(Paris) The parade of Mohammed Ashi, the first Saudi to join the Parisian haute couture week, marks a new stage in the offensive of this country, which is investing colossal sums in culture and sport.

He has already dressed Queen Rania of Jordan, Penélope Cruz, Diane Kruger and Lady Gaga, but this parade Thursday, at the Théâtre du Châtelet, is “the peak of my career”, confided the designer to AFP.

Modest and unpretentious, he rarely put forward his nationality.

Her designs certainly defy the Saudi dress code with lots of transparency and cutouts revealing breasts and legs.

“I’m a citizen of the world, but I’ve always been proud to be Saudi,” the designer told reporters backstage after the show.

Feathers and long trains were incorporated into her graphic and sculptural, clean-lined looks, mostly in white and black.

The collection is about “a dark love story. It’s about extracting beauty from deep within and making it visible,” he stressed.

Ashi has forged her own path, having left the kingdom 30 years ago, but her promotion coincides with Riyadh’s announcement of its own fashion week in October.

Based in Paris, the fashion designer has been welcomed back to mentor young designers as part of plans to develop his own fashion industry.

At the end of June, young Saudi designers had already been highlighted during Men’s Fashion Week in Paris with their streetwear collections.

Fashion is just one part of a strategy that has seen Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman pour oil money into film, video games, football and tourism.

These changes, seen as a smokescreen to defuse criticism of its human rights record, particularly after the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, however, went further than anticipated.

“The first two years, I didn’t believe it was real. But then I realized it was true,” Yousef Akbar, 37, who launched his eponymous fashion label in Australia in 2017 and dressed Nicole Kidman and Rita Ora, told AFP.

“I thought I was going to spend my whole life in Australia since I’m a fashion designer,” he added, now also running his business from Jeddah.

The Saudi Fashion Commission is claiming these new freedoms around public dress and anticipates that retail sales in the sector will grow by 48% in the country between 2021 and 2025, to reach 32 billion dollars.

The organization, which wants much of that money to stay in Saudi Arabia, has created a 100-brand program to support designers in the kingdom. Its boss, Burak Cakmak, assures that there are solid foundations for a local fashion industry.

“Just because the country hasn’t shown it (before) to the rest of the world doesn’t mean it’s only starting now,” he told AFP, noting that he attended this week’s an event of a brand created in the 1970s.

“There is a pool of talent in Saudi Arabia that has not been able to express itself as it wanted for a long time,” noted French fashion designer Stéphane Rolland.

However, the kingdom is facing a pitfall, with a fashion industry where LGBTQIA themes are present and many designers claim their homosexuality, while the country continues to consider same-sex relations illegal.

The authorities “are certainly aware of this”, according to journalist Susanne Koelbl, author of the book on Saudi Arabia Behind the Kingdom’s Veil. Their approach is to simply “try to ignore it”.