Hatem Alakeel is a Saudi Arabian fashion designer who is most known for adding an artistic and contemporary flare to the traditionally classic-looking Saudi Arabian men’s dress, the thobe.
It was Alakeel’s personal efforts in designing his own traditional thobes that resulted in the birth of his brand, Toby by Hatem Alakeel, in 2007, after his designs caught the attention of his co-workers and social circle.
It was not long before Alakeel shot to stardom, having his creations presented beside those of Armani, Tom Ford, Prada and the like. The “King of Thobe” was one of the titles his popularity earned him.
Today, the designer is more focused on his core Saudi market and has expanded his creative approach to tap into nontraditional ready-to-wear and children’s wear. He has even experimented with women’s wear.
Aficionado sits down for a one-on-one with Alakeel, looking back at his beginnings, the brand’s current focus and its recent expansions.
You are a global citizen and this is portrayed in your designs. What is this the result of?
I’m pretty much a product of the Western and Eastern influences. I started off in French Lycee for boarding school since I was very young. Then I went to the United States for high school and university. So, there is a combination of European influences and living in the United States.
In the US, I did some part-time modeling for Armani and that’s when fashion started to bite me. I realised then that I needed the correct formula to enter this world, but didn’t have it and I wasn’t really trained in fashion. I ended up majoring in marketing and communications.
I then moved to Saudi Arabia, where I worked in advertising, then moved to Chalhoub Group, where I worked for about three years – that was my entry to the world of brands and understanding how fashion brands operated in the Middle East.
After that, I moved to a marketing role in a bank. I wasn’t enjoying the corporate environment at all. I had to wear the same traditional thobe every day, as that is the equivalent of a suit in the kingdom. I couldn’t wear the same thing every day, so I found some really good tailors and stated designing my own thobe.
People started to pick up on this and ask where I got my thobes from. I realised there was a demand for that and opened my first boutique in Jeddah in 2007.
How challenging was it to design your own and others’ thobes in the beginning, as you had no fashion training?
The designs were mine and Google tutorials were also very helpful on how to really get a good finishing for shirts. The way I envisioned the thobe was deconstructing the shirt and giving it a different feel. I wanted to bring a little Savile Row and quality into traditional wear.
We used to go, as a family, to Rome every year since I was a kid and I got exposed to all these amazing brands, so I wanted to bring a bit of that high fashion into traditional wear.
After my first fashion show in Dubai in 2008, my entire collection was bought and my creations were displayed alongside those of Dolce&Gabbana, Armani, Prada and their like.
To me that was it. I wanted to showcase that traditional wear can be put alongside international brands. This is how I view and position my brand: it is a luxury brand, it is traditional, but still has fashion aesthetics.
Today, we have two boutiques in Jeddah and one in Riyadh.
Who buys Toby?
There is a classic range called “Toby Businessmen range”, which is very traditional and classic, featuring really high-quality tailoring and it has a bit of an edge to it.
Obviously, the main thing that I’m known for is the avant-garde style, worn for red carpets and film festivals; those pieces that really want to make a fashion statement, that really have a global fusion.
Do people mostly come to you for bespoke tailoring or just to shop off the rack?
The core of the Saudi market is custom-made for luxury, but ready-to-wear is also on the rise and evolving. So now we have custom-made ready-to-wear , which are already cut and made for clients, and they can just take them and leave.
You expanded beyond the traditional thobe, creating modern menswear, children’s wear and women’s wear. Can you tell us how that has been perceived?
I’ll always be creating the thobe, but I wanted to add a variety to what I’m doing. I think anyone would like to get out of their comfort zone and flex their design muscles.
Getting into menswear is something I always wanted to do; I wear a lot of the stuff that I make as well.
The first ready-to-wear was done last year and I have them in my stores. We started with capsule collections, but the ultimate goal is to do periodical Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer collections in the next couple of years.
I have also dabbled in women’s wear. We do capsule collections for Ramadan and that has been very well received. It’s just a matter of being able to manage everything at the same time.
Walk us through one of your average days.
In addition to the design, I’m also taking care of the administration, so I’m wearing many hats. In the morning it’s administrative stuff, checking on my production and tailors to make sure they are meeting requirements – I have my own atelier in Jeddah, so I manage that. Then I have my own retail, so I check on the stores and the sales team to make sure everything is intact.
Then I head back to the office maybe start thinking of the design process. I mainly design in the afternoons, but it can come to me any time during the day – I could be in the shower, after watching an old movie, really anytime – but there are specific hours where I relate the notes I made throughout the week and try to execute them. I always keep a design diary.
Exercise is very important; it’s a great way for me to clear my head. I make sure to have at least 45 minutes of gym or anything that is not work, then back to work.
Work does not stop. It starts at seven in the morning and really finishes at midnight; it’s an ongoing process. Now I also have a lot more involvement with my clientele face-o-face. Over the years, I realised that there are many clients that need to be taken care of and I think, as a designer and a business owner, customer relationship management is key.
However, one has to learn to let go sometimes, when you have people that you can delegate to and that’s what I’m trying to learn now, to delegate and have more time for my designing.
Do you make it a point to meet with every customer? At least those coming in for bespoke tailoring?
I do meet quite a few of my clients by appointment and I make a conscious effort to make sure that I am in the shop, because a lot of them also see me as their personal stylist, so they like to take advice from me.
You recently launched an e-commerce website. How is that performing?
The orders through online have been really growing substantially. On the website, people can buy ready-to-wear or take appointments for custom-made thobes.