looking deeper into the world of islamic fashion
2,000 people attended the opening of a new shop in London's East End last month, queuing round the block to get in. It's probably not a shop you're too familiar with though, this wasn't the unveiling of the new Palace store (opening 25th April btw), but Aab, one of the world's leading Islamic fashion brands, specialising in modest fashion, the hijabs and overcoats that are required to be worn by women in some Muslim communities. Previously only available online, Aab's first bricks-and-mortar shop was a cause for celebration in the world of Islamic fashion, and another sign of strength in one of fashion's fastest growing markets.
In the UK alone Islamic fashion is set to grow to be worth almost £100 million in the next few years. Globally, in 2013, it was worth $266 billion. By 2019 it's set to be worth a staggering $484 billion, which is unsurprising, as the Muslim population of the world is estimated to double by 2019. Islamic and modest fashion is becoming a big business.
But it's not just forging a presence on our high streets, The Isalmic Fashion Festival is entering its 10th year now as a roving, worldwide celebration of Islamic fashion. Dubai is offering tax breaks for fashion designers in order to encourage young Muslim designers to relocate to The Gulf, and even Iran, which was shorthand in the West for many years of oppression of women, is having a fashion week in Tehran in May this year.
The Arabic world is setting up an infrastructure that may not be challenging the traditional fashion capitals and markets, but is at least trying to mirror their templates for success, and trading off of Western brand's desire to earn a bit of this new, lucrative market, too. There are street style blogs documenting the coolest hijabistas from Istanbul to Tehran, DKNY have released special Ramadan collections, and Karl Lagerfeld chose Dubai as the backdrop for Chanel's Resort 2015 collection, playing up to Arabia's heritage with a collection inspired by the idea of a modern Orient; a new One Thousand and One Nights.
But we are often in danger of seeing either modest fashion and Islamic cool as something totally new, when in fact the Arab world has long played out a similar counter cultural narrative to the West, and has long had as much an influence on our dress, as we've had on theirs.
Before the revolution that carried Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979, Iran was, along with Turkey, the centre of cool in the Middle East. It had a diverse music and film scene, that took in not only traditional Arabic forms, but often melded them with the progressive rock music coming out of England, and America's funk scene too. The coolest girl in Iran at the time was Googoosh, a singer, actress, and fashion icon; as she changed hairstyles the rest of Iranian society copied her. She was the first woman in the Middle East to wear hot pants, famously, and outrageously made an underhand reference to fellatio in a film that shocked conservative elements of society. Her career was cut short when the Islamists came to power and she was jailed for three months for living with a man she wasn't married too. Even though she was banned from performing, she stayed in Iran, and recently became one of the few high profile Iranian's to speak out in support of LGBT rights. All this is simply to say that there is a world of history, fashion, style and music in the Islamic world beyond the modest dressing and sharia compliant clothing that is being touted as big business now, and far from being a separate industry, there's always been overlap between the two, as there's always been overlap between east and west too.
It's something that Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj plays upon in his work, which usually takes the form of highly stylised portraits that play upon the cultural crossover between East and West. In the series Kesh Angels, he pictures North African women riding motorbikes whilst clothed in traditional dress but printed with the corporate logos of Western fashion or garish pop patterns. Or in other portraits he'll team Western clothes with Arabic prints, a traditionally cut business suit recontextualised as something exotic and full of colour. It's an intricate play on appropriation, how influences have moved back and forth between cultures, and how it continues to.
Fashion is so often described, culturally at least, in terms of self expression, that when discussing Islamic fashion it's all too easy to fall into easy rhetoric of the fact that it seems to be designed to limit it, and pit this against a western narrative of teenagers, rebellion and finding self definition in fashion's traditional subcultures. It's why modest fashion, as its euphemistically referred too, is becoming such big business, because self expression strikes everywhere, regardless of laws and codes designed to prohibit it, and different cultural attitudes don't prevent barriers to entry to the world of fashion.
Amir Hossein Mehdizadeh worked for Alexander McQueen before returning home to his native Iran to set up his own business tailoring for women. In a piece in the spring issue of Tank Magazine he decried the conservatism of the country he returned, "Daywear in Iran is petrified" he explained, "There isn't any space for a biker jacket or a trench coat." And it's worth noting that within the world of Islamic fashion they are as many people calling out for more open and Western attitudes to dress and fashion as there are those who want to maintain a link to traditional forms of fashions. And though many fashion designers in Iran are stuck working within the system, it doesn't mean there isn't a world of craftmanship, beauty and inventiveness in the production of these garments, especially since the opening up of the country with the election of the more moderate Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani in 2013, and the loosening of censorship, modesty and dress laws. But of course the fashion of the Arabic world is in no way homogenous enough to be grouped simply under a narrative of a conflict between expression and repression, modesty and liberalism.
Some of fashion's biggest, most iconic, names sprung from the Arabic-French world; Hedi Slimane, Azzedine Alaïa and Yves Saint Laurent. They've all, over time, been subtly appropriated back into French culture, as French designers. Hedi grew up in Paris but his mother was Moroccan, and vice versa, Yves was an Algerian pied noir, the offspring of white, French settlers in the Maghreb, and spent his early life in Algeria before moving to Paris at 18 after winning a design competition. Alaïa was born and raised in Tunisia to Tunisian parents, before he too, found himself moving to Paris, for work.
Yves was maybe the most touched by, and most in touch with, his North African heritage, constantly returning there in between work, and even buying a public garden he loved in Marrakech to prevent it from being turned into a private hotel. He even had his ashes scattered in Morocco after his death in 2008. Yves also continually drew upon his North African upbringing for his collections, notably in his spring/summer 67 show, which been referenced continually down the years by the likes of John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier.
Even after North Africa gained independence from France in the late 60s, the relationship between the mainland and the former colonies only continued. Alber Elbaz - born in Morocco - moved to Israel aged 10, before relocating to New York, and eventually taking over YSL's ready-to-wear collections from Yves himself. Hedi too would end up following in Yves' footsteps, even if, after assuming control of the label, he dropped the designer's first name from the brand and it's iconic three-letter logo. Not that Hedi's designs borrow much from the world of North Africa, instead drawing on his continual reference points of the Sunset Strip and La Rive Gauche.
This is all to say that Islamic fashion, even if its not always been recognised as such, has always been there, its just that now its become such a big business that the Western houses can no longer ignore it, can no longer brush it all under the carpet as something scary and dangerous to liberal, feminist values. The west has always cherry picked from the culture and history of Arabia and take possession of designers like Yves, Hedi and Azzedine as there own.
But now it's such big business are we going to start seeing major designers incorporating hijabs on the catwalks of the west's fashion capitals? Or would this be a step too far in terms of cultural appropriation?
Text Felix Petty
Photography Hassan Hajjaj, Kesh Angels, 2010