Pretty, uber-feminine dresses may appeal to some, but Dubai-based fashion designer Arwa Al Banawi has her finger on the pulse of a slightly edgier trend.
Streetwear is what savvy millennials are into, which, in turn, is persuading even the most highbrow of fashion houses to incorporate urban influences into their casual offering. But these creations are neither dull nor uninspiring; in many cases, they celebrate feminism, making comfortable and easy-to-wear clothing for women to help them feel confident. Al Banawi, backed by Adidas Originals, the casual sportswear division of Adidas, has just revealed a capsule collection that echoes that vision. P E by Arwa Al Banawi is a limited-edition collection, with only 15 pieces of each design, and will be made available in three separate releases between now and December. The first being available until the end of this week.
The designer presented the collection at an event hosted by Adidas Originals at the Dubai Design District (d3) last week. Track pants with high slits, hooded sweatshirts and relaxed abaya-inspired dresses were crafted from sporty grey knits and neutral cotton-jerseys bearing highlighter-orange accents and military prints, as well as evocative phrases stamped in Arabic and English.
"The name of the collection is P E [physical education], and the inspiration was freshman year in high school," she explains. "From what I remember, no one would take the class seriously; it was like a break. But during that one hour, if teachers pay attention, they'll actually see every student at their truest – the popular kids will be gossiping together, while the artist will be in the corner sketching something. It's when students are experiencing who they really are."
The designer's relationship with Adidas Originals began during the last edition of Fashion Forward Dubai, when the label lent her some shoes for her autumn/winter 2017 presentation – a small-scale collaboration that opened the door for future partnerships. It's not unheard of for a global brand to endorse an emerging designer – Reebok, for example, has partnered with upcoming Dubai-based labels Bedouin and House of Nomad in the past.
Afterwards, Al Banawi approached the brand with a proposal: she felt that her label had formed a strong, contemporary-urban identity that matched that of Adidas Originals, and wanted to explore the potential of working together on a larger scale. "Adidas Originals celebrates individuality, and it's about those kids who are always different and ahead of their time," she says.
Together, the two agreed on a direction for the collection, which Al Banawi was given the freedom to create independently, as long as it embodied the ideals of Adidas EQT, a diffusion line within Adidas Originals. The EQT slogan is: "Everything that's essential. Nothing that's not." This was a theme that Al Banawi was eager to delve into.
The big reveal of the P E collection took place at BYND72, Adidas's creative space located in d3, and represents the first time that Adidas has collaborated with a regional designer on this scale.
For her previous collection, Al Banawai produced T-shirts stamped with phrases like "The suitable woman" and "You say you get me but you don't", which she says is a typical phrase spoken by teenagers to their parents or teachers. In Arabic script, there's the word "daloo'a," which means "sassy," since the designer says it's used to describe girls who don't really work out during P E. "It highlights that strength isn't only physical," she adds. Athleisure-inspired abayas, which are priced at Dh1,200 and are the most expensive pieces in the capsule, target "the local cool girl", explains
Al Banawi. There's also a slouchy grey maxidress with dramatic bell sleeves, which will appeal to customers in the market for modesty-meets-athleisure attire.
Originally from Saudi Arabia, the designer, who previously lived in Jeddah and Switzerland before settling in the UAE, is motivated by female empowerment, and this has continued to shape her design aesthetic, ever since her collection of strong, patterned suits for women debuted in 2015. It also influences her model-selection process. While most designers opt for ordinary agency-represented models for their presentations, Banawi says that it's important to utilise "influencers" – bloggers and socialites with large social-media followings, who mirror the style of her own label. Three Arab women, Fatima Almomen, Leena Al Ghouti and Rania Fawaz, who are proponents of streetwear, were recruited to showcase the collection at the launch event. They were selected because they're breaking stereotypes of the old-fashioned Arab woman, whose wardrobe is typically limited to ordinary abayas and feminine kaftans.
"I'm a brand, and I want to market my label to someone I see fit, so if a model doesn't showcase her life on Instagram, it would be hard for me to see if she fits my brand," explains Al Banawi.
This reflects a larger global trend – the fashion industry's in-demand models of the moment, like Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner, are, first and foremost, social-media It-girls. Bella Hadid and Erin Wasson are the designer's personal favourites, largely because of how they present their personal styles on Snapchat and Instagram. The fact that Wasson barely wears make-up, for instance, makes her all the more appealing to Al Banawi.
"I remember seeing her in Paris in this oversized hoodie, with sneakers and diamond earrings at nine in the morn-in. "When you see how models dress in their natural environment, you can link your brand to them."
And while traditionalists in the industry may object to social-media models, as well as the increasing inclination towards street-inspired casual wear, Al Banawi is intent on shattering traditions.
"We need more women to say what they want," the designer says. "I think I'm one of those, and I want to inspire more girls with me."