The Man Making The Thobe Relevant For the 21st Century

22 March 2020
Thobe, Arab culture, Arab Dress, Traditional Dress, Streetwear, Hatem alakeel, Toby by Hatem AlAkeel, Mishlah, Shomagh
Image: Illustration by Aistė Stancikaitė

Hatem Alakeel on whether it's possible to turn traditional dress into streetwear (Clue: it is)

When I was around eight or nine years old, I remember going with my father to the palace to convey the usual Eid greetings. It was a formal occasion so, of course, he would wear a mishlah – the black cape-like jacket – over his thobe with a white shomagh headdress. Even then, I found it a very elegant look. So much so that I would almost follow suit – copying him with a white shomagh of my own, a thobe and some very shiny, Western-style shoes. If I close my eyes I can still remember the shape of those shoes.

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But, although these are fond memories, I still recall how I wanted to change things up a little, just so I could express myself more. That was when I was eight! Looking back, the need to innovate had begun much earlier than perhaps even I thought.

There’s something of a paradox when it comes to thobe. Yes, it has always been considered an official, traditional kind of outfit – the equivalent of a suit, you could say. But our version is a lot more practical. Firstly, you can easily wear it every day. Second, it’s waaay more comfortable. Third, you don’t have to wear a tie. What’s not to like?

When it comes to the rules, well they can be quite free-flowing, too. Here’s what you should know: undo your top button for casual settings, fasten-up if you’re aiming for something a little more official. And that’s it. Struggling to think of an outfit? Thobe. Want to transition from casual to dressy without changing? Thobe. You can never be accused of being underdressed or overdressed, so do as they say in KSA: When in doubt, wear a thobe. Oh, added bonus: thanks to its shape, a little bit of weight gain can be overlooked, too. Of course this one is double-edged. While nobody will notice if you gain a few pounds, bigger weight gain can creep up on the thobe-wearer, too. My tip? In Saudi, we wear cotton pants underneath. I would always ensure that mine were slightly tighter than the norm, just so that I could monitor my weight. Perhaps make a note of that: tighter pants.

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My re-styled thobe journey began out of boredom. Before I became a designer, I actually worked at a bank in Saudi and had to wear one every day. Eventually, I grew quite tired of wearing the same old style day in, day out, without the opportunity of dressing differently. I decided to take matters into my own hands, find a good tailor and create my own designs. These would be thobes with subtle detailing and accents to give them more personality and individual style. They had an almost instant impact, and it wasn’t long before my colleagues were asking me to design something for them, too. But even then, it wasn’t until I made a trip to London and visited Savile Row that I realised this is what we needed in KSA. Something to elevate the Saudi thobe in both design and manufacturing. This was how my brand came to life.

But where are we now? Well, it’s no longer cool to simply go to a local tailor to create your thobe. It must be more branded, more polished. I am proud to be a part of that movement, and hopefully helping to change, even elevate, the perception of traditional Arab fashion in the process.

I think that people grew tired of seeing the thobe styled in the same old ways. Just like me at the bank all those years ago. Forget the same boring sandals, people want a more contemporary look. Perhaps combined with statement sneakers and a cool, edgy watch. But to know these things we need regular input from the younger generations. My nephew Salman is part of the Gen Z Saudi fashion crew and never misses a beat. From Off-White to Moncler to Bape, the younger generation are fuelling the resurgence of brand importance. I’m currently in the process of designing a full ready-to-wear men’s collection and, believe me, I definitely consider his style suggestions carefully.

At this point, you might wonder how a more traditional audience has reacted to the new rules of the thobe? I have to admit that changing things has led to raised eyebrows, but there was no backlash, no resistance. My aim has never been to change tradition, only to add a little flavour to people’s wardrobe. But even that in itself was a journey.

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The thobe will always be part of our culture and will always be the go-to choice for anything official. But modernising it and giving it a fresher, more polished feel can help keep it alive! This is how we make it an essential part of our wardrobe for years to come.

My first few collections were quite avant garde to say the least. From using Japanese Samurai influences to Western styles – actually incorporating a suit and tie – to street style chic thobes. In that time I think that I probably broke every fashion rule out there. This was never out of disrespect. I wanted the thobe to be reintroduced to the world.

We’ve seen this before. Just look at the likes of Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto. These are the people that have managed to not only maintain Japanese tradition within their craft, but modernise it, too, turning their brands into global powerhouses in the process. This is what I dream of doing. To update and reintroduce my country’s sartorial heritage to the world. I want people to know it and appreciate it like we do.

It’s funny; holding on to your culture can often be seen as primitive, but to my mind it actually gives you a stronger sense of identity. I have been blessed enough to have dressed the likes of Snoop Dogg, Christian Louboutin and even Prince William, but I think what gave me the edge, and got me that recognition, was that my design had context. It was fashion, for sure, but it was about embracing our culture. This is the kind of legacy I hope to achieve and leave behind.

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When I think about it, designing has taught me so much – the foremost being that with it comes a great deal of responsibility. That’s ok, I want to embrace that. I want to help bridge cultures and change perceptions about the Arab world. This is no longer just about fashion for me, it’s about creating a brand new narrative. No more myths, no more clichés in the Middle East, we need something authentic and modern. I’d like to think that we can begin that journey with how we dress ourselves every day.

Hatem Alakeel is the founder and designer of Toby by Hatem Alakeel