How Mohammed Ashi became the creative force for Saudi fashion

The designer has recently unveiled his latest couture collection in Paris and is about to open a new boutique in Riyadh Mall

Fresh from a show in Paris, Ashi Studio, the fashion house by Saudi designer Mohammed Ashi, has big plans ahead.

Having recently unveiled his third collection on the sidelines of Paris Haute Couture Week, the designer is now set to open a new flagship boutique in Riyadh Mall.

Ashi honed his craft working with Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy and then as creative director at Elie Saab, before founding his label in Beirut in 2007. Now, after 15 years at the helm of his own maison, he is doubling down on his reputation for creating intricate work with a modern twist.

As Saudi Arabia's most famous designer, Ashi was chosen in 2021 as the big draw name for the Saudi100 initiative, a project by the Saudi Arabian Fashion Commission to support the kingdom's fledgling fashion industry, with Burak Cakmak, chief executive of the commission describing him as “a leader of Saudi fashion" and a "creative force."

Now, it seems Ashi sky's-the-limit thinking has also shaped his latest offering. Called “Moonlight and Dust,” it is filled with looks with evocative celestial names such as Aurora, Centauri, Starnet and Moondust, in tones of nude, buttermilk, silver, and black.

Ashi likes to shake up traditional handwork and take it to new, dazzling surfaces — such as shredded mohair, crystal applique and translucent beaded nets.

There is a shrouded look that shifts from gossamer organza to heavy silver paillettes, while another dress is formed from a cloud of ecru taffeta, puffed into majestic sleeves. Another dress has sheer tulle, with shoulders, sleeves and torso encrusted in glistening black beads, which he described as being like ‘lava’, while the Shredded Earth Dress, with its melancholic name, is a cascade of ripped and torn mohair and organza.

Clearly, the rawest elements of the natural world were the catalyst for the collection.

“I always find nature the most simple but beautiful thing, so I get inspired very easily by it," Ashi tells The National. "Trying to transcribe natural elements with craftsmanship is the most fascinating process to me.”

While not yet chosen to be part of the official Haute Couture schedule — which has conditions that are set and strictly policed by the Federation de la Haute Couture et de la Mode — Ashi has been showing on the sidelines for the past 18 months. The experience still remains fresh for him, he says.

"It has been three seasons now that we have showed in Paris, but I’m still not used to it. Being able to present around so much fashion history is always an honour. In my opinion, it’s the best setting to present all the know-how and craftsmen of our atelier."

There are several Lebanese designers who are already members of Haute Couture: Elie Saab, Maison Rabih Kayrouz, Zuhair Murad and Georges Hobeika.

Meanwhile, other labels and designers, including Lebanese house Azzi & Osta, and Syrian designer Rami Al Ali, like Ashi, show on the sidelines, hosting their own independent events.

As the sole name from Saudi Arabia taking part in such events, Ashi is proud to be a pioneer.

“There are more and more designers from Middle East coming to Paris every season, but being the only one from Saudi, I’m very happy to represent my cultural heritage. Saudi has a unique history and heritage, and being the one to tell it to world is a compelling feeling," he says.

His spring couture collection is filled with extraordinary details that are rich and complex. The Moontooth corseted top, for example, is covered in hand-applied crushed pearls and crystals, while trousers are made from shimmering strands of horizontal beads, both tender and daring.

However Ashi exceeded even his own high bar with one particular dress — a fitted sheath with a dappled surface, made from a very unlikely material.

“This season, we have worked a lot on the embroidery," he explains. "In particular, a dress fully embroidered in marble, which required hundreds of hours of work. I’m very proud of my in-house atelier.”

Made from lozenges of marble interspaced with crystals, it is a masterpiece by anyone’s definition. Yet, such work tests even the most skilled hands, such is the level of expertise demanded by couture, for which certain techniques or finishes can only be done by dedicated workshops.

“Making couture always requires specialist ateliers for at least some part of the looks. I’m able to produce my own volumes and plisse [treated fabric that has a crinkled effect], for example, while exclusive fabric developments or corsetterie work is done with outside ateliers to ensure the best know-how.”

The technical ability that underpins the house has won Ashi many famous admirers, from Queen Rania of Jordan, to Beyonce, Ciara and Cardi B, and Indian actresses such as Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Deepika Padukone.

Beyond the red carpet, of course, couture houses exist to dress wealthy women with busy schedules involving charity events, patronages and grand occasions. Dressing these women is no easy task, and it is the couturier's job to ensure every need is addressed long before it even arises.

“Every country has a different expectation with buying couture, but even so, every client is different," says Ashi. Yet, part of the mystique of couture is the veil of secrecy that surrounds it. After all, those prepared to pay tens of thousands of Euros will expect absolute discretion in return.

Such is the bond between Ashi and his clientele that he refuses to lift that curtain even slightly. When asked if there are differing demands from clients from different countries, his reply is elegant but final.

“Every woman who comes to buy couture is a new relationship that I wouldn't wish to simplify," he says.

Updated: February 15, 2023, 4:03 AM