Women Make Male ‘Gutrah’ Haute Couture


By Priyanka Sacheti , Womens Feature Service

The nascent world of fashion in Oman is off to a shimmering start with two women designers adding their creativity and business acumen to traditional Omani fabric and style. Interestingly, the ‘shmagh’ (also known as ‘ghutrah’)- which is a black-and-white checkered headdress often worn in a scarf-like fashion and is largely a male accessory – has been the subject of their designs. Originally worn by Palestinian peasants, the ‘shmagh’ evolved into a symbol of Palestinian resistance while also being the hip accessory of not only the fashion conscious youth but of Hindi film stars such as Shah Rukh Khan.

Capturing the interest of two young Omani woman designers, Nihad Al Aisri and Mei Al Suwaid, the ‘shmagh’ has now been transformed into haute couture for women. Nihad, 20, an undergraduate Business Management student at Muscat College, has metamorphosed a ‘shmagh’ into a unisex material, customising the colour, embellishments and overall appearance. “I have been very aware of fashion trends from very early on,” says the youngster, who was already designing ‘abayas’ (black cloak-like garments worn by women in the Gulf region) when she was in school.

“My family and friends even suggested that I open an ‘abaya’ store but I was too young then,” smiles the designer, whose initial designs saw her eagerly cutting out shapes from pillow cases and bags for the applique on the ‘abayas’. However, in the period following her mother’s demise, Nihad found herself wishing that she could do something substantial in the long summer holidays that lay ahead of her. Through Facebook (a popular Internet networking site), she was able to display images of her work and receive feedback. Today, her label, Dollz* is very popular. “I have received orders from all over the Gulf and even from Paris… They liked the colour, material, and quality,” she reveals. A one-woman operation, Nihad sources, customises, and delivers the ‘shmaghs’ – priced between US$20 and US$50 – all by herself, after college hours.

With an emphasis on exclusivity, no two Nihad creations are the same. “I created one ‘shmagh’ for a girl with her name embroidered in sequins. When another girl wished for the same I used thread instead of sequins,” she says. Nihad mostly accepts orders on her Facebook account that goes by the same name as her label. Potential customers contact her via messages and she posts the piece to them.

Not forgetting the political significance of the headdress, Nihad recently created Palestinian ‘shmaghs’ with little Gaza signs to show her solidarity with Palestine during the recent Gaza crisis. She passed on all the proceeds from the sale of these specially designed pieces to a charity in Palestine.

Nihad admits that juggling academics with business despite the support of the family can be difficult. Yet, she speaks of the significance of small-scale businesses in a country that has many emerging fashion designers. “Everyone is trying out everything and they should get the space to showcase their talent and efforts,” she remarks.

Another female designer, who has been hugely inspired by the ‘shmagh’, is Mei 26. A graphic design graduate of the Ringling School of Design and Art, Florida, USA, who used to get straight A’s in art throughout school and was always creating weird art projects, Mei transforms ‘shmaghs’ into handbags. The idea of designing handbags came to her when she was a student in Florida. “I would visit stores in Miami and see these absolutely gorgeous handbags which were unaffordable. It then struck me that they were all made of materials that one could put together oneself, including saris and silver handles,” she recalls. On her return to Oman, she suggested the idea of handbags made from Omani fabrics fitted with silver handles, to the Ministry of Handicrafts in Oman.

The talented designer soon conceived the idea of creating handbags from multi-coloured ‘shmaghs’ and from Omani fabrics such as ‘laysu’ or ‘kanga’. Explains Mei, who loves working with fabric, “The classic colours of the ‘shmagh’ are black-and-white or red-and-white; however, the colours are changing and women wear it in iridescent avatars.” Her range of handbags, which is priced between US$13 and US$115, consists of black-and-white/red ‘shmagh’ clutches with embroidered roses, olive green ‘shmagh’ hobos, and black-and-white circular totes.

Mei decided to make the bags herself; she bought a sewing machine and proceeded to sew the bags. “I figured that if you are so intent on creating something – in my case, bags – I was determined to learn sewing in order to accomplish my dreams,” she says.

A self-confessed perfectionist, Mei is very clear about delivering a quality product to her customers. “I work hard at making the bags presentable enough to be sold. It is just not enough that it looks good; it must be sturdy enough to hold things, too,” she says, adding that even though the bags are handmade they must still meet a quality criterion. “Furthermore, I always put myself in my customers’ shoes and ask myself whether I would buy something like that.”

While she has also used the Facebook to promote her line, ‘Mei’, the designer (her label goes by the same name), strongly believes in the old-fashioned word of mouth. “The bags are attracting women in their late twenties; they are very satisfied with them,” she says.

While discounting any difficulties she has faced due to being a woman, Mei says that she has evolved with the growth of her business. “Initially, I was a shy, insecure designer who wondered if people would be interested in her product. I have now developed into a full-fledged designer with a commitment towards articulating my personal vision to my customers,” the young woman explains. She soon hopes to supply to retail outlets and open a store that will also allow customers to create their own bags. “Often, while taking suggestions from customers, I realise how involved they become in the process.” Of course, her creative spirit is already thinking of the next step. “It could be even shoes next,” says Mei.

Nihad and Mei’s modern approach towards transforming the function of a traditional accessory for a burgeoning market endorses their interpretation of tradition in their own style.

Priyanka Sacheti, a writer who loves art and travel, whose wanderings have taken her to many different countries.