Sheikha Moza bint Nasser al-Missned, the mother of the new Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim, is renowned for her ability to merge the conservative social mores of Qatar with her acute eye for fashion when it comes to both her personal and investment style. It is a talent that is changing her country’s relationship with the luxury industry.
The flowing robes of the 53-year-old chime with the ultraconservative Gulf, while their couture house origins are feted by fashion journalists and designers.
“Modest, yet cutting edge, she has found a niche style that is not offensive to her culture and religion,” says Sandra Wilkins, chair of the fashion department at the Virginia Commonwealth University campus in Doha. “She is laying out ground rules: you can be fashionable and cutting edge, but there are boundaries.”
Similarly, as the matriarch of the gas-rich state (Sheikha Moza is the second of the three wives of the recently retired emir, Sheikh Hamad, who transformed Qatar from a sleepy backwater into a global power, and the current emir is their second son), she has played an important role as a power broker in her own right.
“She understands fashion is a huge industry that offers tremendous opportunities for women,” Ms Wilkins says. “She also understands that the small population here constitutes a high percentage of its clients, and so you need to be part of that industry.”
As European luxury groups have faced troubles, emerging economic powers, including Qatar, have snapped up these sought-after brands. Mayhoola for Investments, a firm widely believed in banking circles to be a vehicle for Sheikha Moza and perhaps other members of the ruling family, bought Italian designer Valentino last year for a reported $850m.
Mayhoola, “unknown” in Qatari dialect of Arabic, keeps a low profile, but has also spent a reported £27m for a stake in handbags manufacturer Anya Hindmarch. Sheikha Moza’s reported financial interest in the very fashion houses whose clothes she wears reflects a broader investment strategy of the uber-wealthy Gulf state.
Qatar’s sovereign wealth funds have been picking up blue-chips at bargain basement prices amid the financial crisis. Qatar Holding last year picked up a small stake in LVMH. But these well-known – and sometimes controversial – investments into global companies, such as Barclays and Credit Suisse, not to mention trophy assets such as department stores Harrods in London and Printemps in Paris, have been accompanied by strategic purchases for domestic development.
Sheikha Moza has followed a similar approach in the luxury market, seeking to build the foundations for a nascent fashion industry in Doha. Qatar Luxury Group, which she chairs, hopes to turn Doha from a source for big-spending customers into a location for manufacturing high-end design. The company, run by former LVMH executive Gregory Couillard, took 100 per cent control of French leather-goods group Le Tanneur & Cie in 2011.
Investment into industry specialists feeds attempts to nurture sectors that appeal to Qatar’s large population of pampered youths, who have grown to expect well-paid public sector jobs at the expense of an entrepreneurial culture. On September 25 QLG will open a boutique for its homegrown luxury QELA brand on the capital’s Pearl island, though fashion insiders say Qatar’s ability to buy its way into the big league remains an open question.
Either way, education is Sheikha Moza’s foremost concern.
Qatar Foundation, formed in 1995, has morphed into a sprawling not-for-profit organisation spearheading development in education, science and the arts as the state plans for a post-hydrocarbons future. Chaired by Sheikha Moza, fashion was an early focus for QF’s Education City, a sprawling campus on the capital’s outskirts that hosts about a dozen higher education establishments.
Sheikha Moza provided scholarships for the first Qatari students to study fashion at the Virginia Commonwealth University’s school of arts, which opened in 1998, supporting in person the inaugural graduate shows, says Ms Wilkins. While most of the department’s first graduates took the traditional route into government jobs, more are now setting up their own boutique lines or working for other designers.
Yet the conservative Gulf state, which follows the same strain of Islam as neighbouring Saudi Arabia, faces challenges on the road to reform promoted by the Sheikha’s foundations.
Women, who outperform their male peers in exams, are increasingly moving into the workplace, but they still face pressure to stay at home once married. Sheikha Moza has, nonetheless, become a role model for many Qatari women, helping to challenge the status quo.
“We are still under-represented and underpaid,” says one young Qatari student. ”But she definitely helped challenge the stereotype that women cannot lead.”