Credit: Toby by Hatem Al-akeel
Reinventing the thobe: Traditional Arab menswear gets a style upgrade
Saudi Arabian fashion designer Hatem Al-akeel is making his name by giving the traditional Arab thobe a makeover. Called a dishdasha in Oman and Kuwait, and a kandoura in the United Arab Emirates, the thobe is a long-sleeved, ankle-length tunic. Often teamed with a colorful cotton keffiyeh headdress, it's standard formal attire in the Arabian Peninsula -- the equivalent of a Western-style suit.
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Until recently, the words "thobe" and "trendy" rarely appeared in the same sentence. Al-akeel had his brainwave -- to turn the classic garment into a contemporary fashion statement -- while working in the corporate world. Required to wear a thobe to the office every day, he found that the standard designs cramped his personal style.
Al-akeel, who has no formal training in fashion design, launched his brand, Toby, in 2006 and opened a boutique in Jeddah the following year. Celebrities including shoe designer Christian Louboutin and rap supremo Snoop Dogg have worn his thobes, which are known for their sharp silhouettes, modern twists, unusual detailing and top-notch tailoring.
CNN spoke to the designer to find out what's happening in the world of modern thobes.
CNN: Did you grow up wearing thobes?
Hatem Al-akeel: I attended a French school in Switzerland and later went to high school and university in the United States, so I wore Western clothes all along. I was always really into fashion, though. My mum, who is a very fashionable lady, took us clothes shopping in Rome every summer. I was lucky because I got to wear nicely-made clothes and developed a pronounced fashion sense from the age of four or five.
How did you make the leap from banking to fashion?
I didn't enjoy working in the corporate world and having to wear a thobe every day. It's a very conformist culture and I felt the need to express myself through fashion, so I found a tailor and started making adjustments to my thobes and Westernizing them a bit. It was like a lightbulb switched on in my head -- I realized I'd found my calling. And that's when I started Toby.
How did you manage to start a fashion label with no training?
In fashion it's all about having a good eye and an understanding of quality and good execution. Some people might go through years of training but don't develop that aesthetic sense. That said, I would encourage others to train -- it was harder for me because I had to Google online tutorials to learn certain skills.
What's different about a Toby thobe?
I am known for two things: making the thobe into a fashion item and incorporating the use of a Western-style shirt collar. I make simple, everyday, wearable thobes, and red carpet thobes which are very elaborate. There's a lot of Asian influence in what I do -- I'm particularly inspired by Japanese culture. I also love the amazing color combinations of Italian clothes, and the craftsmanship of British tailoring. My aim is to bring a Savile Row approach to thobe design.
Have any celebrities been spotted wearing your thobes?
Snoop Dogg came to give a concert in Dubai and wanted me to dress him for his performance. I designed a special tuxedo thobe and offered him eight other pieces. I didn't hear anything back but one day, sitting with friends, I saw the video for his song Here Comes the King -- and he's wearing my thobes. It was fantastic! Christian Louboutin, who is a dear friend, also surprised me by wearing one of my designs for a photo shoot he did for Marie Claire magazine. I'm quite blessed.
Are Saudi men becoming more fashion conscious?
Yes. The younger generation want interesting, unique, branded thobes. A lot of customers come to me for advice on how to put things together, get the colors right, the shoes, the accessories. You find a lot of men are hitting the gym now, or being more conscious about their weight, their image -- it's a whole new movement.
Tell us about your junior thobe collection.
I'm the go-to designer for kids' thobes in Saudi Arabia and I go all out with my designs. Adults are cautious about wearing more experimental styles but with kids, there's no limit -- the crazier you go, the more they love it! It's compulsory for everyone to have a new thobe at Ramadan so the mothers take it very seriously. It's like a fashion competition between them as to whose child has the most fashionable thobe.
And you've also branched out into women's clothing?
The latest campaign for my Toby Femme collection is called Sakood, an Arabic word with two meanings -- "I will drive" and "I will lead." I designed a concept around driving into the future to celebrate the lifting of the driving ban in Saudi Arabia. There's a lot of symbolism in the clothes. I want to convey that we are proud of our heritage and culture, and we can move forward without abandoning our values and traditions. I asked Bayan Linjawi, who's a young tech entrepreneur and influencer in Saudi Arabia, to front the campaign.