The male role model tests gender norms in a changing Saudi Arabia

Ziad al-Mesfer built a social network while paving the way for the few Saudi models brave enough to wear clothes widely considered appropriate for women only – Copyright AFP Fayez Nureldine

Robbie Corey Boulet

With her bright pink hair extensions and leopard-print pantsuit, model Ziad al-Mesfer was expected to turn heads during her recent public photoshoot in deeply conservative Saudi Arabia.

Passers-by began snapping photos on their cellphones just minutes after Mesfer stepped out of his luxury white car onto the cobblestone sidewalks of an upscale cafe district in Riyadh, his stylist and photographer in tow.

Such appearances have helped Mesfer, 25, create a massive social network while paving the way for the handful of Saudi models brave enough to don clothes widely considered appropriate for women only – pushing the boundaries of standards. of gender reputedly rigid in their country. .

In doing so, he endeared himself to expensive brands eager to enjoy a spectacle that would have been unthinkable before Saudi Arabia embarked on a series of searing social reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Yet Mesfer’s approach carries considerable risks.

Alongside ardent fans – mostly bubbly teenage girls who follow him on Snapchat – the crowd marveling at Riyadh’s recent shooting included a furious middle-aged man who got out of his car to denounce Mesfer as “gay”, a potential capital crime in Saudi Arabia.

The Desert Monarchy also traditionally prohibits men who “imitate women” or wear women’s clothing, and vice versa.

Mesfer does not identify as gay – he intends to marry a woman one day – and explains that he is simply following global brands’ adoption of androgynous fashion.

And despite occasional harassment in person and online, he told AFP he had no plans to leave Saudi Arabia or change his appearance.

“It’s better for me to stay in my country and wear these clothes,” he said, “not to wait for a trip abroad to go out in a bold outfit.”

– Following fashion –

Hailing from a Riyadh-based family, the eldest of six children, Mesfer began developing his sense of style at an early age.

“I used to dress my mother, aunts and relatives. I loved to do their hair,” he said.

“My mom used to consult me ​​about it, so I got more interested in women’s fashion.”

He only dreamed of going public with his talents after Prince Mohammed began trying to soften the kingdom’s image, including expanding entertainment options and relaxing rules that required women to wear the abaya. a covering dress and a hijab scarf.

About two years ago, Mesfer started modeling outfits online using Snapchat’s relatively secure medium, which automatically deletes messages once they’re viewed.

Today he has more than two million followers on Snapchat and another 200,000 on Instagram – the kind of influence that has caught the eye of brands such as Prada and Dior.

When Gucci opened a new boutique in Riyadh last month, staff made sure to invite Mesfer to view the inventory, senior saleswoman Loulwa Mohammed said.

“Inviting him is very important because when we invite him and take a video or photo of him wearing any item, it sells out,” Mohammed said. “All the Saudis – the old women, the young girls – all of them look at him.”

– ‘A kind of artist’ –

Even if other male models and potential influencers follow his lead, Mesfer remains in a class of his own.

“He’s number one,” said a sales associate at Prada who, like others interviewed for this story, declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the topic.

Still, several fashion professionals have said that Saudi Arabia’s limited acceptance of Mesfer should not be misinterpreted as general approval of his behavior.

Instead, they said Mesfer, who makes money in part from online advertisements, has protection because he works with luxury brands and mixes with local celebrities who invite him over. at their events.

“We see him as a role model, as a kind of artist, so we can’t judge him,” Gucci’s Mohammed said.

But she added: “Sometimes the reaction is negative. Arabia is a Muslim country. I wouldn’t want to see my brother do the same.

This conflicting perception of Mesfer is evident in the comments on his Instagram page.

In response to a February post in which Mesfer paired a bright red coat with a tight purple turtleneck, one user wrote “God forgive us” while another wrote “Deleting Instagram after seeing this.”

Another netizen, however, was encouraging, “Ziad, keep going, I love you, take care of yourself for the people who love you and do what you love, and don’t care about words.”

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