‘I can’t take this push-up style anymore’: Women in the Arab world embrace a new comfort zone

Arab women are flexing their spending muscles and demanding lingerie alternatives

Women seen above shop at Maison Clad in Dubai. Many women in the Arab world are demanding stores that cater to their own modern tastes rather than the traditional lingerie boutiques.
Women seen above shop at Maison Clad in Dubai. Many women in the Arab world are demanding stores that cater to their own modern tastes rather than the traditional lingerie boutiques. (Katarina Premfors/For The Washington Post)

On a recent evening, Dubai boutique owner Coralie Francois stuffed a large suitcase with bras and underwear and hauled her goods across town to the spacious walk-in closet of one of her most loyal clients.

Surrounded by designer high heels, flowing maxi dresses and full-length mirrors, Francois recalled parking herself on a plush armchair, laying out dozens of European-imported bras and lingerie sets.

Francois pointed out lace, batik and leopard patterns while sipping on cardamom-spiced Arabic coffee and discussing — female entrepreneur to female entrepreneur — the challenges of juggling child care and work while maintaining high fashion standards as the pandemic continued to linger, Francois said during a recent phone interview.

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On that one home visit, she said that she sold around $1,500 of lingerie and loungewear, a hefty addition to the earnings from her four stores across the city. Before she left, she showed her client how to find her favorite pieces on her new website. It was a shift, Francois said, that many customers are now used to, and even come to prefer, in the pandemic.

“They trust my advice because they know it is personalized,” Francois said of her Maison Clad clients. “When I see the women, I know what will fit and what is missing for them. I have a very good memory.”

The in-home fittings, combined with the move to online sales and expanded delivery options, didn’t just keep her Maison Clad lingerie stores afloat during the pandemic lockdowns. Sales doubled, Francois said.

The success of the personalized services underlines the growing purchasing power of the young professional women in the region who are demanding stores that cater to their tastes, instead of those determined by traditional shops or multinational chains, fashion industry experts say.

“This is a time for women’s empowerment, where we’re seeing women working in fields that didn’t even exist a few years ago,” said Nada Baeshen, a fashion influencer based in Jiddah. She said that while lingerie has always been a big market in Saudi Arabia, the styles are now defined by “women who, as they become more confident, are the ones deciding what is pretty.”

Francois predicts that the website for Maison Clad, which provides her with critical browsing and purchasing data from her customers, will remain the backbone of her business even after the pandemic ends. “Our website turned into a window into what our customers wanted,” she said.

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What they want, increasingly, are alternatives to the overly sexualized offerings at so many local boutiques and major international chains, Francois said. She said that many of her loyal high-spending Saudi customers have now told her, “I can’t take this Victoria’s Secret push-up style anymore.”

For the female founders of the modern technology-forward lingerie shops, the circumstances of the past year and a half of lockdowns and a new reality have exposed a powerful corner of the market: homebound shoppers scrolling social media, increasingly in need of comfortable everyday intimates.

Kenz, an exclusively online bra and lingerie shop that focuses on the Saudi market, said business has surged by 60 percent during the pandemic. It has expanded its Saudi style social media campaign, using Saudi influencers who do not show their face or body on camera. And it ensures deliveries arrive in nondescript parcels, to stem gossip from nosy neighbors.

For Saudi National Day in September last year, Kenz hired Amira Moubarak, a fashion influencer based in Riyadh, to post Instagram photos of her manicured, bejeweled hand displaying a pajama top, a bustier and shape wear. (Also in the frame were a burning candle, a bouquet of white roses and a laptop opened to a picture of a model in a black bra from the Kenz website.)

“We girls always have bra sizing problems,” the post said. “The solution is at @KenzWoman, a very wonderful site where an all-women team will help you to learn your size and your needs.” The Kenz website also offers Arabic-language bra fitting tutorial videos, sizing quizzes and calculators, and blog posts on “strengthening your marriage during quarantine” as well as “sister sizing,” a system for finding alternative bra cup and band sizes.

Christina Ganim, a Palestinian American who is one of the founders of Kenz, said most of her clients are between the ages of 25 and 35, searching for items beyond the usual mall offerings that prioritize sex appeal over practicality. “Our customers are in transitional periods in their lives, so are comforted to know that we are a brand by women, for women,” she said.

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The forces that propelled the online lingerie shopping moment in the Arab world were set in motion well before the coronavirus pandemic, when Saudi Arabia, the region’s largest market, embarked on an ambitious modernization program. Almost two-thirds of the Saudi population is under the age of 35. Among them are multitasking millennial moms who, especially over the last year and a half of lockdowns, home schooling, and working from home, have been swapping out their stilettos for sneakers, billowing skirts for mom jeans, and push-up bras for wireless bralettes and balconettes.

They are also in the throes of a societal overhaul led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aimed at reducing the kingdom’s dependence on oil revenue and diversifying the economy. “The Saudi market has been the largest in the region, with high purchasing power, and a very young and social media-forward base,” said Amira Salah Ahmed, a representative from Womena, a group that supports female startups in the Arab world.

Over the past three years, female participation in the Saudi workforce has skyrocketed, easily surpassing the targets within the Vision 2030 plan of the crown prince, according to the Saudi General Authority for Statistics. Further, other measures have curbed the influence of the bearded morality police who trawl the streets and the shopping centers, admonishing women who exposed any part of their bodies beside their hands or their eyes.

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After the 2018 royal decree pronounced that women were no longer obliged under Saudi law to wear the abaya, many women have repurposed the loosely fitting long-flowing cloak into fashionable, open-front kimonos. Athleisure has taken hold at gyms, and when society finally emerged from the coronavirus restrictions during the spring, an everyday bra paired with a white shirt and statement earrings debuted as the new modest power look.

One repeat Saudi customer to Kenz, the Saudi-focused online bra startup, said that underwear was as critical to her confidence as her outfit and her abaya. “Underwear that is of good quality and suits my body improves my outer look and feels consistent with my outer clothes,” she wrote via WhatsApp on the condition of anonymity to speak about the sensitive subject.

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The simpler looks do not necessarily mean lower end. In the Gulf region, many Arab women view fashion as a high-priority investment, dropping on average $2,400 every month on beauty, clothes and gifts, according to data from the Chalhoub Group, a retailer and distributor based in Dubai.

Moreover, globally, retailers have come to learn that while much of the Arab world’s lingerie is concealed, it is anything but tame. Many women will wear designer pantsuits or leggings and sports bras for the viewing pleasure of a handful of friends and relatives or female gatherings.

Another layer down is seriously sexy underwear generally seen by Arab women as a justified splurge purchase, noted Hafsa Lodi, the author of “Modesty: A Fashion Paradox” who is based in Dubai. She said, “Lingerie is a fun way of dressing up within a marriage. There’s also a patriarchal belief you need to keep your husband hooked, not to take a second wife.”

The new women-owned lingerie boutiques are up against stiff competition from international brands as well as more homegrown outlets. Powerhouse online retailer Asos sells lingerie. Victoria’s Secret has 25 stores throughout the Gulf region. In 2014, British retailer Marks & Spencer opened its first lingerie and beauty shop in Riyadh, and it now has 45 general clothing stores in the Gulf region. Skims, the shapewear line from Kim Kardashian West, has been selling through the Arab luxury retailer Ounass.

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Then there are the elaborate intimate imports from Syrian factories, run by conservative Muslim men and sewn by hijab-wearing women, that have for decades been the dominant players of the humorous-raunch corner of the lingerie market, with feather-encrusted G-strings, nipple-less leotards, and “curtain” bras and thongs, connected to drawstrings which open “peekaboo” flaps that barely cover the breasts and crotch.

Selling lingerie in bricks-and-mortar stores remains complicated in a region where it is prohibited to show skin in display windows. Until the new wave of boutiques came along, the messaging was about amping up the sex appeal for men, rather than meeting the needs of women, said Noor Al Sabah, a former buyer for the local luxury supplier Al Othman.

Knowing that a store was run by a “a mother, a wife, and that we do not need to go to some dingy, weird place that makes you feel like a mistress, is important,” said Al Sabah, who made big purchases at Madame Bijouxx, a women-owned, online lingerie boutique based in Kuwait City.

She said that the new outlet of shopping for lingerie reflects a rapidly growing, online-based movement among Arab women. Earlier this year, some women in Jiddah, Beirut, Dubai and Cairo launched an online platform called Mauj to raise awareness around female sexual health. In Dubai, an online company called Ketish began marketing a “quickie” wipe.

On private WhatsApp groups and Instagram pages, women are discussing sex positions, “honor killings,” sexual violence against women and other taboo subjects that cannot easily be discussed in public. “The younger generation is much more exposed. Women travel more. Mothers, like me, don’t want their daughters to live with the same taboos that we had,” said Al Sabah, noting that, growing up, she had been told “my body was sinful.”

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Sarah Al Abdulkareem, the founder of Madame Bijouxx, said that she never meant to be part of a movement. She launched in 2015 after being unable to find elegant lingerie in Kuwait City to use ahead of her own wedding night. Over the years, Al Abdulkareem said, young brides have also contacted her through the website, asking her intimate questions.

She now sells hats, beach towels and other vacation accessories, in addition to lingerie. Even today, however, she gets occasional “negative comments,” from visitors to the website and from religiously conservative relatives who have told her that “posting images of naked women” on her store website is “not okay,” said Al Abdulkareem, with a sigh. “But this is important because it’s not about the sex,” she said. “It’s about what we choose to wear.”

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