"We are dreaming so much bigger than we ever did before. And it is contagious and slightly euphoric," Princess Nourah bint Mohammed Al Faisal tells me.
Her enthusiasm is evident throughout our conversation – she’s visibly excited about the changes unfolding in Saudi Arabia and optimistic about what they mean for the country’s design community.
Having lived in the UK for many years before launching her jewellery brand, Nuun, in Paris, Princess Nourah is accustomed to having "to explain Saudi".
“I don’t blame people for being interested and wanting to understand,” she says. “But there was this feeling of always having to explain, which is much less now, I am happy to say, but still exists.
“People have their views and people have their opinions, but I really am filled with optimism in terms of how that is being addressed through things like art and design. Because it is not a matter of trying to explain any more. What we are saying is: this is who we are, this is what we do, and we’d love to have you come and see.”
She is a firm believer in the power of art, design and fashion as tools of diplomacy. “In my humble opinion, the best kind of diplomacy is having this cultural dialogue. You can’t fear someone that you know and understand. If I am holding an object, sitting on a chair, looking at a piece of art or wearing an outfit from a particular culture, then already I am connecting with that culture in some way.
“I am not a politician, but I believe that at the base of any kind of attempt to communicate, there has to be that element of human connection. And the easiest, simplest, most direct form of that is through design and art – through film, through fashion, through entertainment or even through books.”
Promoting Saudi culture
In addition to running her own jewellery business and founding Adhlal, a platform aimed at unifying and supporting Saudi’s design industry, Princess Nourah is serving as a consultant for The Saudi Cup, the world’s richest horse race, and exploring how high-profile events such as these can be used as a platform to share and promote Saudi culture.
“The Saudi Cup isn’t solely a cultural event. It is a horse-racing event, and a very important horse-racing event. All we are looking to do is add another layer on top of that. It’s a fantastic opportunity, first of all, for tourism, once Covid is no longer an issue. It’s an opportunity for people to come and experience something,” she explains.
“I think for me, the idea, moving forward, is when tourists or participants come to the event, they are really part of an immersive, holistic experience. Whether it’s the food or the way people are dressing or music or art.
“People tend to think of Saudi as this one-dimensional place – white robes, petrol, these are the things that go through people’s minds. The reality is, Saudi is massive and there are so many different regions and so many different elements. We were a tribal society and each tribe has, in terms of clothing for example, its own unique way of dressing, its unique patterns of embroidery, its unique forms of expression. I’m not sure even we as a people appreciate how important that variety is; and how important it is to pay homage and respect how amazingly rich this country is.”
For a start, she says, everybody should visit Al Ula. “I know everybody bangs on about it, but there is nowhere on Earth like it, except maybe the middle of the ocean. You really don’t understand how insignificant you are until you are standing there and you see how magnificent the terrain is. It puts you in your place, in a very good way.”
As Saudi begins to open itself up to the outside world, fashion and design, in particular, have an important role to play in helping counter long-held misconceptions. Working at a grassroots level, Princess Nourah is committed to supporting and facilitating Saudi’s young designers.
“I’m blown away every day by how much potential there is here,” she says. “A lot of designers are self-taught, and a lot are people who just love design in all its forms. Because of the changes in the last two years, there’s so much opportunity to expand, so you have interior designers who are suddenly set designers or lighting designers; you have fashion designers who are now costume designers. There’s all of this intermingling happening, which is very exciting.”
The government is doing much to facilitate the design industry – from changes in legislation and the support of start-ups, to creating dedicated commissions for fashion, architecture, design and even copyrighting issues. But Princess Nourah believes it is also the responsibility of the design community to instigate and drive change.
“And there’s a lot of people in the community who are doing exactly that. I also think the whole world has understood, if they didn’t understand before, through Covid, that you really need to have your manufacturing locally. You really have to be able to source your materials locally and support the industry within your own borders.
“We also have this really strong movement here in Saudi towards sustainability. A lot of the young designers are very interested in that. So this idea is really starting to blossom, that you need as a designer to take into account your local supply chain, local materials and also, which I love, how to address local issues in terms of your design thinking.”
This is occurring alongside fundamental shifts in the way that fashion is being consumed in the kingdom. The focus is increasingly inward-looking, as people make a point of seeking out and supporting home-grown brands.
“There’s this sense that people are actively looking for local design. They are actively looking to support young designers, they are actively searching and seeking and promoting, as clients. Years ago, if you supported local designers, it was almost like a charitable thing, especially around Ramadan, but now clients are demanding quality and designers are starting to step up.”
She cites increasingly familiar names such as Mohammed Ashi, founder of Ashi Studio, and Arwa Al Banawi as examples of designers who are taking things one step further and making a name for themselves on an international scale. “I think we have a unique point of view that really hasn’t been seen on the international stage,” she says. “I think we have something to add to the conversation. We have something that is evolving.”
But here, too, there are misconceptions to address. Princess Nourah is used to people responding to her own jewellery creations with surprise. “All the time, when people talk about my jewellery, they say: ‘But it doesn’t look Saudi.’
“A lot of times, and I’m not sure why, people don’t associate modern with Saudi,” she says. “But geometry is a huge thing – all you have to do is come to the city of Riyadh and see the buildings and the architecture. There’s a lot of minimalism, straight lines, geometric shapes, even in our old mud houses, and I am really drawn to that.
“Minimalism, I think, is extremely Saudi. If you go back in history, I can’t think of anyone who was more minimalist than a Bedouin. Everything had to be simple and efficient, and there could be no embellishment. And I kind of take that ethos with me. If I’m doing something, I will always take a step back and look at it and ask, what’s unnecessary?”
Princess Nourah’s own love of jewellery was inherited from her mother, a woman who, she says, would definitely have been a designer if she had “been born in a different time or different place”.
“I didn’t study jewellery design, I apprenticed, but I always had an eye, and my niece is the same. I think it’s just hereditary. I’m not sure you can learn that. And my mother is my harshest critic. But she is absolutely always honest. And I appreciate that quality more than anything.”
Her first foray into jewellery design came when she redesigned a pair of her mother’s earrings and realised that she might have “a feel for the stone”.
She was studying interior design at the time, but began training as an apprentice with the craftsmen in Paris’s hallowed Place Vendome. She started out designing pieces for friends and family, before launching her own brand in 2014. A palindrome, Nuun is a mirror of “Nu”, the princess’s nickname.
She set up her business in Paris so she could compete internationally, at the encouragement of her father. “My father, god rest his soul, was very much a supporter and said to me: ‘Why are you not going to compete internationally? You studied in France, you did your apprenticeship in France, you should go and compete in France. It’s the heart of the jewellery world.’ In a way, I’m grateful I did that because there were a lot of hard lessons to be learnt, as you can imagine. But I learnt them.”
And now it’s time for a new generation of Saudi designers to do the same.