Traditional Emirati dress gets a creative revamp in golden jubilee competition

The garments are being exhibited at Hotel Indigo in Dubai until December 15

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The traditional Emirati thawb has been given a contemporary makeover in the deft hands of five emerging fashion designers, as part of a competition and exhibition held in homage to the UAE’s golden jubilee celebrations. The shortlisted designs are on display at Hotel Indigo Dubai Downtown until December 15.

Zay – The Art of UAE Dress was announced in August as a collaboration between the boutique art hotel and The Zay initiative, a non-profit organisation that celebrates the preservation of Arab heritage through the documentation and conservation of traditional costumes.

The thawb is a loose overgarment worn by women in the UAE and around the Arabian Peninsula. The five shortlisted entries incorporate a multitude of local elements in the form of Al Sadu fabric borders, Telli embroidery necklines and lantern-shaped sleeves.

Until the 1960s, thawbs were made from gauze cotton. By the 1980s, they were created from satin and chiffon silk. Today, women wear the thawb for weddings and other ceremonial occasions. They can be either bright and embellished, or all-black.

“Traditional dress is far from static,” says Dr Reem Tariq El Mutwalli, founder and chief executive of The Zay Initiative. "It is the result of centuries, weaving together foreign influences and adapting them to local norms to embody timeless societies. Through the competition, we wanted to stimulate participants’ creativity as they innovate to sustain the legacy."

Mutwalli was part of the jury alongside Patricia Millns, Fellow of The Royal Society of Arts; Feryal Al Bastaki, founder and designer of Feryal Albastaki Fashion Design; and Astrid Lesuisse, art manager at Hotel Indigo Dubai Downtown.

The participants spent hours reading and researching several aspects of the garment as well as cultural metaphors to incorporate into their designs. For Pavwan Ahmad Malik, 22, a fourth-year fashion design student at Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation, inspiration lay in the UAE’s multicultural flavour. “I wanted to highlight the unity and diversity of people living here. My thawb is a tribute to Emirati hospitality and to the different cultures that co-exist here,” says Malik.

Accordingly, she stitched a variety of locally sourced fabrics for her patchwork thawb along with hand-painted cloth from Africa, embroidery sequins from India, Chinese silk, Emirati Al Sadu textile and brocade from her mother’s wedding ensemble.

Marwa BenSlil, 23, another shortlisted participant from Libya, and a student of fashion design at American University in the Emirates, has woven together motifs resembling petals of the desert rose, with the garment’s sleeves styled in the shape of traditional lanterns.

“This was a perfect opportunity for me to showcase the blending of modernity and heritage. I believe no matter how much we evolve, we still need to preserve our culture. I took cues from both the art-inspired hotel interiors as well as from the way the UAE has held on to the past [while still being part of] the present and future,” says BenSlil. It took her 12 days to stitch the outfit, which is largely made of black satin, with laser-cut fabric petals in hues of green, orange and blue added on either side.

Shaikha Al Gaithi, 43, the only Emirati among the five finalists, has laced together a range of adornments to create an orange and fuchsia-toned thawb and kandura. “The vibrant colours represent sunshine and happiness, symbolising the 50 glorious years of our nation. Everything is handmade, even the colours are from natural dyes drawn out of pomegranate and turmeric. On the sleeves is golden Telli embroidery, a very intricate craft, intrinsic to the region. I have also attached sequins, coin embellishments and pearls as a homage to the pearl driving culture of the UAE,” she says.

For some designers, being part of the competition was a way to show gratitude to a country they call home.

Hala Louca Bunni, 55, a Lebanese-Iraqi designer, says she wanted to shower goodwill and blessings on the Emirates celebrating its milestone year. “Golden stars on my ensemble represent the golden jubilee year of the country. I have also embroidered the national anthem Ishy Bilady, attached the colours of the national flag on the borders, and stitched dried painted date seeds on the shehla. I have named the outfit the Fifty Golden Stars in Zayed Al Khair’s Eyes, as a tribute to the Father of the Nation, Sheikh Zayed,” she explains.

Creating the thawbs gave some of the participants hands-on experience in putting together a dress from scratch. Sauda Akhlad, 20, the youngest among the participants, also a student at American University in the Emirates, is thrilled to see her sketch come alive. “I got a great platform to hone my design sensibilities. It taught me to embrace new techniques and ideas,” says the Indian-origin student.

“We received many interesting entries, which were selected for being out of the box and embodying originality and modernity,” says Lesuisse. "Through this competition [and exhibition], we also wanted to connect with the community allowing them to explore the allure of the UAE’s culture."

The winning design, as well as a Public Choice Award, will be announced on November 28.

Updated: November 18, 2021, 8:35 AM