RCL Exclusive

Behind the Scenes at Saudi Arabia’s First-Ever Fashion Show

Kristy Sparrow, a veteran of the Paris fashion scene, got exclusive access to the Kingdom’s event.

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Kristy Sparow has been photographing fashion weeks, primarily in Paris, for nine years. But this year was her first time photographing the fashion week in Saudi Arabia—because this was the first time a fashion week was ever held in the country.

Sparow, 36, was the sole photographer at the end of the runway for the inaugural event, shooting for NowFashion. Held at the Ritz Hotel in Riyadh, the event was originally scheduled for March, but was postponed because of delays in issuing visas.

“Things are changing so rapidly,” Sparow told RealClearLife. “One of the local women I spoke with shared with me that until recently, there was no music allowed in public, so to be able to have an event, where women could show off their personal style and fashion in a place that’s playing music at an event that revolved around beauty and fashion, I think is a huge deal.”

Saudi Arabia’s strict social restrictions have eased dramatically ever since bin Salman was appointed Crown Prince by his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, in June 2017. MBS, as he is sometimes called, has begun to allow public concerts and lifted bans on cinemas and women driving. There are still restrictions, however. Men were not allowed to watch the catwalk events during fashion week and outside photography was barred.

Enter Sparow, who is American—she grew up grew up in Santa Cruz, California—but lives full-time in France with her husband. She has spent nearly a decade photographing fashion events for Getty and was asked by NowFashion to cover the event. However, Sparow did not realize until she arrived that she would be the only photographer covering the runway. Sparow’s photographs were viewed by NowFashion and then sent to a Saudi government censor, who approved the images that were publicly released.

Sparow, who said the food and coffee in Saudi Arabia were “amazing,” wore loose-fitting, full-length robes—abayas—and a headscarf while in country. She told RCL that she “enjoyed the experience” of wearing the conservative dress.

“I got mixed responses from women I know in the U.S. and Paris, some friends thought it was incredible, others thought it was being pushed on us, like, we are not a part of [the culture], why would we have to do that,” she said during a Skype interview. “I didn’t view it that way, I thought it was cool to get more involved in the local environment.”

On April 11, while Sparow was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s air defense forces claimed to intercept a ballistic missile fired from Yemen towards the capital. Saudi Arabia has been deeply involved in its neighbor’s years-long civil war and has been criticized for its massive bombing campaign in that country, which has contributed to more than 20 million Yemenis suffering the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” according to the United Nations. When asked if she was concerned about the missiles, Sparow responded that she was probably the least concerned of the people she was sitting with when she heard the news.

“I’ve been living in Paris now for a long time, and those kinds of things are becoming more and more everyday worries, when you’re traveling or just in the city where you live, these things are happening global[ly] now,” she said. “I am just of the opinion that I am going to live my life as I would anyway and just trust that I am safe.”

Designers who presented their work on the catwalk included Jean Paul Gaultier, Aiisha Ramadan, Aram Designs and MUA MUA designs. You can check out some of Sparow’s pictures below.

Saudi Arabia held its first-ever fashion week (Kristy Sparow/ NOWFASHION)
Women heading to the show. (Kristy Sparow/ NOWFASHION)
Kristy Sparow was the sole photographer at the end of the runway. (Kristy Sparow/ NOWFASHION)
The actual fashion show was a female-only event. (Kristy Sparow/ NOWFASHION)
Sparow told RCL that she was able to go on a desert adventure during one day of her visit. (Kristy Sparow/ NOWFASHION)
Jean Paul Gaultier’s line kicked off the show. (Kristy Sparow/ NOWFASHION)
While in Saudi Arabia, the photographer Kristy Sparrow wore an abaya, head-to-toe dress. (Kristy Sparow/ NOWFASHION)
(Kristy Sparow/ NOWFASHION)
A model shows off a House of MUA MUA design. (Kristy Sparow/ NOWFASHION)
Another design from the House of MUA MUA. (Kristy Sparow/ NOWFASHION)
Aiisha Ramadan’s show. (Kristy Sparow/ NOWFASHION)
Arwa Al Banawi. (Kristy Sparow/ NOWFASHION)
Aiisha Ramadan’s show. (Kristy Sparow/ NOWFASHION)
Aram Designs. (Kristy Sparow/ NOWFASHION)
Jean Paul Gaultier’s show. (Kristy Sparow/ NOWFASHION)
(Kristy Sparow/ NOWFASHION)
Aram Designs’ show. (Kristy Sparow/ NOWFASHION)