Art, Sisterhood, and Heritage

Marhaba <<First Name>>

How the world has changed since our last letter! We started 2020 with a full schedule of events, travel plans and projects. Now we are forced to be still, stay home, and spend time with those we love. 

In one of the first introductory emails you received from us, our founder Dr Reem el Mutwalli reminisced about how her passion for fashion heritage started. Here's an extract:

"My childhood was spent in the company of the women and children of the UAE ruling families. In these inner circles of mothers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, and friends I was surrounded by love and adoration, as well as with beauty. These memories of female friendship, love and splendour continue to feed my soul and guide my life choices to this day.

It also set me on a path that, in retrospect, was inescapable. My life was inextricably connected to art, design, and heritage. In my position at the Cultural Foundation, I was inspired to dress in traditional UAE garments. It brought me closer to my adopted country and beloved heritage.

This passion for fashion and traditional garments grew into a unique collection, complemented and enhanced by gifts and inheritances from my childhood friends. Before I knew it, I was the custodian of an invaluable treasure of UAE heritage.

The childlike marvel of the little Iraqi girl adopted into the UAE culture and taught to love the beauty of art, sisterhood, and heritage is still as vivid as it ever was. Today my passion and dream are to share this beauty with the wider community, both here and around the world."

A beautiful reminder of the important things in life -  to cherish our relationships with those we love, and to find beauty in our surroundings. These things do so much more than sustain us in a moment - it sets us up for life. 

First of all, we hope that you are all safe, still healthy, and taking all the necessary precautions as set out by your governments. As we are all urged to stay home, many of us are fortunate to spend these times of isolation with our loved ones. Unexpectedly, we have time to talk, to tell stories, to listen.

If you are one of the lucky ones who have a loved one from the older generation with you, may we invite you to use this time to learn from them, to document their stories, to ask them questions. It is an opportunity that might not come around again. A blessing in these times of uncertainty and change. 


The Sofa Series

The Sofa Series consists of four images artfully created by renowned photographer Issa Saleh Al Kindy.

With this series The Zay Initiative aims to celebrate the tangible and intangible UAE heritage by combining our unique collection with the stories of significant UAE women, captured by a talented artist, to ensure that their voices and their heritage transcend time.

Over the next few months, we will share these images and stories with you. 

Top Left: Telli Symphony

A unique dress on many levels. It marks the introduction of Japanese metallic thread used in traditional Tali work typical of the area. Brocaded silk chiffon is used in two traditional UAE dress formats; the Thawb, a loose overflowing garment worn over the Kandurah, a tunic inner dress, to create an ensemble. Checkered brocade silk chiffon is used for the former, while a matching polka-dotted silk brocade known locally as Bu Tilah is reserved for the later. The embellishment is in Teli: a traditional UAE lace-like ribbon work applied to the neckline and sleeve cuffs.
This ensemble belonged to the collector's childhood friend Shaikha Salama bint Hamdan al Nahyan wife of HH Shaikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. She had watched her wear it on many occasions before it was bequeathed to support & enrich the Zay Initiative Collection.

Limited-edition prints are available for sale - contact Emma Farmer for more information.

Issa Saleh Al Kindy 

is an Omani photographer who was raised across the Middle East and North Africa. His exposure to different cultures, infused in him an appreciation for ethnic heritage and modern traditions; elements which are evident in his photography. His work has been featured on several covers of Forbes and CEO magazines, and he’s a regular contributor to Marie Claire and other publications. Issa’s work has received recognition in various competitions, nationally and internationally. Issa’s client portfolio includes brands such as Cartier, Apple, Unilever, and many others. He exhibits his fine artwork at The Empty Quarter Gallery in Dubai.

On the blog this month

Jewellery historian Sigrid van Roode is continuing her series on tribal jewellery. This month she is focusing on colour. In April she will look at how jewellery is often regarded as an extra investment and savings account. 
Textile writer, Ansie van der Walt is looking at India this month, with a review of a newly published book on Bollywood fashion. She will continue her pursuit of neighbouring influences in April when she ventures to Africa.


One of the colours that stand out in jewellery in the Arab world is red. It is seen everywhere in the region, in both jewellery and clothing, and that is no coincidence. Why is this colour appreciated so much?


India has always had a big influence on fashion in our part of the world.
“There is ultimately no question that films impact the way many Indian women dress, and this is what we raise a toast to in 100 Iconic Bollywood Costumes. In picking out some of fashion’s most iconic moments in film, this book traces the cultural history of both cinema and costume design in India and will be of interest to fashion students, art historians, and anyone who enjoys Bollywood." Sujata Assomull, author.


In light of the current situation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, all our event plans are on hold. We adhere to government regulations to Stay Home. 
As always, we keep on working behind the scene, so watch this space.

In the media

We are grateful for the continuing media interest in The Zay Initiative. During March we received coverage in ScoopEmpire, MOJEH and on CNN

Links to all our media coverage can be found on our website.

Advisory Ensemble

We are proud to work with a select group of professionals, experts in their fields, who bring their unique knowledge, technical skills, and experience to The Zay Initiative. We are honoured to welcome two new advisors to this select group:
Over the course of their diplomatic career, Marjorie Ransom and her late husband assembled a collection of more than 2000 pieces of Middle Eastern silver jewellery. She lectured widely about the traditional jewellery of the Middle East and Yemeni silver jewellery. She authored Silver Treasures from the Land of Sheba: Yemeni Regional Jewelry, and plans a second volume on silversmiths.
Kerry Taylor is a consultant to leading auction houses and sits on the UK government export review board. She started at Sotheby’s 1979 and soon established her own leading Kerry Taylor Auctions 2003 specializing in vintage fashion, antique costumes & textiles. She regularly works with major museums, lecturing assisting with evaluations and assisting with funding applications. She authored both ‘Vintage Fashion & Couture, from Poiret to McQueen’ and ‘Galliano: Spectacular Fashion’.

Alternative Fashion Histories

In the previous letter, we shared about our collaboration with DIDI (Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation). We are proud to share with you some of the work that are produced as a result of this collaboration.

By studying historical clothing and the origins and evolution of fashion, we can understand a changing society. Conventional fashion history is predominantly focused on Western theories and context. Through a collaboration with the Zay Initiative, students at DIDI have the opportunity to explore new and lesser-known fashion histories, rooted in the MENA region. This research into the past will be used for predicting future fashion trends as well as inspiration for innovative new designs. 

This video is one of the deliverables by students of the project: Ottoman dress

In the spirit of sisterhood and to celebrate this time of focusing inward, we invite you to create photos and videos of you and your family dressed in traditional dress, if you have it. Share the images and your story with us at And if you have any items that you don't have a use for anymore, consider donating or gifting it to The Zay Initiative. We promise to treasure it.

In the meantime, stay home, and stay safe.

Ma'a Salama
The Zay Team
The Zay Initiative
Copyright © 2020 The Zay Initiative, All rights reserved.

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