It's been 28 years since the first protest against the ban on women drivers took place in Saudi Arabia; the event left 47 women jailed without passports after they drove cars through Riyadh to protest King Salman's law. Last month, that law changed. And in April – after a 35-year ban – cinema was finally allowed to return to the Kingdom, with Black Panther becoming the first film to be publicly screened. It was only a matter of time before Saudi's tides of change would begin to make waves in fashion.
That moment finally came during haute couture week in Paris, when the Jeddah-born model Taleedah Tamer opened the Antonio Grimaldi show, causing publications around the world to laud her as the first Saudi supermodel. In the context of recent modernisation in Saudi, which has for decades been an oppressive environment for women, and fashion's renewed embrace of feminism, the industry could soon have its eyes set on Taleedah.
Today, casting directors and designers are increasingly focused on the goal of creating a more inclusive and diverse fashion community. In 2017, we saw the rise of Halima Aden, the Kenya-born, Minnesota-raised, Muslim model, after she wore a hijab in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant. Halima went on to sign with international model management agency IMG, and most recently, she fronted the July issue of Teen Vogue.
Taleedah's path is different. The daughter of the Italian former model Cristina Tamer (who worked with the likes of Giorgio Armani, La Perla and Gianfranco Ferré) and the Saudi pharmaceutical and beauty tycoon Ayman Tamer, she considers herself a close friend of the designer Antonio Grimaldi. Despite her turn on the couture catwalk, she is yet to sign with a major modelling agency. And though, like Halima, she is a practising Muslim, Taleedah chooses not to wear the hijab. Her success may fit the story of liberal modernisation in the Saudi Kingdom, but it's important to remember that inequality between women and men will continue long after she makes good on her plans to move to Italy in September.
While Taleedah's first appearance on the haute couture catwalk reflects her relatability to Middle Eastern clientele (who make up a significant chunk of its targeted customer base), and her personal friendship with the designer, it is not only that. Which is why, after her historic Paris debut and solo Harper's Bazaar Arabia cover, we sat down with the model to find out how she got to this point, and what lies ahead...
Hi Taleedah! Tell us about your Paris couture debut, and your stunning solo Harper's Bazaar Arabia cover.
"Being on the cover of Harper's Bazaar Arabia was such a wonderful experience; we shot the story in Rome with an amazing team and it couldn't have been better. I'm so thankful as the Bazaar team believed in me from the beginning and they made my experience so amazing. As for the couture show in Paris, I got to open the show, which is a great honour. It was also such a great first experience as Antonio [Grimaldi], who I consider a very good friend of mine, made my experience so memorable and was very welcoming to me."
Which other designers would you love to work with?
"There are so many talented designers that I'd love to work with some day. However, Giorgio Armani has always been a goal, as my mum worked with him in the past. I also love and look up to Donatella Versace, Alexander McQueen, Karl Lagerfeld, and many more."
I have strong beliefs in many areas. I think diversity in fashion is an important aspect that has to be spoken about more
You've been dubbed the 'first Saudi supermodel'. How important to you are the issues of politics, race, religion, body diversity, cultural appropriation, etc. in fashion?
"I have strong beliefs in many areas, however, I think diversity in fashion is an important aspect that has to be spoken about more frequently. Nowadays, many people around the world believe in one ideal of beauty. But I've also observed with great happiness an [expansion] in this, as we're starting to see so many different forms of beauty and talent in the industry."
Do you feel there are any cultural obstacles to you achieving your modelling goals?
"I've always regarded cultural understanding and awareness as things that are very important. In anything I do, it’s crucial that I'm respecting myself and everyone surrounding me. I was raised in a very understanding family that fostered my desire to achieve whatever I set my heart out to do and I've been very lucky to have a supportive family that has allowed me to follow this path."
Besides representation itself, how else do you want to see an international presence of Saudi women across the rest of the fashion industry?
"Saudis are very creative people; it's in our blood. Today, we are seeing our talents showcased more on a global level rather than just regionally — and I think it's really important that different aspects of the Saudi woman are showcased, but also that they're enabled to do so."
What are some of the common misconceptions about Saudi women and the Saudi fashion industry?
"One of the largest misconceptions about the Saudi fashion industry, and specifically the Saudi woman, is that we're looking for something very different compared to other women around the world. Saudi women may choose to dress in their own way, but that doesn't mean we don’t appreciate fashion as a means of expression."
As models continue to expand their voices beyond fashion, what are your thoughts on the recent laws passed that allowed Saudi women to drive?
"Growing up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the movement of women driving was a long-awaited one. I'm happy to see this step forward in the right direction. It's truly so meaningful to me as it symbolises, quite literally, a great change that Saudi is going through. I only hope that it continues and begins to merge with the fashion and creative industries."
Do your Italian roots play a role in any of this?
"Having Italian roots and an Italian mother, I've truly grown up in a multicultural family and environment that gave me the freedom and my liberal mindset. This has helped me grow as a person as I was given the ability (since a young age) to go through life in my own way and through my own individual beliefs. This enabled me to see the beauty in uniqueness and individuality. And it's why I love Arab beauty as much as I love European beauty: they are both so different and beautiful in their own ways."