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The Man Who Put Color Back in Saudi Menswear

Bishri said Abdullah asked him why there was a storm of criticism about his work. "I showed him the book and the coats worn by his father. I explained that the forbidding white we wear now was not part of our tradition but something new to society, something that dated back only three or four decades."

In the 1960s, he said, the kingdom's new oil wealth resulted in a more modern country and a less harsh lifestyle. White robes, which reflect heat, became more practical and easier to keep clean, he said.

"When people started wearing the thobe, everybody was convinced it was part of our culture. But our fathers did not always dress like that," Bishri said. "I was looking for how we dressed in the past because I knew we had no material and no clothes industry here, only what we imported."

Bishri told Abdullah that his designs were inspired by Arabic and Islamic art, including the geometric drawings on the houses in the central Najd and southern Asir regions, and the latticework on windows and doors in the western region of Hejaz.

Bishri said Abdullah asked him to make coats similar to the ones his father had worn and thobes in bright fabrics.

Newspapers published photos of Bishri and Abdullah at an annual cultural festival in which Bishri had been commissioned to design 1,000 diglas for a show that included several famous singers, and television footage showed Abdullah introducing him to regional royalty. Soon after, Bishri received a phone call from his father.

"He had never called me before," Bishri said. "He congratulated me and said he'd always been proud of me, despite what people had been saying. It was one of the proudest moments in my life."

Ahead of the Eid holiday, when Muslims buy new clothes, Bishri's modern boutique has been crowded with men being fitted for thobes and going through the racks. On a recent day, Bishri sat on a black leather chair, passing a pencil over a yellow pad, designing a new line embedded with leather snippets and patches for a group of young clients.

"I was bored of the classic thobes, and Yahya's designs were special, original and attractive. He created a revolution in menswear," said longtime client Mahmoud Abdul-Ghaffar, 46. "My sons now buy their thobes from Yahya. But theirs are more daring."

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