Saudi Arabia’s most international designer, couturier Ashi looks to the City of Light as a new, no-holds-barred creative chapter unfolds – exquisitely embodied by one of his muses, supermodel Cindy Bruna.
White feather top, Ashi studio couture FW20; bracelet, ring, Chaumet. Photography: Tom Munro.
Since settling in Paris in 2018, pioneering Saudi Arabian courtier Ashi has brought a sense of je ne sais quoi to the world’s fashion capital and the birthplace of haute couture. Famed for his architectural sensibilities, Ashi’s pieces speak of ethereal, alien vistas where emotion and power rule – and his latest collection is no different. Once again, his voluminous shapes in delicate off-whites, subtle silvers, and deep blacks incite wonder. His FW20 collection speaks of the moon, the reflections of its pale light, and a deep-seated need to escape the mundane. The designer’s arrival in Paris – more specifically, in an old Haussmann apartment near the Opera neighborhood – has sparked a new wave of creativity.
Cindy Bruna wears structured crepe dress with shoulder drape, scarf detail, and embroidered buttons, Ashi Studio couture FW20; ring, Chaumet; shoes, Ashi Studio. Ashi wears coat, top, Ashi studio; shoes. Photography: Tom Munro.
Ashi’s Fall couture is showcased in the December 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia by French model Cindy Bruna. She and Ashi share a connection rooted in longstanding mutual respect. “Cindy is a Parisian supermodel and is the perfect choice as I have now been based in the city for two years,” he comments. The shoot, taking place around his new collection, includes a retrospective of Ashi’s work over the years. Dramatic yet modern, the collection speaks to a sense of much needed serenity, avoiding ostentatious displays in favor of a peace of mind that relaxes both soul and eye. Ashi comments on the women who are always at the forefront of his mind – French aristocrat Jacqueline de Ribes, Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, English accessories designer and muse Loulou de la Falaise – “Women with stories. Women with something to tell,” he says. And if there is heartbreak, perhaps, all the better. “There is no poetry without death; you always have to have something tragic to have some poetry.”
Double breasted coat dress with multilayer ruffle base and tail, Ashi Studio Couture FW20; gloves, shoes, Ashi Studio; necklace, Chopard. Photography: Tom Munro.
While underscoring Ashi’s monumental and emotional appeal, the collection also serves to mark a new beginning. The designer relocated to Paris following turmoil in Beirut, where he was based between 2002 and 2018. His newest couture speaks to a moment of clarity and it is tempting to link this apparent sense of inner calm to his move to the French capital. His new “fashion-lab,” as Ashi describes it, is where he will now be “experimenting with everything related to fashion.” And yet, Beirut is never far from his thoughts. It was in Lebanon where he studied fashion, at ESMOD, finishing top of his class three years in a row. After working for Elie Saab and Givenchy, the young designer struck out on his own, purchasing a sewing machine and hiring a seamstress he paid by the hour – when he could pay her at all – to realize his own designs. It wasn’t until a friend took his pieces to the Grammys in 2011 that he began to make a name for himself outside of Lebanon. Unsurprisingly, Beirut remains dear to him.
Coat, Top, Ashi Studio; Shoes, Saint Laurent. Photography: Tom Munro.
“It’s the energy that inspires me. I arrived with no knowledge of Beirut, its culture, its history, or its people.” The recent explosion at Beirut’s port, which devastated the capital and left thousands homeless, has left an impression. “When the blast happened I refused to see any images of Beirut destroyed – my office, my home. I wanted to keep the image I left in my mind clear. I didn’t want to leave a scar of Beirut in my mind and heart. Beirut has always been my backbone; I know for sure that it will rise again.”
Soft drape crepe top with scarf and headpiece, Wide Leather pants skirt with front slit, Ashi Studio Couture FW20; belt, gloves, Ashi Studio. Photography: Tom Munro.
His home country also still serves as inspiration. “The Eighties, in Saudi, were phenomenal,” he recalls. “It was an easy life; there was no struggle, no pressure.” Ashi remembers spending his time with his friends playing football and escaping to art classes instead of detention, remembering with a laugh that he was a “naughty boy.” “I’m living the current transformation in Saudi through the lens of social media,” he says. “Everyone is telling me that it is changing. I do remember towards the end of my teen years that restrictions were creeping in – I had long hair, and this was looked down on.”Born in 1980 in Jeddah, the only son in a family with four girls, Ashi recalls that fashion was everywhere. “It was in my face. I lived the era with them – the big hair, the makeup, the ostentatious fashion. Designers would come to the house for fittings and I would give my opinion. It wasn’t considered a luxury, that’s just the way it was,” he says. Along with his mother’s inspiration, his father, who owned a luxury textile company, also influenced his foray into fashion by introducing a young Ashi to fabrics he still employs today.
Ashi has consistently played a role in redefining fashion. But when he started work in the early 2000s, his architecturally inspired pieces were not well received. “It was a new thing, I faced some backlash,” he tells. “It wasn’t appreciated at the time. I started a movement in fashion, which I slowly perfected and polished with time. I am a very conceptual person and I always think of great architects like Zaha Hadid when I’m designing,” he says.
Red Cape Structured Dress with embroidery detail on neckline and bottom, Ashi Studio Couture SS20; shoes, Ashi Studio; ring, Chopard. Photography: Tom Munro.
Ashi’s work has since been embraced by private clients and celebrities the world over. He has dressed Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Rita Ora, Billy Porter, Queen Rania of Jordan, Cardi B, and more. He has also released various prêt-a- porter collections. Never one to stand still, Ashi continues to push boundaries. Perhaps his most striking departure from his high fashion roots is his new loungewear collection. Launched last month, the line is inspired by the enduring appeal of Hollywood’s Golden Age. “I enjoyed working on loungewear because being comfortable is something I look forward to,” he says. “I thought, why not create something simple, yet light and sultry, using silk? It’s inspired by the glamour of the 1950s, with a modern twist.” The collection is embodied by Georgina Grenville, a South African model and a mainstay of the 1990s with a slew of Vogue covers to her name.
Structured crepe Dress with shoulder drape, scarf detail, and embroidered buttons, Ashi Studio Couture FW20; shoes, Ashi Studio. Photography: Tom Munro.
Contemporary, with a simple elegance, Ashi takes us on an emotional journey. His pieces catch the eye and certainly provide a haven from the noise and drama all around us. The avant garde designer will continue to push boundaries with the new fashion experiments he’s currently working on at his exclusive Parisian atelier. Time will tell where the winding cobblestone streets will lead – as always, Ashi will let beauty guide him.
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Originally published in the December 2020 Issue of Vogue Arabia
Hair Alexandrine PielMakeup Kelly McClainProduction laura Prior, Margaux HuguetPhotography Assistant William HalbersModel Cindy Bruna