Sooner or later, an expat will have a reason to dress up here in Riyadh. Whether it's a ball at an embassy or an arab wedding, at one point, it's imperative that we ladies get dressed to the nines or risk embarrassment. After attending a few formal events and asking around, I have come to the conclusion that we don't actually have a ton of options for Western style gowns.
Arab style gowns are another matter - they are absolutely everywhere. You'll find plenty in the secondhand souk, and almost every major mall has at least one or two stores that sell glitzy dresses. Little known fact: Saudi's second largest national resource behind oil is sequins. The general fashion rule that I see in stores is that if it's small and shiny, you put in on a dress. If it's large and shiny, you put in on a dress. There's no such thing as too much sparkle! Occasionally when you step into these shops you can still find one or two that aren't covered with bling. Those dresses will almost never be on the mannequins so it might be worth poking your head into the shops to gloss through their racks.
I would say the place with the largest selection of Western style formal wear is Debenhams. Then another store you might try is Coast, a UK chain that has lovely high quality dresses(and prices to match)at outlets in malls like Granada and Hayat. Debenhams carries a number of Coast dresses, so you'll see repeats if you go to both stores. Be forewarned that if you buy a Coast dress within a week or two of a major embassy event that you can expect 'twins' to show up on the night of. Be mentally prepared to compete with your 'twin' in the Riyadh version of "Who Wore it Better?" A friend of mine suggested BCBG in the Faisaliah as well, and Monsoon in Kingdom.
I recently went shopping at Hayat on their ground floor and found a few stores selling pieces of stuff that could pass for formalwear here and there. I have pretty simple tastes when it comes to dresses, and found some nice ones at Femi, a French store there. Hayat boasts a decent selection of mid-range Western brands like Le Chateau, Esprit, Benetton, Guess, Zara, Aldo, Nine West, Club Monaco, etc. etc. So you can usually find semi-formal dresses easily there. Formal wear is always a bit trickier...I feel it involves a lot of trial and error if you don't find something from Debenhams. In Riyadh you have to pay for your clothing and try it on in the nearest bathroom because there are no changerooms in stores. If you don't like the style or it doesn't fit you just return it. Sounds crazy, huh? But it's the norm here and like everything else in Riyadh, you get used to it!
The best thing you can do for yourself is to shop around whether or not you have an event to go to, because things do go on sale, and like I said - you'll for sure get invited to something eventually. If you hit Desperationville a week before your event, expect to shell out big time for a dress you don't hate.
If anyone has some tips for formal wear shopping, I'd love to hear from ya!
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