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Recalling La Dolce Vita in Riyadh

By : D'NA
Recalling La Dolce Vita in Riyadh

To celebrate our fifth anniversary, D’NA has collaborated with So Passé on a unique exhibition bringing to life the legacy of Parveen Shaath.


A pioneer, Shaath established one of the Kingdom’s first fashion boutiques in the late 1950’s; exposing generations of Saudi women to haute couture and high-end prêt-à-porter from London, Paris and Rome. The first exhibition of its kind in Saudi Arabia, Parveen Shath: The Legacy of a Saudi Fashion Icon, explores the Kingdom’s early links to the Western fashion world. On the eve of the exhibition, Rasha Shaath recalls her aunt’s contributions to the Saudi fashion scene.


My sisters and I didn’t realized how extraordinary our Aunt Parveen was until four years ago. We grew up in a family of empowered women and saw nothing unusual in the fact that she owned her own boutique, and would travel twice a year to stock it with the latest creations from the fashion capitals of the world.


It was only years later, we realized that very boutique was the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia, and that Aunt Parveen had shaped the tastes of generations of Saudi women. More humbling perhaps is that her legacy lives on today in the form of countless family albums across the Kingdom, filled with images of elegant women dressed by her discerning eye.


At a recent wedding in Jeddah, a guest pointed out that her dress had been purchased some 25 years ago with Aunt Parveen during a buying trip the two had made to London. It was bought as part of the woman’s wedding trousseau, yet despite its age it had a timeless quality to it that still seems relevant today.


As children, my sisters and I always remembered her as the aunt with the magical ability to procure a coveted dress, a hard to find magazine, or sweets from London. She gave me my first pair of heels at the age of eight. I remember them vividly; they were patent red leather and I thought they were the most beautiful pair of shoes I had ever seen. Years later, she helped me select my prom dress from her boutique, Azizati, which was housed in a rented Riyadh villa. It was a place where her clients could both socialize and shop, long before the concept of a boutique even existed in Saudi Arabia.


After she had retired and closed her store, I happened to mention needing a dress for an event while visiting her at home. “Go upstairs and pick what you want,” she instructed. What I found were five rooms filled with racks of hanging gowns, each meticulously covered in plastic. As generous as my Aunt Parveen was, she was also stubborn and couldn’t find it in her heart to sell any of her gowns at a discount; no matter how many seasons old they were. As a result, she unwittingly preserved an extraordinary collection that chronicles over 60 years of Saudi taste for Western fashion.


It was then that my sisters and I realized our aunt’s legacy was something much greater than all of us combined. Her story needed to be preserved for future generations, and we went about recording her memories. For Aunt Parveen, fashion would open doors to a world few Saudi women of her generation had access too. She recalled her early fears of taking the train by herself in the late 1950’s, during her first trips to Florence and Rome. Yet such experiences taught her how to be independent. She was also immensely proud of the relationships she formed with designers and her fellow buyers from all over the world; friendships that would last a lifetime.


We listened with fascination as she recalled the Dolce Vita era of her youth within the comfort of her Riyadh living room. Photo albums would inevitably emerge, filled with sepia-tinted images taken over the decades on her buying trips to Paris, London and Rome. In one she is seated elegantly in front of the Trevi Fountain as if in a Fellini film. That particular image has remained with me, for it is how I would like to remember her. As someone who worked her entire life doing what she loved with little fanfare; yet was able to produce a legacy that is only now being rediscovered by a new generation.


Rasha Shaath founded So Passé in 2009 together with Abeer Seikaly and her sisters Reem and Haya, in order to preserve their aunt’s legacy for future generations. Parveen Shath: The Legacy of a Saudi Fashion Icon, will include a rotating selection of 20 dresses and will run from September-February 2012.