One might think, hailing from conservative Saudi Arabia, that Hatem Al Akeel would have chosen a more traditional occupation. Instead, the fashion designer is now racing ahead with his successful clothing line.
At the same time, however, he hasn’t ventured too far from his background. In fact, he is mostly known for designing thobes — the traditional Saudi dress for men — for a living.
“Starting my line was personal. I started designing thobes for myself because I could not find what I liked in the market,” says Al Akeel, who is fully dressed in one of his own designs. “The equivalent of a suit is a thobe — when you are in banking, for example, you have to wear a thobe to work every day,” he adds.
“Since I once worked for a bank, I told myself that I am not wearing the same thing every day. There was no way I was going to do that. So, I decided, why don’t I just change [my thobes] around?” he continues.
And that is exactly the journey he embarked on. Al Akeel handpicked a skilled set of tailors and began to work on his thobes, founding a fashion line that he has called Toby. To his surprise, many men started picking up on the trend.
“That’s when I said to myself that I need to turn it into a business. There was demand for [my designs],” he laughs.
Before he knew it, Al Akeel set up his first boutique in Jeddah, and about a year ago, his second shop opened its doors. In the midst of it all, Dubai Fashion Week asked him to showcase his line, a move that opened doors for Al Akeel to have his wares displayed in locations as diverse as Dubai and Kuwait.
It goes without saying that Al Akeel is not your typical Saudi. His upbringing got him to where he is at present, and he could definitely pass as a minority in the overtly conservative kingdom.
“I went to boarding school in Switzerland. From day one, I was exposed to people from all over the world. It was very enriching. Although it was very difficult to be away from home, I was among people from places like Mombasa and all over the world,” he says.
The whole concept of being exposed to different cultures at such a young age has really taught Al Akeel to become a man of resilience. In fact, the whole message behind his work is to reintroduce the idea of merging two worlds.
“I mean, I am my product. This is pretty much what I do. It’s a global merge. Maybe this is why people like my brand. It is because they see through my brand that this is who I am,” he adds.
Being a marketing graduate from Boston’s Northeastern University, one wonders where he developed a liking for the world of fashion. Having modelled for Ford Modelling Agency in New York and Italian fashion house Armani, among other big names, his love for the world of style sewed itself into a talent which he so carefully nurtured: “From there, I was like, this is what I want to do, I want to be in fashion.”
Al Akeel studied designers carefully. From Armani to McQueen, he analysed their every move.
He adds: “It is a combination of passion and experience. Having spent so much time in the US and being a bit of a global person, it really added a lot of value to my fashion aesthetic and my whole ethos. I am not here to say I am Western. I am very proud of my roots.”
But, it seems thorny toying with his Saudi roots, as the traditional dress parallels the walk and talk of every Saudi man. Is it a tricky gesture by Al Akeel to reinterpret such a heavy cultural symbol?
“Not until I made [Saudi parents] realise that I got their kids to go back to wearing thobes,” he says, adding: “In the beginning, kids would want to wear jeans and a t-shirt, but now they are actually going back to tradition. So what I am doing is, I created a movement of people who want to differentiate themselves, who want to be more unique.”
Al Akeel has one simple plea: “Become your own person. Why should people follow trends when they can create their own?”
In fact, his clothing line’s name, Toby, is derived from an Arabic expression which means ‘I wear my style’: “I am who I am and I am expressing my personality. So it is a way of encouraging people not to conform to society and to be more self-expressive,” he says.
“I have gotten a few question marks on how avant garde my designs used to be, but now that I extended my line to very classic and very conservative, minimalistic and simple…people realised [that I am more] approachable, so now, it is more acceptable [in society],” he explains.
In fact, Al Akeel says that his reinterpreted thobes have become a norm in the kingdom, especially in the demographic of fifteen to 25: “They do not want to go to dinner wearing a regular thobe.”
Despite his customers being mostly from Saudi Arabia, the designer says that his work is starting to attract attention from elsewhere.
“Believe it or not, especially this last Ramadan, I have been getting customers from Paris, the United Kingdom, India, New York, and Michigan, [among other areas],” he says.
His growing customer base over the years has only encouraged him to take his work a step further. Al Akeel has expanded his fashion line to cater to both women and children, both of which are serving him proud.
But with success comes hurdles. Al Akeel’s brainchild is not all fun and games.
“The thing about being a small business, there is always a lot of competition going on, and now you have global brands that want to do what we are doing,” he says. “There was a recent article saying that local thobe designers will have to compete with brands like Armani or Carolina Herrera, who started introducing the thobe into their fashion as well.”
Such issues can be a problem, but Al Akeel reassuringly says that he does not think the thobe market has expanded to the point where he feels threatened.
And, regardless of any potential obstacles, the Saudi designer is certain that he will only climb higher.
“We have four different thobe lines; the trend line, the classic line, the bohemian line and the sports line. And now, we introduced the blue label, which is up-market, optimum in quality fabric… pricing is obviously much higher, and it is a more exclusive collection, very few people get to wear it…” he points out.
“I am luxury. I am not mass. When people come to my boutique, they expect a certain standard. Considering the quality and craftsmanship, my brand is not that expensive,” he adds.
Having been in the market for the past five years, Al Akeel is able to spare some advice for entrepreneurs who are seeking to follow in his footsteps.
“You do not have to be a doctor or a lawyer to succeed. All you have to do is hold a talent. If you nurture your talent, you can really succeed at it,” he says, adding: “I hope to be that person who can show Saudi culture how to find the time to nurture their talents. They are actually really struggling at this moment because a lot of people do not have the tools and do not have the education to further their career.”
Al Akeel is clearly not a corporate person. Instead, he leans heavily towards the creative side. But, once he found his world, he excelled. It is no wonder he is referred to as the Tom Ford of the Middle East.
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