Not many designers can say they have two runway shows taking place during Paris Haute Couture week, but Mohammed Ashi is the rare kind. Yet, when we connect in the days prior over a video call, he is unexpectedly calm and collected.

The first runway show, which took place late on Thursday morning at Hôtel des Monnaies in Paris, drew big names including actor Michelle Williams and Carine Roitfeld, the former editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris, despite the fact that it was only the designer’s second time taking part in the official couture calendar (his first was in 2023). This evening, in the same venue, Ashi will present a very different collection for Saudi Arabia’s new national airline Riyadh Air, for which he has designed its first official uniforms.

A model in a black dress with a long train
Ashi describes his couture collections as ‘dark romance’ . . . © Getty Images
A model in a long gold dress with a bulbous middle
 . . . with monochrome designs and sculptured silhouettes © Getty Images

A peek at his final sketches show a model wearing a jacket and trouser suit set, paired with a matching hat and square-toed heels. In another drawing, she is wearing an elegant long coat with a high-nipped waist. The pieces are all in the same shade of — is it plum, I ask, or a kind of maroon? “We call it amethyst,” Ashi gently corrects me. “We came up with it because it is elegant, powerful and noticeable.” 

The same could be said of Ashi’s namesake, independently funded label, Ashi Studio, which, since being founded in 2007, has won over high-spending couture clients as well as celebrities including Beyoncé, Cardi B, Sonam Kapoor, Zendaya and Penélope Cruz. I asked a Dubai-based acquaintance what they made of the label and their first response was “Priyanka Chopra wears it all the time”. 

The partnership with Riyadh Air serves as a milestone for Ashi and a marketing opportunity for the airline to establish its brand identity. “You walk through Heathrow or JFK these days and all the cabin crews look pretty much the same. But they are the first thing that people see, in terms of how the brand is represented,” says Riyadh Air chief executive Tony Douglas. “We wanted to bridge back to those halcyon days of the 1960s and ’70s. Ours are not cabin crew uniforms like everybody else but cabin crew fashion.”

Ashi was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. When he moved to Burlington, Vermont, in his teenage years, he took an interest in fine art but found it difficult to express himself in his work. So, he turned to fashion. He studied at Paris fashion school Esmod, graduating in 2000, and did design stints at Givenchy (in the couture division, under former creative director Riccardo Tisci, for two years) and then at Elie Saab (in ready-to-wear, for three years), before striking out on his own.

Two men sit at a white desk in front of a window talking
Ashi in his studio in Paris © Alex Cretey Systermans
Drawings of a woman in a dress
Ashi’s sketches for Riyadh Air © Alex Cretey Systermans

“Dark romance” is how Ashi describes his collections — think monochrome designs with sculptured silhouettes that transform the body rather than accentuate or cling to it. The label caught the eye of the late editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia Franca Sozzani in its first season and she lent her support by helping Ashi build his book of contacts. “She took me around and helped to expose me to the fashion industry in Europe and the US.” Those introductions, Ashi says, helped to build up his business. (The designer declined to share annual revenues.)

Another turning point came in 2013: after taking part in the inaugural Vogue Dubai Fashion Experience, which puts the spotlight on emerging talent from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, the brand became more well known globally, Ashi says. Today he counts one boutique in Riyadh and a private salon in Paris. “What I’m trying to do is build a following and put a stamp [on fashion] as a Saudi national on an international platform.”

A man in a long coat stands near a railing looking at the camera
Ashi showed his collection as part of the official couture calendar for the first time in 2023 © Alex Cretey Systermans
A man in a coat looks through a rack of clothing
He describes his collections as ‘dark romance’ © Alex Cretey Systermans

The appointment of Burak Cakmak — former dean of fashion at The New School’s Parsons School of Design — as chief executive of Saudi Arabia’s Fashion Commission in 2021 is significant for the industry. In line with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s 2030 vision to reduce the country’s reliance on oil exports, Cakmak has been focused on building out a full fashion ecosystem with the aim of creating more jobs in the culture sector and adding $23bn to the economy during the next decade. 

Human rights groups have criticised Saudi Arabia for using the entertainment sector — in recent years, billions of dollars have been spent hosting major sporting and cultural events — to improve its international reputation and deflect attention from human rights abuses. Ashi believes that designers like himself deserve a chance to be recognised globally and play a key role in catering to the tastes of local customers who have been underserved in the past.

A woman in a blue dress walks in an empty room
A model wears the uniform designed by Ashi for Riyadh Air © Alex Cretey Systermans

Last year, Ashi became the first designer from the Gulf to present a show as a guest member on the official Couture calendar, where only those approved by organising body Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (FHCM) are able to take part (there are 26 other certified maisons showing this season).

Applicants are required to meet a criteria that is based on creativity, savoir-faire and innovation, while also conveying a coherent image and communications, FHCM’s executive president Pascal Morand explains. Ashi adds that his use of organic and renewable materials, such as banana leaves, is a point of distinction.

Practicality is a new consideration in his work, Ashi admits. When designing for Riyadh Air, “functionality was the most challenging part for me as a couture designer. I think we ultimately achieved it with the right movements and cuts.” It’s an ongoing quest to balance aesthetics and ergonomics, he laughs, but concedes that at the end of the day, “it’s not about being a glamorous designer, but a modern one”. 

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