How Shirene Rifai is Building the Middle East's Next Fashion Hotspot

Jordan is not your typical fashion hub at first glance. And yet, Shirene Rifai proves you wrong. 

Shirene Rifai, Founder of the Jordan Fashion Week at the Kempinski Hotel in Amman. Picture by Thomas Concordia/Getty Images for Jordan Fashion Week, 2019.

The multi-tasking entrepreneur and fashion influencer studied law before working as a fashion consultant and editor, and eventually becoming the founder of Jordan Fashion Week (JFW), whose first edition – supported by the Jordanian Tourism Board and other public and private sponsors – just took place last weekend in Amman at the Kempinski Hotel. And Shirene is on a mission, to say the least: she wants to turn Jordan into one of the main destinations for fashion and lifestyle in the Middle East, by strengthening the influence of local fashion in the Jordanian economy and attracting international interest. 

"Throughout my international travels, I have learned a lot about fashion and design, and I have wanted to come back to my own country and mentor our designers in order to establish a community of fashion designers here in Jordan," explains Shirene Rifai backstage after her event. "I think, as of today, we all contributed in creating a milestone for Jordan fashion. It's a challenge to create an ecosystem for tomorrow's fashion industry. The JFW is the first step of many in order to create a structure and international exposure for Jordan fashion, but each and every struggle is worth it. I want to give our creatives an outlet to expose themselves and showcase their talent to the world."

While it's not de facto a fashion "week" yet – the program consisted of a 2-day event on March 29th and 30th filled with runway shows, presentations, a designer showroom, and panel talks – the first edition of Jordan Fashion Week dedicated to the ongoing Spring/Summer 2019 season clearly had all it takes to compete with other industry events that take place in the region and successfully put itself on the fashion industry's radar. 

JO! By Creative Jordan runway show in Amman. Pictures by Thomas Concordia/Getty Images for Jordan Fashion Week, 2019.

The even featured successful Jordanian all-stars, such as womenswear designer Laith Maalouf, Dana Shahin, Sara Mansour, and Hussam Haddadin, amongst other designers that introduced their signature-style, glamorous evening wear, as well as Fadi Zumot that impressed with edgy, gender-bending upcylced ready-to-wear pieces, and the collective JO! By Creative Jordan that merges traditional craftsmanship with sophisticated looks. 

In this context, Fadi Zumot and JO! By Creative Jordan particularly stood out. The latter is an initiative by Jordanian designer-trio that works with talented women artisans from Jordan and consists of Zain Mango, Dina Maqdah, and Ibrahim Al Badarin. The trio stood out for their ability to mix-and-match traditional Jordan crafts with modern-day design, embellishing casual sustainable denim outfits with diamond shaped stitched embroidery.

Fadi Zumot, for his part, showcased his architectural take on fashion and upcycled mattress materials provided by Jordanian brand Richmond in order to "investigate manifestations of gender and sexuality through clothing, addressing social and cultural notions of expression and restriction," as he put it himself. 


Fadi Zumot runway show in Amman. Pictures by Thomas Concordia/Getty Images for Jordan Fashion Week, 2019.

In addition to Jordan's best established and emerging designer brands, the JFW also invited other industry fixtures and up-and-coming talents from the region, such as Lebanese womenswear designer Jean-Louis Sabaji who showcased his sophisticated cocktail numbers and the political-conscious and eclectic designer team behind the Palestinian indie brand tRASHY CLOTHING, run by Shukri Lawrence and Reem Kawasmi, Luai Al-Shuaibi, Omar Braika, and Sereen Khass.

But Jordan Fashion Week is much more than just another runway event. Its launch is more than just an addition to the fashion industry's endless range of fashion week events throughout the world. Most countries in the Middle East have long only rhymed with “oil money,” “purchasing power,” and “tax-free haven” (and some still do), which is why local creatives and entrepreneurs such as Shirene Rifai have been working hard to fight against those preconceptions and to show to the world that some of the major cities in the Middle East, such as Amman, can also grow into becoming authentic and profitable cultural hubs for fashion and lifestyle.

tRASHY CLOTHING runway show in Amman. Picture by Thomas Concordia/Getty Images for Jordan Fashion Week, 2019.

"I've been working with local designers for a long while, before starting Jordan Fashion Week, and I could feel their frustration," continues Shirene Rifai. "To have so much potential and no opportunity to gather and showcase this potential on an international level is just a big waste of talent, which is why our community of creatives and designers joined forces with me to stage this first edition of Jordan Fashion Week. We have a lot of authentic talents that have no access to fashion education and premium materials, and yet manage to create beautiful collections. They are trying to make it happen, although the market is poor and there are not enough opportunities for them to succeed. And yet, they believe in what they do; they never give up. They deserve to be put in the limelight." 

As such, the first edition of the JFW is a symbol of a long overdue recognition towards designers and creatives from the Middle East that do not operate in your standard go-to, touristy fashion destinations, such as Dubai and Beirut. After all, events such as the JFW, but also FFWD, the Modest Fashion Week, and Arab Fashion Week, all lead to one conclusion: the Middle East's impact on the fashion industry now reaches far beyond its important purchasing power. It has established itself as a creative reference point in the fashion industry with a notable voice both within and outside the region.

Today, Jordan's designers and creative minds are working harder than ever to prove that an actual cultural (r)evolution is not only happening across the Middle East, but that it also deserves to be recognized and respected as such by the international opinion. And while the JFW still needs some industry support to evolve and improve its program – such as international mentoring and educational guidance for its designers, collaborations with established model agencies, and the development of business relationships with international buyers –  its potential to become the Middle East's next fashion hub is undeniably present.  

Jean-Louis Sabaji runway show in Amman. Pictures by Thomas Concordia/Getty Images for Jordan Fashion Week, 2019.

"My vision for this platform is to go from Amman, to Aqaba, to Petra, to Wadi Rum, and beyond. To showcase the diversity of Jordan culture through fashion. Amman was just the beginning, and in the long haul we want this event to take place in different cities throughout Jordan, and bi-annually, if possible," concluded Shirene Rifai. "Together with the government, we are also working on establishing a council of fashion professionals from Jordan and abroad in order to provide guidance, mentorship, and educational programs for our fashion designers, both established and aspiring. We also work on establishing collaborations with textile factories in Jordan for our designers." In other words: keep your eyes and ears peeled, because the best of Jordan Fashion Week is yet to come.