THE STORY OF SAUDI ARABIAN PRINCESS AND EDITOR DEENA ALJUHANI ABDULAZIZ
Her Highness Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz has loved fashion since birth. If you ask her about her childhood, she talks about discovering her first magazine at six—a moment of“catharsis”—and the inspired, self-dictated study of global fashion bibles, down to the credits, that came after. Polly Mellen, Slim Aarons, Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele—these were her references and the back bone of her world. Now, of course, Abdulaziz hasforged her own unconventional path in the industry. She founded her store DNA in Riyadhin 2006 after having three children, with no previous experience but a strong vision on hand.
There, she introduced then new and emerging designers to the international and Arab market. Mary Katrantzou, Rosie Assoulin and Prabal Gurung were just a few. She wasn’t afraid to bring in something noone had heard of before or to pick up a particular lyavant-gardepiece—she knew her customers and understood their taste and sense of aesthetic adventure with a confidence that outsiders looking in on the Middle Eastern market often did not. With her role as the first Editor-in-Chief of Vogue Arabia, Abdulaziz helped change the international dialogue of what fashion means in regards to Arab women. She refused to compromise on the nuanced representation of the women of her region. It was a short-lived role but a meaningful one. Material called Abdulaziz to speak in depth, for first time since leaving Vogue Arabia, about her experiences in the industry, the meaning of this role and what needs to change going forward.
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When did you first develop an interest in and a love for fashion?
Ever since I can remember. Honestly. I want to say ever since I can remember I’ve always had—I didn’t know it was called fashion, I didn’t know what it was but I was always attracted to beau-tiful things. What helped was that I was raised by a mother who is extremely chic. I considered her to be my first muse. A further understanding happened when I was six years old and saw my first fashion magazine. The minute that happened it was like a catharsis. It was like, oh my goodness! There’s something like this that exists and I want to know it. It’s something that I think is innate. It’s always been there.
An immediate love and then you grew to understand—
Absolutely. When I got older, whether it was Seventeen magazine or American Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar, I would devour these magazines. I would not only read them but also look at every little thing including the credits of the issue. So I studied them, without realising that I was. I think fashion is my true calling. But I never really thought I would be working in it.
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Tell me about your professional history and how you began.
I thought I was going to be a multitude of things. I absolutely had no concept of what I was going to do. Some people have a clear vision of what they want to do in high school. I didn’t know. A part of me wanted to be a lawyer. When I was younger I thought I wanted to be anarcheologist because I was so fascinated with digging and discovering artefacts and ancient things. And this is pre-internet days. Fashion schools weren’t necessarily available or looked upon as a way to a profession. I thought I would grow up and be someone’s muse! I thought that that was a profession. Because at the time, designers would have muses—muses of the house. And that was almost a job. Now, it’s ridiculous to think it. There are only one or two people who fit that job. When you think of Lady Amanda Harlech, she is a muse to Karl Lagerfeld. But at the time, when I was growing up and reading all about fashion history and old houses, I just thought it was the most divine thing to be. And then, of course, I graduated to wanting to be a stylist because I was so enamoured with beautiful imagery and the process of creating that beautiful imagery—whether it was a Polly Mellen or Grace Coddington or Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele. I was fascinated by the whole process. But it was the aspect of the image making that really inspired me.
What happened next?
I graduated with a degree in translation. It was just something to do until I found another thing. When I graduated, the same year I met my husband and we got engaged and we wanted to get married, I could have easily continued studying, but I didn’t want to. My head was somewhere else. Obviously, my fashion head was always there. But in terms of what I wanted to do—we wanted to start a life and we were in a fantastic place to do so emotionally and financially and we started a family. After having three kids, at one point, when they got a little older, I really started to feel the itch. And the itch was to do something. And to do something that could let me pour out everything that’s inside my head. And this was pre-Instagramdays! Had Instagram existed then, I probably would have wanted to be an Instagram influencer or something [laughs].
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You know when you just feel that you have so much inside you that you want to share and you don’t know how?I was very happy to be a wife and very happy to be a mother, but it wasn’t enough. I wanted to do something more. That led me to wanting to intern. For some reason, I was rejected. They felt that I was “overqualified”! Whatever that means. At that point, I got so frustrated that my dad of all people sat me down and said,“Why don’t you just do it? Do it yourself.” I said, “I don’t know how.” And he said, “If you really believe in this, you should just do it.” And that is exactly what I did. Here I am with no business plan what so ever, no prior experience, but a full, full hunger and desire to not only do right but also be a great success. And not only be a great success but also do something inspiring. And that is what happened. I was always very inspired by strong women in the retail world. When you think about Colette Roussaux of Colette and Sarah Andelman, her daughter, or Joan Weinstein from Ultimo in Chicago, Joan Burstein of Browns in London, Carla Sozzani of 10 Corso Como—all of these stores were run by women and all of these stores had a very strong point of view. It was women and not men that did these store—they had something to say. When I opened the store it was really my excuse to be a stylist because the job didn’t exist where I lived!
You found your own way to do it.
Exactly. It wasn’t really the retail aspect that mattered to me. I know that’s not necessarily the greatest business plan. But it worked. It worked very, very well. Not only did it have a point of view, I personally could defend every single piece that I was selling. It really meant a lot to me. I would never buy something just because it would sell. It wasn’t that I was educating the customer. I had a customer base that was wonderful. They were jet setters. They know everything. It was more about bringing it home. Not only did you shop in London or Paris or NewYork but you could find a beautiful selection in your hometown. And that didn’t really exist then. That edit, that idea, that whole concept that you find abundantly in the West just didn’t exist at that time.
I was going to ask you: what was missing in the market? A lot of mono-brand stores and department stores mostly. Even in the United States, the idea of the multi-brand store or specialty bou-tique was not as abundant as it later became. The closest thing to it was Barneys. You would go there and it would inspire you. At the end of the day, I think that’s what fashion is really about. It’s not about clothing. We might not need more clothing or shoes or more accessories. I think it’s really the desire. Wanting to have that. It’s not something that you need. It’s something you want.
Telling a story. Expressing an identity. Finding a way to connect.
Yes. And it’s interesting because nowadays, you would think that would be even more, I find that every thing has been diluted. It’s not really a dream. It’s just more clothes. More stuff. I grew up in a time where even the Zaras or the Mangos of the world didn’t exist. H&M was just a few stores in Europe and Topshop was only one store. Back in my day, if you wanted to look like you came out of the pages of Vogue, you really had to improvise with what ever money you had. There used to be a store called Contempo Casuals in the local mall that I would go to or to The Limited or to Express or to Gap and try, somehow, to get a poor man’s version of Calvin Klein. But it was a lot more fun!
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It was about your personal style.
You had to put in a lot more effort. You had to really think it through. The originality of it was a lot clearer. And now,you would think everyone would be chic because everything is so readily available…it maybe the opposite.
Tell me about the identity of the store. You brought in so many new designers.
That didn’t happen by desire, it happened by coincidence. Because I came in in a community or a country where most of the big brands have already been well established for years and years, most of those big brands had partner-ships. Even if I had wanted to there would be no point. The city where I live—the absorption rate for luxury is not so large. I started thinking, what can I offer? What I wanted to do was introduce younger, newer, more unique designers. Remember: there was a preconceived idea where I lived that any designer outside of I talyor France was not up to par. Meaning they felt that, with the ex-ception of a few brands like Oscar de la Renta, they didn’t feel like they could compete. We’retalking about a society that is very well attuned to luxury. They’ve been buying it for a long time and they’ve been exposed to the best. It’s very difficult to lure them and say, why don’t you give this a chance?One of the things that’s very interesting about where I live is that it’s not really the hype that gets them to buy something, although that could be part of it if they like it enough, it’s just because they fell in love with the piece. Nothing is put into a box. In New York City, there are some designers that customers would shy away from because they think, oh, this is too avant-garde for me. Let’s say a Margiela. Where I live, people don’t see it that way. If they like some-thing, they’re going to go for it. And I love that boldness. That’s why it was really fun to buy for the store. Not only was I able to make these designers super ecstatic because I was buying pieces almost noone else was buying from the collection—I wouldn’t make safe choices—but also it just so happened that they would sell very well. It was the perfect equation.
It was your community. You were buying for your friends and the people around you.
I would sell to my friends and society. It was really easy and some times I had the customer in mind even with a particular piece. I ran the store—it became two stores for—ten years. I’m very happy that it ended when it did. The com-petitor was no longer another store, it was online commerce. The minute you become a plan B, then you know it’s time to say maybe… I would rather leave with a bang than try to compromise.
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I want to talk about Vogue Arabia. It was the first representation of the whole region in Vogue. What was important in terms of this representation?
It was super important. It was very important. There as on it was very important was because it was very symbolic. It wasn’t the fact that there was another print magazine coming out. Let’s be honest, print is not what it used to be in terms of relevance or importance. But what mattered to me was what it meant, what it signified. Growing up without a Vogue representing me, representing my region, did not escape my mind when I took the job. That was actually one of the biggest reasons I took the job. It was because it was so important to be able to give Arab women a voice and an image that reflects them. The media has so many ideas, so many preconceived ideas of what Arab women are, both from a fashion perspective and from an artistic perspective. It was really important to me to be able to engage West and East and to create a dialogue to show what Arab women are like. I remember in 2003, it was my first interview with New York Magazine. I was called off the street. I remember this thing came out, and it was two pages, and a lot of people were like, you’re an Arab woman? Really? I was like, what?You expected that I’d have two heads?I think that people were really taken aback. They just didn’t know. I don’t blame them. It was really incredible—just by being interviewed and represented, showing the Western world that there is more to us than they know. That’s really what I was trying to do.
Do you think that there are places right now that are providing a nuanced and full representation of Arab women?
I think they try. In general, there are always attempts. I think part of the reason there was such a disconnect is that there are two types of publications in the Arab world. There are the equivalent of the People, Hellomagazines, with some fashion thrown in for good measure, kind of like an InStyle. Not the most sophisticated but they are very popular and written in Arabic. Then, on the other hand, you have the syndications, the Bazaar, L’Officiel, Marie Claire. The problem there is that most of the time, if not all of the time, the editors that run them and the team that they consist of are not Arab. So,it becomes something that the Arab woman feels is not truly speaking to her. Some of these women are very educated, well-travelled, very wealthy. These women are already looking at the original magazines, meaning the original Bazaar. They don’t really need the Arabic version. They don’t really feel that the Arabic version is giving them something that they may not necessarily already know about. But to be fair, I think around the time I came on board every body kind of stepped their game up a little. It really made me happy. I wasn’t trying to compete. I was trying to elevate the conversation. I don’t really know where it is now. I don’t really follow these things anymore. I find almost everything on my Instagram.
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What are your thoughts on the current state of the industry?
So many things are changing. The entire industry is going through a very interesting cycle and I’m very interested to see what the end result is going to be. It’s not just changed. I don’t think that anything that has applied in the past is going to be valid. I think the entire structure is going to be completely different. I really need to be honest with you. I don’t think anyone really knows. I’m speaking on every level. On an executive level. On a retail level. On print level. On press level. Just look at New York Fashion Week. Is it becoming extinct?It used to be that New York was so exciting. It just had an energy. It’s really insane. Even if somebody wants to be a designer in this day and age, it’s not the same world it was ten or 15 years ago. You have two kinds of fashion right now: either very high end that depends on the money coming from other sales like perfume or accessories, or merch, and that’s a whole other beast. In between, you really have nothing anymore. I think people who have really good taste are quite happy with the clothes they’ve acquired over the years. Retail spaces are no longer there. Even with the internet, you would have thought, oh, it’s online, that’s the key, that’s the answer. I don’t know. When I started shopping online after closing the store and starting the Vogue job, judging from my days as a retailer and knowing what showrooms have, I was quite taken aback and disillusioned by what they had to offer. It’s almost going back to department stores all over again. It’s just the safe choice. And I’m surprised that there’s no website to this day—I would have done this if I wasn’t so done with everything else—but I would have wanted to create a website that mimics the concept of what my store was doing. Imagine if you had a website that wasn’t high volume and never will be. It’s not going to be the biggest money maker but it would almost be like Moda Operandi when it started… Imagine the 10 Corso Comoor the Colette or the DNA and that is a website that caters only to people who want something quite special. I feel that the world has room for that.
What are your thoughts on diversity in the industry right now? Is there a real discussion being had? Is there any change?
Not as much as when I was growing up. When I was growing up, even looking at the pages of Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar. I didn’t really know much then. I was so sheltered growing up. When I went anywhere, people would just call me exotic. I never understood. I was raised among wonderful people and beautiful things and I was never treated any differently. When I was growing up, they had a wonderful selection of models of all kinds of every colour of the rainbow. It wasn’t just a black model or a white model. It was every other shade. What was so remarkable about it was that it didn’t seem like it was done to say, “Oh, we have to include this model or that model.” Not at all. Honestly, I felt that it was just about beauty in every shape and form. If you were to look at magazines in the 90s, it was really, really inspiring. I find it to be a shame that this is now a dialogue. That people have to talk about it. Because it means that everyone went backwards somehow. I think that ended with the supermodel era. Once Kate Moss and the waifs camein. It was only in the early 2000s with certain designers deciding that they no longer wanted their models to have personality. It was later on when it became the true uniform idea. Models then had personality, whether awai for a bombshell. You instinctively knew the model’s name, you knew what she was about, you kind of knew about her. Then, it shifted. Every season you barely remember the names that you knew these as on before. Now there’s the whole Insta-famous. That’s another weird thing. That’s one of the few things that I don’t like about Instagram—that now they follow models based on their following. Still, in the current climate, never have I seen embracing of different cultures and different religions as I have now—and that’s incredible. If this was four or five years ago, I don’t think someone like Halima Adenwould have ever made it.
Somebody asked me if I consider myself a feminist, and not only did I say that I was—I’m not only a feminist, I’m greedier than a feminist. I want my cake and to eat it too. The origin of Islam as a religion is quite cool in that way. Our prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was married at 25 to a 45-year-old woman who had a big business. She was richer than he was. He re-married only after she died. There as on why I’m a feminist and more is that I’m half old-fashioned in a Jane Austen way but I’m also very Gloria Steinem. I expect a man to open the door for me. I expect a man, if I’m married to him, to absolutely take care of me, financially and in every other aspect. Yet, I still want my independence. I still want to be able to have my own income and to be able to spend it how I choose. And believe it or not, I slam, not how it started but where we are now, in Islam a man has no right to ask his wife for any of her money. When he marries her, he has to take care of the family. I love that. This idea of going on a date and going Dutch—noway! Just because you’re letting him pay for it does not mean that he gets more rights. I want both for you. So yes, I’m ultra-feminist.
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What do you think is next for women in fashion?
I can’t specify when or I can’t specify how but during my work in fashion I never thought for a minute or expected that I would be treated with sexism as I was unfortunately and, unfortunately in the industry—and the industry is supposedly liberal ands upposedly very open minded and Western—I got it mostly from non-Arabs. And that’s very important to point out.
You would think it would be an industry for women and about women and largely by women but it’s not.
You need to add something to the equation: the fact that I was an Arab woman. And the fact that I was an Arab woman with a title made it even worse. People would meet me and have a preconceived idea about me, so they would either be patronising or condescending, sometimes both. I have had this happen to me first-hand. And I do not think that this would have happened if I were a man. I would have never thought that it would happen to me. I would have thought that it would happen to me at home. I would have thought that it would happen to me in my region. I would have never thought that it would happen in a place like New York or Paris. It’s devastating. I had been protected all my life. This is way before I became a princess. I’m talking about my own parents and not the title that my husband gave me. I had never been subjected to it in my region. It has to change. We can’t have somebody talk down to us.
What’s next for you?
There are lots of things that are in motion. There are many discussions being held and all I can say is this, my heart is still in fashion. I don’t think that will ever end. I have always been creative and I will continue to be creative. So, I think that I will do something and I will tell you once I do it.
Anything else that you would like to say?
What matters to me most is I’m not just trying to empower Arab women. I want to show-case the power of Arab women. The hidden figures. People you don’t know about because we live in a private society. Women are the backbone of everything. You just don’t know that. You have to dig deeper to see.
Photography BIBI CORNEJO BORTHWICK
Styling JAN-MICHAEL QUAMMIE
Words & Interview ASHLEY SIMPSON
Make-up CHIAO-LI @streeters
Hair YUKIKO TAJIMA
Photographic Assistant EDUARDO SILVA
Styling Assistant JAVON DRAKE
Taken from Material Magazine No 34, “The Trans___ Issue” – get your copy here!