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This Qatari designer is modernizing the abaya. And celebrities are taking notice

Ghada Al Subaey, the designer behind Qatari ready-to-wear label 1309 Studios, wants to make abayas respected globally as kimonos

This Qatari designer is modernizing the abaya. And celebrities are taking notice
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

It’s 2023. We’re bored to death with debates about the hijab and abayas. Why do women wear it? Whether they are coerced into it. Snore. All this talk neglects the role of fashion in the abaya’s popularity.

Argentine model and reality TV star Georgina Rodriguez, partner of one of the most famous faces in football, Cristiano Ronaldo, who is signed by Saudi Arabia’s Al-Nassr club, was seen sporting elegant abayas on their arrival in Riyadh. 

Earlier, at the Portugal-Switzerland match during the FIFA World Cup, the 28-year-old and star of the Netflix show I Am Georgina opted for an elegant palm abaya designed by the contemporary brand 1309 Studios.

“Having Georgina walk into a boutique and pick our abaya off the rack and wear it for such an important event means that we have managed to reach that goal in making the abaya versatile and wearable. She picked one of our signature abayas, the Palm Sage green,” says Ghada Al Subaey, founder and creative director of 1309 Studios.

After gaining Rodriguez’s approval, the brand witnessed a surge in popularity. What stands out about this celebrity endorsement is that it was organic and not a planned paid collaboration. 


Sometimes all it takes is one celebrity picture to pull a label from the world of Instagram and insert it between the pages of top fashion magazines. In this sustainable fashion era, independent fashion brands and celebrities benefit from entering into organic partnerships in the long run. It is a win-win situation as the celebrity’s global appeal rises, and the brand’s sales figure increases.

Besides Rodriguez, Diane Von Furstenberg, Imaan Hammam, and Karen Wazen have joined the long list of celebrities who have helped the Qatari ready-to-wear label to become famous by aligning with it. 

In the high-stakes fashion business, Ghada believes dressing stars helps brand growth. “These celebrities have a huge number of followers and fans and it helps any brand to dress a celebrity and reach the celebrity audience. It signifies success and that the brand is doing well.” 

Established in 2015, 1309, a reference to her mother’s birth date, is on a mission to modernize the abaya and make it accessible to every woman around the world and make it easy to wear, adds Al Subaey.

From Rihanna and Kim Kardashian to Paris Hilton and Ivanka Trump, abayas have been making room at the fashion table. This piece of clothing has time and again shown that “modest” doesn’t have to be dowdy, dull, or head-to-toe neutrals. 

“I want to change this stigma around abayas. I want abayas to become as respected globally as kimonos and see everyone worldwide wearing them. Not necessarily to cover the body, but instead as a fashion statement.”


Around the Middle East, souks are lined with stores jam-packed with abayas. They come in all colors and styles. Depending on the region, their prices range from cheap to extremely expensive. And in the Arab world, where there are plenty of abaya designers, it’s crucial to stand out in a crowded space.

What differentiates 1309 from other brands is that it designs in an innovative way, says Al Subaey. “How could it evolve? What other possibilities can the abaya be worn that still need to be explored? We always try to think outside the box in terms of cuts and fabrics.

“We are bold yet very minimal and elegant.”

Nature, spirituality, and women inspire her creations. “Our designs are always driven by nature and the flow of nature; that’s why we have a lot of organic patterns and prints and lines, especially in the curvy swirls that we keep on using in prints and cuts to mimic the flow of life and the waves of the sea.”


While size inclusivity in fashion is frequently tokenistic, Al Subaey says it is very important for her label. “I do not believe that women should stick thin, so in every design we make, we make sure that it looks beautiful on every different body type.” 

“Women have become more daring and embrace new ideas and ways of dressing,” she adds.

However, the fashion industry is competitive. It can be a stressful career path to follow, as one’s work is constantly scrutinized. But the key is to remain positive and believe in what you’re trying to create.

“It is very difficult to be a founder and a creative director because you always have to dip in and out of managing the business between accounting and HR and then jump into design and inspiration and creating mood boards,” says Al Subaey. However, this helped me learn to be more organized and manage my time and tasks.”

Her struggle as a designer prompted her to build an ecosystem where designers in the MENA region can look beyond the shores. Her Cutting Studio provides mentorship to aspiring designers. “When I started as a designer, I didn’t have mentorship or a place I could turn to for guidance. That’s why it was very important for me to start the Cutting Studio and hire experts to help designers build their brand and show their collections in fashion weeks worldwide.”

“I want anyone interested in fashion to come and learn and explore.”

Al Subaey wants her ideas and inspiration to create change, whether about applying sustainable approaches in her work or utilizing environmentally friendly packaging. “I want the brand to continue to impact the community positively. I want to expand globally and represent the Arab world in a global fashion space.”

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Suparna Dutt D’Cunha is the Editor at Fast Company Middle East. She is interested in ideas and culture and cover stories ranging from films and food to startups and technology. She was a Forbes Asia contributor and previously worked at Gulf News and Times Of India. More

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