Gulf headdress gets a makeover
Bedouin camel herder wears a shemagh at sunset in Jordan (Shutterstock/Martin Good)
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By Natasha Baker
Worn in rain or shine, the Saudi Arabian shemagh has a plethora of uses and is steadily being redefined as a high-fashion and haute-couture item.
This is particularly good news for sellers of the traditional scarves as approximately eight million shemaghs have been sold in the last month alone, reported leading pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat.
The Saudi shemagh is a red and white scarf-like wrap used in arid-regions to provide protection from direct sun exposure, swirling dust and sand.
Not to be confused with the Palestinian ‘Keffiyeh’, which is usually black and white and was made popular for the late leader Yasser Arafat; the Shemagh is one of many different garments Arabs have traditionally used to cover their head.
A third name for scarf-like garments in the Middle East is the ghutrah; a piece of white cloth worn in Iraq and in the Arab Gulf States.
The benefits of the shemagh have been appreciated by western military forces for many decades, who adopted the tradition, seen most recently in the 2003 U.S. occupation of Iraq.
“Shemaghs with a twist”
Despite the fact that the Saudi shemagh has always been red and white, but modern designers have taken to decorating their designs with other colors.
Loai Nassem, Founder and CEO of Lomar, one of the leading fashion houses and a familiar name in the Gulf region and Saudi Arabia, spoke to Al Arabiya English, discussing new initiatives.
“This year in 2013, we released five new types of shemagh, three white and two red.”
Lomar’s line features elegant traditional designs fused with modern-day concepts.
“We are playing it safe,” he told Al Arabiya English.
“We need to learn from the feedback of our 2013 designs; the next generation will redefine the shemagh.”
Nassem’s concepts for the next generation of shemagh include the option for a “2 in 1” shemagh: a scarf that on one side looks like a shemagh, and on the other side looks like a ghutrah.
“This will be particularly difficult to achieve because of the different fabrics used for the two scarves,” said Nassem.
What’s more, there are plans to add a signature scent to some of Lomar’s designs- soon the Lomar shemagh will be perfumed with oud, an oil-based Arabian perfume.
With these initiatives, Lomar is set to revolutionize traditional attire.
It is worth noting that, according to al-Hayat, annual sales of shemaghs in Saudi Arabia amount to nearly 16 million units, highlighting that market sales of the product during Ramadan amount to about 50 percent of sales throughout the year.
The numbers do not shock Mohammed Abu Hajar, CEO of Jeddah-based Benchmark Public Relations, who has worked with multiple traditional Saudi dress cooperations.
“Ramadan is the season to buy shemagh. Some companies, such as Lomar, are redefining Saudi garments.”
The initiative to redefine Saudi traditional dress, not just shemagh but thobes, wallets and scarves, has encouraged a high level of interest and sales in the last month.
The average price of a shemagh ranges between about $15 and $100, with well-known fashion houses such as Versace and Georgio Armani selling garments with significantly bigger price tags.
The reasons for the high prices, along with the obvious “kudos” that comes from owning an haute-couture item, is the durability of the weave used to make the scarves and the guarantee of color-fastness.
There are many different brands of shemagh but, like with many high-fashion items, counterfeit copies of the traditional garb are very common.
Traditionally, shemaghs were made in England and men prided themselves with the ‘British quality’ of their garments.
In recent years however, China has taken lead in the productions of shemaghs; with Chinese-made scarves accounting for 60 percent of total sales in Saudi Arabia, while the U.K. comes in at a close second after China, reported al-Hayat.
Few shemagh-designers, such as Lomar, have opted to manufacture their garments locally and this is often used as a unique selling point.
Prices of traditional menswear rose in the final ten days of Ramadan before Eid al-Fitr, suggesting that retailers are benefiting from high levels of sales.
The shemagh market in Saudi Arabia amounts to about 900 million Saudi Riyals (about $250 million) with 90 percent of domestic production consumed in the kingdom; the remaining 10 percent stake is exported to other Gulf Arab states.
The shemagh, many of which are made from a combination of wool and cotton, can be worn in not one, but several different ways.
Each way of wearing it has a name. Of course, each variation depends on the area it is worn and by whom. The ways include: the cobra and the falcon.
The first style closely resembles the reared head of a cobra. The style sees the two ends of the shemagh draped over the head towards the back with inclined angles. Whereas, the falcon style is more minimalistic, draping the end of the shemagh over the opposite shoulder.