Chic Happens: My Weekend in Kuwait

The dress code was described as “casual chic.” But when I arrived at Fahad Al Hajiri and Alanood Al Sabah’s home in the Adiliya suburb of Kuwait City on Friday night a week ago, casual had nothing to do with it.

The well-connected husband-and-wife team behind Octium, a 3-year-old jewelry brand based in Kuwait, had invited some 50 of their closest friends over to celebrate. (Celebrate what, you ask? Well, that’s the point: just to celebrate.) The lack of an explicit occasion was, ostensibly, the reason for the casual dress call. But in a culture where overtly sexy clothing is frowned upon in public and many women are expected to don the black robes of traditional Islamic dress—burquas, nijabs, and abayas are variations of the garments women use to cover their heads and bodies in public—Fahad and Alanood’s guests seized the opportunity of a private party to show off their collectively superb and extravagant taste.

Formfitting dresses with peplum skirts, belted gowns that recalled ultra-feminine black togas, skin-tight leather pants—Kuwaiti women, it seems, are eager consumers of the latest designer fashions. And that goes double for their spectacular choices in shoes: gold dominatrix heels bearing those telltale red-lacquered soles (Christian Louboutin, naturally), heel-less red suede platforms that called to mind exquisitely bound feet, knee-high boots tricked out in gold python skin. The fashion on display was every bit as sumptuous as the actual feast, a buffet of shawarma and Middle Eastern mezes that kept partygoers well-fed until the sun came up (literally).

Of all the racy clothes on parade, however, nothing rivaled the jewelry, a collection of vintage and contemporary pieces that looked as if they’d been plucked straight from the red carpet, but had in fact been borrowed from the safes of mothers and grandmothers with extraordinary jewelry collections dating back to the early years of the 20th century and beyond.

Let’s start with the lovely Alanood, who looked every part the glamorous hostess. Dressed in a striking red velvet dress with a plunging V in the back, she accessorized her outfit with her grandmother’s emerald ring, a Mughal-like masterpiece carved with an Islamic motif, and swinging ruby earrings. As a descendant of the royal Al Sabah family, Alanood is a princess—actually, a sheikha—not that you’d know it from her down-to-earth, warm demeanor. She and Fahad, a Kuwaiti of Saudi Arabian descent, met 13 years ago in Kuwait, during a break from their respective colleges in the United States. (She attended Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and he went to Hunter College in New York City.)

They wed in 2003. Six years and three children later, they founded Octium as a multibrand jewelry boutique in Kuwait’s upscale 360 Mall. In addition to stocking designers such as Britain’s Shaun Leane, New York City’s Jemma Wynne, and Beirut’s Selim Mouzannar, they filled their cases with their own distinctive rose gold and diamond designs, recognizable by the slanted octagonal “Octium” shape that appears throughout the collection.

 

Fahad and Alanood recently opened a shop-in-shop at the Harvey Nichols department store in Kuwait.

The couple’s ambitions, however, stretched far beyond the borders of their own country. In 2011, they landed their first overseas account at Harrods in London, becoming the first Kuwaiti brand to have a presence inside the legendary emporium (they have since pulled out of the store). Last year, Fahad, Alanood, and communications ambassador Adel El-Assaad attended the Couture show in Las Vegas for the first time.

Octium worked with Gemfields last year to create a sumptuous pair of earrings featuring the miner’s Zambian emeralds.

As part of their effort to establish a foothold in the American market, Fahad and Alanood extended an invitation to me to visit them on their home turf. Seeing as how I was already headed to Geneva to attend the 23rd annual Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), I jumped at the opportunity to divert my itinerary through a country that was familiar to me only as the seat of the first Gulf War. When I learned that my travel companions would be Octium publicist Michelle Orman and branding consultant Elizabeth Anne Bonnano, both of whom are dear friends of mine, I knew the trip would be charmed.

As the three of us made our way to the party that night, we worried that the kaftans we’d bought in Kuwait’s Mubarkiyah Market earlier in the day were inappropriate. As it turns out, we were right to question our sartorial judgment—Fahad and Alanood’s friends were among the most stylish and well-appointed people I had ever seen.

 

Beth Anne, me, and Michelle in our new duds from Mubarkiyah Market

One classy-looking brunette, the wife of an extremely wealthy merchant and jewelry collector (as I was later told), wore a pair of brilliant-cut diamond earrings that were, no joke, the size of half-dollars. In the subdued living room light, they shone like beacons. Another dark-haired beauty, an artist with Persian roots, wore a dramatic peacock bangle bracelet. Not to be outdone, a young woman who looked like a beautiful Frida Kahlo in her embroidered black dress and tiara made of red roses wore long black lacy gloves topped by an armful of diamond bangles and an elongated finger ring. Her earlobes hung with three-tiered emerald drops. The suite, as it turns out, had all been part of a dramatic necklace owned by her mother that she had cleverly broken down.

 

We nicknamed this partygoer Frida Kahlo. Check out her earrings, bangles, and crazy thigh-high gold boots!

While most of the men at the party wore traditional dishdashas in white or brown (with and without headdresses), they also strutted their jewelry chops. Alanood’s uncle, whose friendship with Andy Warhol in the 1970s is the stuff of family legend, wore an incredible rock crystal hourglass pendant that we jokingly described as the perfect party accessory for overly chatty guests—“When your time’s up, your time’s up,” Michelle quipped.

Fahad and Alanood had rearranged the living room into party mode: A series of sectionals formed a perimeter around the room, so that if you weren’t sashaying up and down the carpet to the beat of the 11-piece Kuwaiti band set up in the corner, you could at least enjoy the show. At one point, a troupe of Egyptian musicians took their drums to the dance floor, and the guests erupted in a frenzy of singing and dancing. Their rhythm caught me by surprise: Who knew the Kuwaitis were such good dancers?!

Shortly before 4 a.m., Fahad and Alanood’s driver arrived to deliver us back to the fashionable Hotel Missoni, in the seaside Salmiyah district. Before we left, I glanced around the home—at the partygoers still shaking their moneymakers on the dance floor, at the date palms standing sentry beyond the courtyard just outside the front door, and at our gracious hosts, the most privileged members of a traditional and stable society located on the periphery of a region beset by strife—and was briefly jarred by the recognition that elsewhere in the Middle East that night, people were consumed by tragedy.

For a moment, I imagined myself at a fabulous soiree in Tehran, partying like it was 1979. But then the perfume-scented air, the soulful strains of beloved Kuwaiti tunes, and the tantalizing array of sweets laid out on the buffet table snapped me out of my reverie. As we drove down the eerily silent streets toward our hotel, I willed myself to remember every detail of our charmed night in the Gulf. Party on Kuwait, party on.

We spotted this T-shirt at the Harvey Nichols department store in Kuwait’s Avenues Mall on the day of the party; its message couldn’t have been more accurate.