max! I’ve even met a film-maker in a country where there are no cinemas.

Sarah Thelwall

Riyadh's Souk al Haraj.

Every one tells me that Riyadh is the strictest place I’ll go to (perhaps the reason it’s been kept until last) and that it may be a bit more challenging to get around. Admittedly I’m bored of wasting hours waiting for drivers to appear but it’s not as if I’ve been walking around on my own much - after all, it’s 45 degrees here and just breathing is harder work. Our partner in Riyadh is SAGIA (Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority) and again we are over-booked and this time not just squeezing in a few extras but making room for observers from the King Saudi University (KSU) and Saudi mentors as well. As in Jeddah, there’s a great demand for these type of opportunities, and by the end participants arrange for future monthly meetups … thanks heaven for skype so that I can join in as well.

The last day is a well earned day off and I spend it with Noor Khuraidah from British Council Riyadh and Lamia AlSudairi visiting independent retailers in the Kingdom Mall, trimmings suppliers and tailor shops in Imam Turki Road, and then in Diera - the highlight of the day – visiting the melee that is Souk al Haraj. Amongst the second hand dresses and piles of old air conditioning units we hunt out design bargains. Lamia furnished much of her studio from this souk and both Noor and Lamia are buying chandeliers, architects drawing shapes and I’m reminding myself of the weight limit and sticking to a few small purchases and a wealth of photographs.

Sarah Thelwall's StartUp to Success workshops in Saudi Arabia (Dammam/Al-Khobar, Riyadh, Jeddah - May 2012)

I leave KSA with a sense that there’s a great deal of potential for the creative entrepreneurs here and that the recent changes will continue to improve the prospects and growth of the market. Whilst there are certainly differences in the way that businesses and markets operate here vs. the UK, there are also considerable similarities and there’s plenty of space and need for a two-way dialogue for these issues and lessons to be shared and discussed.'

Sarah Thelwall (MyCake.org) ran her Start Up to Success workshops in Dammam/Khobar, Jeddah and Riyadh in May 2012. The programme - which has successfully been running in the UK, the Middle East and Central Asia for the 3 past years - helps creative entrepreneurs transform their ideas into sustainable businesses. Each course is an interactive 3 day-programme that looks at all the basics of business development: strategy and values, relationships and pricing models, financial and marketing planning, management and monitoring. Click on the video below to find more about the workshops.

Sarah Thelwall's StartUp to Success workshops in Saudi Arabia (Dammam/Al-Khobar, Riyadh, Jeddah - May 2012)