Vogue Arabia's Princess-in-Chief Wants Arab Women to Be Seen as More Than Just Big Spenders


Vogue Arabia is launching a print edition under its first editor-in-chief, Princess Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz. (Yes, a princess.) And she’s faced with the challenge of running a magazine that has to present high fashion in a moderately conservative light, with a few restrictions.

The debut print issue, which hits newsstands this spring, will expand Vogue Arabia beyond its digital presence and follows a digital edition of the magazine that was released in October. As is required of most Vogue leaders, Abdulaziz is a fascinating character.

In a lengthy New York profile titled “The Anna Wintour of the Middle East,” writer Amy Larocca describes Abdulaziz, 42, as a big student of fashion with a “throaty voice” and “a theatrical way of announcing things, a sort of Diana Vreeland lite.” Born in California, she traveled wherever her dad went as an economist/professor, living in both the U.S. and Middle East. She first became obsessed with magazines when she was six, reading Tatler. A DJ Khaled congratulations video is in her Instagram feed.

“I discovered fashion and I never looked back. And when I first discovered Vogue, I was like, There are other people that do this!” she says. “I didn’t grow up with a Vogue of my own, one that reflected my identity, that reflected my background, my area, my authenticity. So for me to actually be present for that? It makes it very, very beautiful.”

Vogue Arabia happens to be launching in print at the perfect time, with growing anti-Muslim sentiment around the world, a lot of it from our own president. One might expect the magazine to take bold political stances, but it comes with limitations. Before its launch, the magazine, per the Financial Times, revealed that it intends to “avoid nudity and religious symbolism; while gay designers will feature, it will be without discussion of their sexuality.”

Abdulaziz considers political discussions to be largely outside of her job’s purview, though she does share strong views on the ways the Western world sees Middle Eastern women as spenders and not influencers. Larocca writes:

Abdulaziz declines to comment on political issues several times over the course of our meeting, insisting that she does not view her role that way. But it is clear that she is frustrated by what she sees as the very limited ways in which the West treats Arab, and Muslim, women — frustrated that the accomplishments of her friends are often overlooked, that while Middle Eastern women are welcome in fashion as long as they spend huge amounts of money, this welcome comes with limits (and, frankly, prejudice). She fears that many in the West see Muslim women as a monolithic emblem of oppression, and she is emphatic that nothing is so simple.

Even if it’s within the context of a high-end glossy fashion magazine, Abdulaziz wants to present a more nuanced perspective of Arab women and no doubt these views inherently inform her leadership. “Arabs have been responsible for making couture stay in business from the late ’60s through today,” she says. “I would like to shed light that we have actually been around way before other emerging areas came into the picture, and I’d like to understand why we are undervalued and looked on as people who just spend money. That bothers me. Of course it does. For good reason.”

The New York story goes on to describe the Arabian Peninsula, especially Dubai, as a center for couture and spending, citing a Thomson Reuters stat that “Muslim consumers spent $243 billion on clothing in 2015 (11 percent of the global market); the figure is predicted to reach $368 billion by 2021.”

Vogue Arabia now has the task of reflecting that consumerism while also showcasing the style that originates in those regions:

Early pages from the print edition of Vogue Arabia indicate that the clothing featured lies somewhere between the British and French Vogues where modesty is concerned. (The French still love nothing more than printing a nipple; the British and Americans do not, and tend, in the end, toward a fairly conservative ideal.) Abdulaziz is looking for models who reflect the region, a task she concedes is difficult, as many Muslim families see the profession as “one step from harlot,” but as the world changes, she is hopeful that this, too, might change.

Abdulaziz herself has undeniable style (Christian Louboutin named a shoe after her):

So it’s no surprise that she’d already appeared in New York’s fashion-on-the-streets Look Book section prior to this profile (there, she copped to loving Jessica Simpson’s lip gloss). The writer, Larocca, describes meeting Abdulaziz in front of Barneys New York in 2004:

She was well dressed but normally so for the neighborhood, an uptown woman out for a stroll in expensive but quiet versions of things: a Prada T-shirt, Miu Miu shoes, an Hermès bag. I was scouting for a photo shoot for this magazine’s “Look Book,” and we stopped her and asked her to pose. She declined at first, citing privacy concerns to do with her family. A picture in a magazine? Never! But her husband, the Saudi prince Sultan bin Fahad bin Nasser bin Abdulaziz, whom she married in her early 20s, encouraged her, and we took her picture right there on 61st Street.

At the time, Abdulaziz was a stay-at-home mom with three kids, living in both New York and Riyadh, where she later opened her own boutique, D’NA. She talks about going to extravagant parties attended solely by women back home:

When Abdulaziz is home in Riyadh, most socializing is segregated by sex, she explains, which means the fashion stakes are even higher. “Let’s face it,” she says, “who do we really dress for?” At these female-only parties, members of the country’s elite often wear full, current runway seasons hidden beneath abayas until the doors are closed, and some of the women in Abdulaziz’s set even employ makeup styles to replicate the accompanying runway beauty. “She told me, ‘Every single night, it’s basically the Met Ball,’” says one American friend who visited Abdulaziz in Riyadh.
“You’re never going to see an Arab girl trying to look like the French — lank hair, no makeup,” Abdulaziz explains. “I mean, no. That is not what we do.” She laughs. “Who thinks it looks better to not wear makeup?” She shakes her head at the inanity.

Larocca writes:

Here was a woman fashion women could relate to, and her high profile made her an obvious choice when Condé began hunting for someone to helm its magazine. She sold her boutique (which had expanded with a second location in Doha) and started commuting to the magazine’s offices in Dubai in 2016.

The writer notes that “many of Vogue’s potential readers are excited by the idea of a magazine with the desire to show off the work of Arab women.” The profile also breaks down Condé Nast’s road to launching Vogue Arabia.

Read the full feature here.

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