Riyadh Air and Ashi Studio revive golden age of air travel with couture cabin fashion

by martinawinneke

“Because we’re a start-up, we don’t have a legacy, which in situations like this is an absolute gift,” said Riyadh Air chief executive Tony Douglas at the Paris unveiling of the airline’s cabin crew uniforms, created by Saudi haute couture designer Mohammed Ashi.

The reveal at Monnaie de Paris in Pont Neuf, at the epicentre of the city’s haute couture calendar, was an experience presaging what one can expect from the airline, which will make its maiden voyage in 2025.

“Look at Leonardo DiCaprio there,” said a beaming Douglas pointing to a model in a captain’s uniform and referencing the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can. The film came up a number of times throughout the night from both the executive and designer Mohammed Ashi.

“The brief is connecting back to the halcyon days of commercial aviation,” said Douglas. “The PanAms, the TWAs, the Catch Me If You Can, with a real modern twist. Fast-forward 60 years, bring to it modernity, bring to it the spirit of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

It was a big day for Ashi, whose own haute couture collection earlier showed a unique eye for shape and surface. A fellow attendee in the room, struggling to cope with the Parisian heatwave, referred to his approach as “whispered drama”.

Monochromatic but engaging, it is an apt lens through which to appreciate this collection inspired by the golden age of travel in the 1950s and 1960s.

Ashi’s take on the influence resulted in elegant cashmere outerwear and dresses and trousers cut from fine wool, all finished with touches such as amethyst earrings, pillbox hats and even integrated hijabs. It avoids retro-kitsch, with the stated ambition of being future-proof.

The uniform includes amethyst earrings and pillbox hats. Photo: Riyadh Air
The uniform includes amethyst earrings and pillbox hats. Photo: Riyadh Air

The golden era of air travel was no stranger to collaborations between airlines and designers, from Christian Dior creating the Air France uniform in 1951, to Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel revamping the Olympic Airways designs in 1966. Ashi now joins that list of designers, and the moment is not lost on him.

“We are making a mark in history,” he said. “Fashion and aviation have seen collaborations in the past, but its pinnacle was over 50 years ago, and I was keen to be inspired by that time.”

With a strong nod to couture, the new looks are sharply tailored and one version includes a hijab. Photo: Riyadh Air
With a strong nod to couture, the new looks are sharply tailored and one version includes a hijab. Photo: Riyadh Air

The word “experience” comes up a lot throughout the day with Riyadh Air’s executives and creative team. The team share a clear sense that something is broken in contemporary high-end airlines or perhaps everyone has just lost their verve.

“We’ve not really been looking at the here and now,” said Douglas, when asked about what other airlines he looked at when the design process started.

“I think there are some incredible cabin crew uniforms out there but, like so many things in life, over time the edges start directionally coming to the centre. Today, when I walk through Charles De Gaulle or London Heathrow, there’s nobody that instantly stands out in the crowd.”

When it comes to the cabin crew uniform unveiled on the Parisian runway, it would be more appropriate to describe the designs as a collection, which incidentally is exactly what the airline has done. The “new lifestyle collection” for front-line staff will include 35 outfits for both male and female staff, which can be changed throughout the seasons, and 15 of them were on show on the night.

Ashi has created entirely new colour tones for the looks, too – the striking Electric Amethyst for womenswear, and Dark Amethyst for menswear. It was a process that took six months as part of the year-long collaboration between his studio and the airline.

The amethyst shades are a nod to Saudi Arabia’s lavender fields and a constant feature of Riyadh Air’s communication and branding. The colours are also a hint at the aircraft interiors, which will be revealed later this year.

The men's uniforms are made in a custom-made colour called Dark Amethyst. Photo: Riyadh Air
The men’s uniforms are made in a custom-made colour called Dark Amethyst. Photo: Riyadh Air

“A blank slate is an absolute gift,” said Anton Vigden, Riyadh Air’s vice president of guest experience. “Up until recently, we were a PowerPoint airline, we just existed on laptops in many ways. So now having these pieces that will actually be flying makes it all the more real.”

Beyond the evening’s fashion show, there’s a practical reason for the designs to be revealed a year ahead of the airline’s maiden flight: wear testing. “We’ve hired dozens of crew already and that process needs to begin very soon so we can do enough wear testing and make modifications,” said Vigden.

But away from the practicality, the word of the night was glamour. It was certainly on display on the guest list. Actors Tom Hollander, Michelle Williams, Calista Flockhart and Sadi Sink were in attendance, as well as Saudi actress Nada Baeshen and Nojoud Alrumaihi, an entrepreneur and Saudi media figure. Also present were Prince Faisal bin Bandar, the chairman of Saudi eSports and Arab eSports Federations, and Noha Kattan, deputy minister for national partnerships and development department at the Ministry of Culture, Saudi Arabia.

“When our cabin crew walk through Paris Charles de Gaulle in the future, when they walk through JFK in the future, when they go through Shanghai, just like those old PanAm ones, straightaway people will go: ‘Riyadh Air’,” said Douglas.

Updated: June 28, 2024, 11:37 AM

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