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Weaving History Into Fabric


Fashion is but one form of self reflection and expression. We can say a lot simply in the way we dress.



It definitely is not a hyperbole to say that art and design are the foundation of Dr. Reem El Mutwalli’s world.

This UAE based Iraqi art and design consultant strives to preserve all that is archaic and vintage and has become her defining characteristic.

An entrepreneur of sorts, she is all for that is an amalgamation of different cultures from the Gulf and the region, plus contemporary interpretations of the culmination of all these influences, through various expressions of Art.

And what drives her towards her passion and ties the creative threads she likes to mingle with is the constant need to give back, be productive, to find new horizons, and challenge her own self.

No wonder then that she has long-held the dream to open the UAE’s first permanent exhibition dedicated to traditional Emirati dress.

Treasures from the Past

Born in Iraq in the early 60s’, Dr. Reem’s family relocated to the Emirate in 1968 when she was just five years old and her father was the legal and economic consultant to Crown Prince Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan before he became President.

But obviously, she had the opportunity to grow close to members of the ruling family and received many gifts of clothes over the years.

Having carefully preserved these pieces spanning over four decades since the country’s establishment, it is believed that she has the greatest archive of traditional UAE garments.

Reports suggest that she holds a couple of ensembles particularly dear, including the traditional gold-studded dress (thawb wa kandurah imyaza riyasi) made for her by Sheikha Hamdah bint Mohammed Al Nahyan in 1999.

Another treasured item and the oldest from her collection is a royal blue and silver embellished gown with matching shayla, gifted to her mother upon the family’s arrival to the UAE by Sheikha Shamma bint Rashid bin Khalaf Al Utaybah, the first wife of Sheikh Tahnoon bin Mohammed Al Nahyan.

Her collection of antique clothing continued to grow as she compiled data for her book Sultani – Traditions Renewed, including unseen photographs and memoirs from several generations of the Ruling Family.

She was fortunate that some ladies, on hearing of her studies and interest, would send her pieces they thought would be interesting for her to collect. “I also bought pieces myself that I thought to be peculiar, unusual,” she says.

And what a pleasure it is to be able to witness a few exhibits from this one of a kind collection under the banner Sultani – Traditions Renewed, at the recently opened Robinsons’ Store at Dubai Festival City that stages the changes in Emirati women’s dress from during the reign of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1966-2004).


Dr Reem as a child

Lessons from years gone by

Following years of study into the origins and evolution of Arab dress, in 2000, she established her own label fusing classical and modern designs. She started to create her own special textiles, in the form of lace and silks embellished with Swarovski crystals, sequins and semi-precious stones. Her creations are sold privately to a list of exclusive female clients.

She writes in one of her four books: “Globalisation itself has had a big effect on the UAE society. Being open to the rest of the world whether through media, communication, travel or imports, etc, allowed interaction with and exposure to other cultures.

“Due to these circumstances, women were exposed to a lot in a short space of time and their understanding of textiles and design matured quickly. Their tastes also became very refined.”

She says the modern-day Emirati shayla is a good yardstick for the changing tastes in domestic fashions.

“The headscarf in the 1960s’ used to be a very wide piece of cloth, purely functional with no embroidery and large enough to cover almost the full upper part of the body as no one wore abayas. With time, the headscarf became narrower and shorter so that now it just covers the head.

“Also at that time, abayas were reserved just for the wealthy. So it was really just the merchants’ wives and Sheikhs’ wives, who would own abayas and wear them.”

Dr. Reem El Mutwalli with her daughter in a traditional dress

An Ardent Art Aficionado

She believes she owes her innate passion for art since an early age thanks to her parents.

Raised in a home where art was interwoven in everyday life, both her parents collected art, befriended poets, writers, musicians and artists from all walks of life. “Growing in such surroundings I guess helped water the seeds within me,” she believes.

Future of Fashion

Dr. Reem reflects, “We have come a long way….The privileged economic and technical circumstances  that we live in particular in the Gulf States has provided  fertile grounds for experimentation and interaction both with the East and the West that is very fast culminating into a maturity in taste and expression.”

She indeed looks forward for a time when Arabs can tangibly have a productive footprint internationally rather than just being on the consumer end.


Dr. Reem’s book at Robinsons in Dubai




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