Thobes: From the Desert to Paris


Thanks to his diverse and multicultural background, Hatem Alakeel has discovered how to fuse tradition with modernity. His first language was French, attended boarding school in Switzerland and then moved to DC for high school. After studying in Boston for university, he landed his first job at Ford in New York. After working with top tier fashion brands, and dabbling in marketing and advertising, he moved back to Saudi where he spent the next few years in the banking sector. It was the day-to-day in the corporate world, that propelled him to venture off on his own. On a visit to Savile Row in London, he made the decision to bring the traditional tailoring to his region. The rest, as they say, is history.


Crowned as the king of thobes, Hatem is a meticulous fashion designer. A thobe is an ankle-length traditional garment, usually with long sleeves and similar to a robe or tunic. While often mass-produced, Hatem has created a thobe that is inspired by tradition, and yet completely revamped and modern, with unique touches that only he can craft. Fused with modern, traditional and international inspiration, his thobes are custom tailored and immaculately executed. With a desire to bring artisanal savoir-faire into Saudi tradition, Hatem has done just that. His big-break came about through an invitation to participate in fashion week in 2007, when Majed al-Sebah— owner of the first multi-brand boutique in Dubai, Villa Moda— attended his show and purchased the entire collection for Villa Moda Dubai, Villa Moda Bahrain, and Villa Moda Kuwait. Standing alongside the international big players was a great honor for Hatem, and it set the stage for his future recognition in the fashion world. Hatem insists that tradition can hold its own even in high fashion— if the garment is crafted with care and quality, it can have the international appeal. 


Although very westernized and exposed himself, Hatem acknowledges that his Saudi heritage is what inspired him to create thobes, which he views as a way of celebrating his roots, identity and culture. His brand, Toby, meaning ‘my thobe’ offers a collection of robes and shirts for men and women, that are the fusion of traditional with modern contemporary, all with careful attention to details, down to the stitching and finishing. Ready-to-wear styles can be ordered online, and custom-made designs can be created for any body shape or size. Featuring a formal collection with classic looks, as well as a casual line with avant-garde street style thobes, the designs merge west and east, coupled with a global fusion. After a recent visit to Japan, Hatem’s first inspiration was from a Samurai. He says that Japanese culture is also very much a part of his design ethos.  


While the thobe was his stepping stone into fashion, today Hatem also creates designs for women, shirts, prêt-à-porter, and has become a fashion curator in every sense of the word. Over the years he has created talks and exhibitions, invited speakers from MIT, factory workers, and students from the London School of Fashion, to share their ideas. “I felt like it was kind of my duty to kind of give back”, he says. “I think that when you see success stories and when you see people who are achieving things that they never thought they could achieve, you give the young generation hope, and also incentive, to pursue it”. 

Are thobes only for a specific segment of society? “Not at all”, he asserts. “If you appreciate fashion and have a passion for design, you will find something that speaks to you”. His pieces are what one would consider affordable luxury— made with top-of-the line fabrics and impeccable quality, yet still approachable. Moving forward, he hopes to work more with sustainable fabrics, and is presently exploring how to achieve it. “It would be ignorant not to follow that”, he says.  


While designing for men can sometimes be limiting in terms of originality, Hatem has discovered the fine line between being authentic and innovative, without being too creative or unwearable. Even among the classic styles, there are subtle differences that keep things interesting, he says, as well as fabrics, textures and stitching which continue to inspire him. His collections for women and children, as well as a jewelry line for children, provide ample opportunity for him to utilize his creativity.

Hatem is optimistic about the future because he senses that there is a celebration of different cultures, which he predicts will continue. He views fashion as the perfect medium to bridge cultures, and hopes that every culture celebrates and enriches one another. “Each culture deserves to be praised, celebrated and respected for their differences and individual strengths”, he says.


If you ask Hatem, a thobe can be worn by anyone. As a comfortable and practical garment, it is becoming widely appreciated beyond the Muslim community and Friday prayers. With orders coming in from Michigan, New York, Paris, London and South Africa, Hatem is convinced that the trend is growing. “It’s a fashion statement”, he says, recalling the time Elie Mizrahi wore a thobe he designed to the Golden Globes— a welcome nod to inclusivity that certainly made a statement. Hatem has also designed T-shirts for Prince William and his polo team, through a Saudi charity that supports the team.

If he had the chance to dress another celebrity, his first pick goes to Justin Timberlake who he views as an icon who will be remembered for his talent, his aesthetic and his music. From his classic line, he would love to dress George Clooney. Of the ladies? Amal Clooney is at the top of his list.