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Tailoring for Traditional Menswear in the Gulf Has Never Been Better

Arabic traditional dress

Traditional Arabic dress from the Toby Collection by Hatem Alakeel

No longer one-style fits all, the clean, crisp robes known as a kandora, thobe, or dishdasha, are now made with a host of subtle differences in cut and design that are unique to the wearer’s nationality.

From the high collars and fitted thobe favored by men in Saudi Arabia, the embroidered designs popular in Oman, and the loose cuts and different colors of the Emirati kandora, each country has its own distinct style.

Hatem Alakeel, founder and creative director of Toby by Hatem Alakeel, and Christophe Beaufays, associate art director and senior designer at Lomar, two of Saudi Arabia’s favorite traditional menswear houses, outline the differences in the way men dress from Riyadh to Muscat.

It can seem as though men in the Gulf all dress the same. Can you describe the differences between the outfit favored by men in Saudi, Kuwait, and the UAE?

Christophe Beaufays: The kandoras or dishdasha or thobe are different from one Gulf country to another and differences are very strong and obvious. The type of cut, fabric, details, accessories, are all different and they play a strong part in the identity for each country. 

The Saudi thobe is the most fitted to the body and the most complex in term of cut. It is made of about 22 pieces stitched together. It is also the most varied in term of style. In Saudi Arabia you don’t only find traditional formal but also casual, sporty, or very stylish designs in a wide variety of colors and fabric. Depending of the taste of the customer the fabrics can be either stiff, soft, or very fluid. The collar is high (4cm) and closed with two buttons. 

The Emirati kandora is easily recognizable with its round neckline without collar and a “V” stitch in the front and back. They also have a “tassel” fixed inside the button pad. The fabric is usually polyester and the men like it stiff and bulky. The cut is loose.

A Kuwaiti kandora is clearly marked out by a long fold in the middle in the front, just under the button pad that gives some ease and volume in the front for walking. The collar is usually a bit shorter than the Saudi  style and it is closed with one button. 

This is similar to the Emirati one. It usually has some embroidery and a neckline without collar but with a “tassel” like the Emirati one, but smaller.

This is probably the simplest one with less distinguishable elements. The collar is usually a bit shorter than the Saudi one and closed with one button.

Related: The Stylish Kandora – Redefining Emirati National Dress

Arabic traditional dress

From the Toby Collection by Hatem Alakeel

How did these differences in cut, style, and appearance come about? 

Hatem Alakeel: Each region has its own unique aesthetic. However, today it is the thobe that has become more daring, especially in Jeddah where men are more open to combining collars and changing cuts. The Emiratis are more adventurous with the colors of fabrics, whereas Saudis are more daring with the cuts and collars. 

What role does headwear play in traditional menswear?

HA: Wearing the ghotra, or shomagh, plays the same role in each region and that is to complete the official look. It’s the equivalent of a tie to a suit.

CB: The most common in Saudi and Bahrain is a shomagh in white cotton voile with red embroidery (or sometimes also white embroidery). When there is no embroidery, just simple white cotton, it’s called a ghotra and it’s mainly worn in the UAE and Kuwait.

The men first put a cap on their head called taqiyah to adjust the shomagh and then they fix the whole thing with the eqal, which is a black twisted rope made of wool that helps to maintain the fabric on the head.

There are many ways to wrap the fabric once it is fixed with the eqal. Each style has a particular name like “cobra,” “eagle,” and “bint al-bakkar.” In Oman, men wear either an embroidered cap called the kuma or a wrapped wool turban called the massar tied over the kuma.

Arabic traditional dress

From the Toby Collection by Hatem Alakeel

The overall style of the kandora has remained relatively unchanged. What are designers doing to advance traditional men’s fashion? What trends would you like to see?

HA: Toby’s mission has always been to change and embrace the perception of the thobe. Having dressed the likes of Snoop Dogg and Christian Louboutin, the goal of my brand has always been to be seen alongside international brands and worn by international figures. Toby has been worn at fashion weeks in Europe and on the red carpet at the Golden Globes. My vision has always been to demonstrate that the thobe can also be high fashion. 

CB: Before 15 years ago, there was no particular choice. People would order from the local tailor and just had the choice of two or three different collars and cuffs, and some fabrics. Loai Naseem and his wife, Mona Al-Haddad, created Lomar to add a fashionable touch to traditional thobes. Loai’s first ‘revolution’ was to add a visible zipper in the front to give a more casual look.

Even though it sounds like a very minimal change, the reaction was big and many people were mocking his idea, but he had the support of many friends, people from his generation and his wife. Many Saudi designers have since followed in his footsteps and are not afraid to push boundaries and to think more out of the box.

What has been the most extravagant kandora you’ve made, and what was the occasion it was created for?

HA: The Snoop Dogg tuxedo thobe, which was especially designed for him and which he wore for his concert in Dubai and in his music video for the song “Here Comes the King.” I also dressed Elie Mizrahi for the Golden Globes with a very elaborate long jacket with embroidery and thobe.

Traditional Arabic Dress

Snoop Lion – Here Comes the King ft. Angela Hunte

CB: Probably the world’s largest thobe. It was exhibited in February 2010 and took two months and 20 tailors to make. The thobe was 33.9 meters long and weighed 500kg and was recorded by the Guinness Book of World Records. Afterwards it was cut into smaller thobes to be donated to local charities.

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