Solo Photographer on the Runway at Saudi Arabia’s Fashion Week: Kristy Sparow

American girl Kristy Sparow was the only photographer on the runway at Saudi Arabia's first ever fashion week. The Paris-based fashion photographer was hired by NOWFASHION to shoot for the Arab Fashion Council.

Solo Photographer on the Runway at Saudi Arabia’s Fashion Week: Kristy Sparow

Out of both necessity and respect for Saudi culture, Sparow wore the traditional abaya and hijab (long black dress and headscarf) while on the runway, in the hotel, and wherever she went.

American girl Kristy Sparow was the only photographer on the runway at Saudi Arabia's first ever fashion week. The Paris-based fashion photographer was hired by NOWFASHION to shoot for the Arab Fashion Council. Her images were seen on NPR, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and NOWFASHION (all shots from Riyadh are hers). Out of both necessity and respect for Saudi culture, Sparow wore the traditional abaya and hijab (long black dress and headscarf) while on the runway, in the hotel, and wherever she went.

This landmark event reflects the changing mood in Saudi Arabia fostered by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s interest to bring women’s rights and tourism back to the Saudi culture. In contrast to all other international Fashion Weeks around the world, this one was a women-only event that allowed the attendees the option to shed the conservative dress and show of their personal style in public.

According to Sparow, even though the event was sold out, hardly anyone showed up the first day out of fear of what might happen. However, it went smoothly, and by the final day the venue, on the grounds of the Ritz Hotel in Riyadh, was filled with several hundred women.

Kristy considers this to have been an extraordinary experience and was as excited about being there as the Saudi women attending the event. Here are a few of her “insider” observations from this historic event: 

  • Local citizens she met were warm and open with her. A local man told her, “We all have just been waiting for the changes in the country.” Also, a local woman told her that members of the royal family have been known to fly to Paris to see a movie and then fly straight back to KSA afterward. Now, just this month, movie theatres have been reintroduced, which is very exciting for the country and a huge step forward.
  • On the terrace at the Ritz Hotel, Kristy and her colleague were speaking with the organizer of the AFW and a few of the sponsors, all of whom were men, and was reminded that one year ago they would have all been arrested for speaking in public.
  • On April 11th while she was there for the show, three missiles were launched from Yemen aiming at Riyadh, but were fortunately intercepted.
  • There is zero tourism in Saudi Arabia—it has not been possible to secure a visitor’s visa into Saudi Arabia (only for business and to visit holy sites), which the Crown Prince has said will change by the end of the year. The fallout from that, and the fact that men and women don’t mix in public, is that there seems to be no one out walking. Even on The Ritz Hotel grounds, it was clear that simply wandering around, even inside the hotel, was frowned upon.
  • The pool at the Ritz Hotel is for men only, which was a disappointment for the women on this press trip.
  • Sparow, and a young French female reporter also covering the event, went to the top of Kingdom Tower (99th floor), where there was interaction between the reporter and a young guard on duty. It was a difficult moment because it appeared that no woman had simply approached him in public for a conversation before—he seemed a bit frightened, and certainly uncertain as to how to respond.
  • Foreign families who are there for business, like building construction contractors working inside Riyadh, live in large walled-off compound areas within the city that are heavily guarded. Saudi Arabia is a dry, no-alcohol, country, and it is never seen. But some places like this, it is allowed.
  • Saudi Arabia is a dry, no-alcohol, country. There is no alcohol, even on the plane. However, the food is fantastic and it all pairs very nicely with a fresh mint lemonade. And, their coffee drinks are world class.
  • When women are in the backseat of a car, dark shades are drawn up so no one can see them.
  • Journalist friends and photographer Sparow took a taxi to “go out into the desert and watch the sun come up,” a concept that seemed to totally escape the concierge and the taxi driver. They drove for 45 minutes away from the city, having to stop at several checkpoints along the way, which was like passing though military installations.  Eventually, they ended up stopping on the highway next to a depressed “tent city” filled with families and a lot of trash.
  • For all of these reasons, Kristy doesn’t think they are actually ready for tourism, but applauds the direction they are going, and was grateful she was able to experience the country during this transition time. She hopes to return and help grow relationships there and be a part of bridging the gap between our cultures.
  • Parting thought: Even with all the changes, Saudi Arabia is still one of the most conservative countries in the world and when the border opens to all, experience the culture with an open mind. Simply be respectful and enjoy entering another world. She hopes to help grow relationships and be a part of bridging the gap between cultures.