High-end fashion retailers in AlUla are there to tell Saudi Arabia's story

Saudi entrepreneur Rae Joseph, who's behind new store Tafoni, is on a mission to showcase the kingdom's culture through luxury garments and accessories

The new Tafoni pop-up store in AlUla celebrates Saudi fashion
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AlUla is known for its deep-rooted ancient history as a centuries-old trade route, so perhaps it's no wonder that in modern days the Saudi oasis has hosted some of the world's biggest luxury fashion brands.

Last January, celebrities and industry professionals descended on the area from across the world for Dolce & Gabbana's stunning show, which brought together horses and models on the runway in Jabal Ikmah.

At the moment, Ashar Valley Fashion precinct in AlUla is hosting a series of luxury retail pop-ups as part of the year-round events calendar under AlUla Moments, showcasing luxury brands such as Samer Halimeh, Assouline, L’Opera, Michael Cinco, Azza Fahmy and Vianney Halter.

Harvey Nichols and other fashion retailers are also part of AlUla Season, as is Tafoni, a new store in AlJadidah, the artistic district in the ancient city of Saudi Arabia, which brings local designers together under one, currently temporary roof.

The word tafoni refers to the small, rounded, smooth-edged openings in a rock's surface, found in arid or semi-arid deserts such as AlUla and so the name of the store aims to reflect the geological significance and rich history of the area.

Curated by Rae Joseph, a Saudi fashion entrepreneur, creative consultant and curator, the multi-brand shop offers a retail experience that is focused on celebrating the kingdom's fashion and design scene. The old library building in AlUla was restored and redesigned for the pop-up's launch. It will then move to Design Gallery, on the Incense Road of AlJadidah, until a permanent store location is decided.

The new Tafoni store in AlUla celebrates Saudi fashion. Photo: Royal Commission for AlUla

The project came about organically for Joseph when the Royal Commission for AlUla team contacted her. "They had been following my work in the industry and are familiar with my past projects," she tells The National.

"The kingdom is creating a path for Saudi talent to be the next changemakers in the fashion industry, in the region and globally."

Joseph is keen to rewrite the stereotypical narrative of her home country and depict the relevance of history, as well as the importance of relatability, within fashion and retail, "especially as it relates to our culture", she says. She believes "fashion and storytelling are an inseparable combination that recently got sabotaged with the rise of fast fashion".

The pop-up store is now host to 14 local designers showcasing ready-to-wear fashion, accessories, fine jewellery, beauty and home decor.

Some of the brands available there until February 18 include Qormuz, a Saudi unisex fashion house; Abadia, an ethical luxury brand for contemporary womenswear; Noora Hifzi, a womenswear luxury label; Mashael Al Torath, for abayas; and more.

"This has never been done in the kingdom before, especially in AlUla, so we had no baseline to reference to," she says. "What has never been done are immersive retail experiences that are centred on storytelling. We have many concept stores in the kingdom but none that are in this format. Experiential retail is a fairly new concept, even on a global level."

Rae Joseph, a Saudi fashion entrepreneur and curator of Tafoni, a concept store in AlUla.

The reaction from the public has "exceeded all of our expectations and has been overwhelmingly positive", she adds. "We spoke to people and they felt culturally seen and connected through this store."

The first pop-up's theme is Once upon an Azeema, taking inspiration from the nostalgic 1980s, all the way up to 2000 in Saudi Arabia, where the tradition of Azeema would involve people dressing up to meet relatives or extended family on weekends.

She chose a "story" all Saudis would know. "One that is filled with beauty, and that is true to the essence of who we are as Saudi people."

For locals, the retail experience will tap into their nostalgic memories and fashion references. For non-local shoppers, it will allow them to learn about Saudi culture — "how we celebrate, dress and how we express ourselves" through fashion and retail.

The retailers — local brands with a "high-end" focus — were carefully selected to "feed the story we are telling and also offer a diverse and enjoyable retail experience for our shoppers", she says, adding that pieces on sale are from the latest collections but have been selected according to what you would typically see in an Azeema.

The new Tafoni store in AlUla celebrates Saudi fashion

"This recipe has proven to be very successful as the store has gained massive popularity among AlUla natives and tourists alike," she says.

Standards of Saudi design rival that of the most established names in the industry as far as creativity and quality are concerned, she adds.

When Tafoni opens its permanent location, Joseph plans to showcase a variety of carefully curated products from various local and regional high-end designers.

She then hopes to take this concept on tour around the world "and share this beautiful part of our culture with different audiences using fashion and retail as our medium".

"I am genuinely grateful to the RCU for this amazing experience and for their trust in my vision and the creative freedom they offered for me to bring it to life."

Updated: February 08, 2023, 4:04 PM