Webinars and Zoom meetings have become as commonplace as live events and boardroom meetings used to be. Remember those? As a digital initiative, adapting to the new reality was easier for us than for many other businesses and organisations. Yet, our full schedule of live events, exhibitions, talks, and collaborations suddenly disappeared, leaving us to change plans and adapt quickly.

Series 1:

The Zay is not called an Initiative for anything! We quickly took the initiative to set up a series of webinars called Dialogues on the Art of Arab Fashion, where our founder, Dr Reem el Mutwalli engaged in conversation with guests on topics ranging from How fashion’s new focus will ignite the runway (Lucy Wilder), The secrets of Syrian Lingerie (Rana Salam), and The Quran and the Hijab: Fashion or Faith (Samina Ali). These conversations can now be viewed here.

Series 2 and 3:

It was soon evident that we have a winning formula on our hands. People wanted to know more. More about The Zay Initiative, more about Arab cultural dress, and more about what goes on behind the veil. Series 2 soon followed covering topics such as Magic and Jewellery in Egypt (Dr Colleen Darnell), Inspirational Adornment (Patricia Millns, FRSA), and Heavenly Bodies: The Modest Fashion Industry (Alia Khan). In Series 3 we discussed Arab women and stereotypes (Dr Lina Abirafeh), Kashmir to Paisley (Kerry Taylor), Under the Abaya (Marriam Mossalli), and Mowjood: I am here, I exist (Waleed Shah).

Series 4: A partnership

Our growing audience, the positive feedback we received, and the obvious need for more information on Arab culture, led to a partnership with the Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UAE. Together we presented four conversations between Dr Reem and female members of the UAE Diplomatic Corps covering topics such as Diplomacy and Dress, How Dress tells a Story, and Threading SDGs and the art of dress. We also had our first Arabic language webinar, An introduction to traditional Emirati Dress.


The webinars were presented in the form of a dialogue between Dr Reem el Mutwalli and our guest with a series of slides illustrating the conversation. Audience members could listen in but not participate in the conversation, except to post questions. Registration was managed by Eventbrite, and we asked for a donation rather than a fixed fee. All registered audience members received a recording of the webinar the following day.

What started as a spur of the moment idea to fill the calendar, turned into a successful dialogue about Arab dress, its history and heritage, as well as its present and future, and the many ways in which it is used and interpreted. Now, as a new year dawns, we are taking stock on what we have achieved, what we learned, and how we can apply it in 2021.


  1. Although many people and business suffered greatly during 2020, we were fortunate and blessed to not be too severely affected. We attribute this to the fact that we were already working remotely with our team across different time zones, and that although we have a physical collection, our database and archive were already partly online.
  2. Most of our outreach and audience participation was planned around live, in-person events like exhibitions, conferences, and festivals. After those were cancelled and our calendar was wiped clean, we quickly had to come up with alternative digital events and online audience outreach. Although this was not the original plan, it turned out to be a remarkably successful move. We reached more people from a wider geographical area in a shorter time than the planned in-person events would have achieved.
  3. As a result, we experienced massive growth in audience and followers across social media platforms as well as our mailing list. Where previously we had to approach and introduce ourselves to experts and people with whom we could potentially form collaborations, they started approaching us.
  4. Although we focus on historical and heritage fashion and dress, we realised that our audience is interested in learning more about the broader Arab culture, lifestyle, and traditions. Fashion and dress is just an entry point to a world and a way of life that many people find fascinating but knows very little about. This encouraged us to think more in terms of cultural education programs and talks to complement the rest of our work.
  5. Following this, it was an eyeopener to us that this yearning for cultural education does not only come from the non-Arab world but also the younger generation of Arab women, and men. Middle Eastern society has changed so rapidly in the past few decades that many students and young adults who grew up in the modern Arab world, or other parts of the world, lost touch with their heritage, oral traditions, and customs. This encouraged us to foster collaborations with universities and launch our scholarship program.
  6. Although The Zay Initiative was established as a heritage-focused organisation, we have come to realise and embrace the fact that we are indeed a futurist organisation. What we do is not just the conservation and protection of historical items, but it is ensuring, and actively creating its future. Our collaborations with fashion design students, our collaboration with contemporary artists and photographers, and our ongoing relationship with the Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UAE, our scholarship program, and our growing international audience is proof that we are not just protecting the past, we are actively creating the future.


As most of our current audience has not been with us from the start, we decided to kick-off 2021  and Series 4 in our Dialogues on the Art of Arab Dress on a different note by changing the format in the first episode, happening this coming Tuesday 19 January. Instead of Dr Reem interviewing our guest, as usual, we are reversing the roles and making our guest the interviewer.

Fashion historian Cassidy Zachary will be in conversation with our founder, Dr Reem el Mutwalli, going back to the beginning, discussing the founding of the Zay Initiative and the 5 pillars we based all our work on, our digital archive, our collection of historic Arab dress, all our upcoming projects and plans, as well as the role of historical fashion in the world today.

Cassidy Zachary is a fashion historian who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico where she has worked as a costumer and costume designer in film and television for twelve plus years. Cassidy is the co-author of Fashion and the Art of Pochoir (Thames & Hudson, 2015) and a contributing author to numerous publications including the recent The Showgirl Costume (McFarland 2019). She is the co-host and creator of the weekly iHeartRadio podcast Dressed: The History of Fashion and the founder of the popular fashion history blog and Instagram, The Art of Dress. She is currently pursuing her PhD in History at the University of New Mexico.

How to participate:

  • To register, visit our events This will ensure your seat at the discussion as well as a recording of the webinar to revisit in your own time.
  • To keep up to date with our events, visit our website and sign up for our newsletter.
  • If you know of anybody else who might be interested in our work, who wants to learn more, or who wants to discuss collaboration opportunities, contact our COO, Emma Farmer at emma@thezay.org