A mod­est af­fair

Con­tem­po­rary Mus­lim Fash­ions, a new ex­hi­bi­tion be­ing held in San Fran­cisco from this month, chal­lenges mis­con­cep­tions and proves that the mod­est­wear move­ment is more than a pass­ing trend, says

The National - News - Luxury - - EXHIBITION - Sarah Maisey

Given that al­most a quar­ter of the world’s pop­u­la­tion – about 1.8 bil­lion peo­ple – iden­tify as Mus­lim, it is no­table that no ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion has looked at the in­flu­ence that such a huge mar­ket has had on the fash­ion in­dus­try. Un­til now, that is.

The Fine Arts Mu­se­ums of San Fran­cisco (FAMSF, which con­sists of two bod­ies, de Young and the Le­gion of Hon­our, and is one of the most vis­ited arts in­sti­tu­tions in the United States) is set to host a show en­ti­tled Con­tem­po­rary Mus­lim Fash­ions, from Septem­ber 22 un­til Jan­uary 6. The ex­hi­bi­tion at the de Young Mu­seum prom­ises to look at how Mus­lim women – cov­ered or not – are be­com­ing a driv­ing force in the fash­ion com­mu­nity.

Any­one liv­ing in this part of the world will al­ready be con­ver­sant in the sub­tle nu­ances of mod­est dress­ing, from the seem­ingly end­less ways to wear a shayla, to the act of lay­er­ing a sub­tle polo neck un­der a dress to to­tally trans­form an out­fit. For oth­ers, though, this show will of­fer wel­come in­sight into an arena that is all too o en mis­un­der­stood. There are still strong pre­con­cep­tions that mod­est dress­ing equates solely to shape­less black.

Such mis­con­cep­tions have al­ways ex­isted; how­ever, his­tory shows us that there has long been a crosspol­li­na­tion be­tween east­ern and western styles of dress­ing. With trad­ing con­nec­tions be­tween the Mid­dle East and the rest of the world stretch­ing back cen­turies, Is­lamic dress codes have trav­elled too – while Spain was un­der Is­lamic rule be­tween AD 711 and AD 1492, many women took to wear­ing veils re­gard­less of their re­li­gious slant. Yves Saint Lau­rent, the god­fa­ther of Parisian fash­ion who grew up in Al­ge­ria, o en used Is­lamic modes of dress as in­spi­ra­tion, in par­tic­u­lar for his 1976 Rive Gauche ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign, which fea­tured women in in­tri­cately wrapped head­scarves.

Max Hollein, the for­mer direc­tor of FAMSF who joined the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art in New York last month, was the man re­spon­si­ble for bring­ing the show to life. “Con­tem­po­rary Mus­lim Fash­ions is an over­due, much-needed ex­plo­ration of a mul­ti­fac­eted topic as yet largely un­ex­plored by mu­se­ums,” he points out. “The Mus­lim fash­ion scene is ex­tremely vi­brant and in­flu­en­tial, with some of the most stun­ning works I’ve re­cently seen; it seemed like a bla­tant omis­sion that this topic had yet to be ex­plored by a ma­jor in­sti­tu­tion. When I took over as direc­tor of the Fine Arts Mu­se­ums of San Fran­cisco with ex­hi­bi­tion cu­ra­tors Jill D’Alessan­dro and Laura Camer­lengo, we de­cided that this was the time to cor­rect the omis­sion.”

Given the col­lec­tive spend­ing power of the Is­lamic pop­u­la­tion, omis­sion is ex­actly the right word. The State of the Global Is­lamic Econ­omy Re­port by Thom­son Reuters and Di­narS­tan­dard es­ti­mates that Mus­lim spend on cloth­ing amounted to US$254 bil­lion (Dh933.01bn) in 2016, and is fore­cast to reach $373bn by 2022. It also pre­dicts that as the global pop­u­la­tion ex­pands, mil­len­ni­als will be the en­gine of change across the re­tail econ­omy. By 2027, mil­len­ni­als will be a 2.8-bil­lion-strong core con­sumer force, and by 2030, 29 per cent of the global young pop­u­la­tion (peo­ple be­tween the ages of 15 and 29) is pro­jected to be Mus­lim. In the United King­dom, which has a Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion of 2.7 mil­lion, the Mus­lim Coun­cil of Bri­tain has put the com­mu­nity’s spend­ing power at £20.5bn (Dh96.85bn) a year. Fash­ion brands that ig­nore th­ese num­bers do so at their peril, which is why many have jumped into the fray.

Dolce & Gab­bana launched an abaya col­lec­tion in 2015, while Ja­panese brand Uniqlo be­gan its tie-up with Bri­tish- Ja­panese Mus­lim de­signer Hana Ta­jima in 2016, launch­ing the Uniqlo x Hana Ta­jima line, which con­sists of loose-fit­ting flow­ing ca­sual wear cra ed from so linens and cot­tons. Nike re­leased the Nike Pro hi­jab late last year, a few months a er Yeezy and Max Mara put hi­jab-wear­ing model Hal­ima Aden on their run­ways. Even the likes of Do­mini­can cou­turier Os­car de la Renta and FilipinoAmer­i­can de­signer Monique Lhuil­lier have cre­ated ded­i­cated Ra­madan col­lec­tions. Mean­while, devo­tees of YouTube will al­ready be fa­mil­iar with Rus­sianAl­ge­rian-Turk­ish influencer Nabi­ilaBee, whose hi­jab tu­to­ri­als have gar­nered mil­lions of views.

Mod­est cloth­ing has been seen on in­ter­na­tional run­ways with in­creas­ing reg­u­lar­ity in the past few sea­sons, em­braced by growing num­bers of cus­tomers, who are ei­ther driven by their re­li­gious be­liefs, or the sim­ple de­sire to find an al­ter­na­tive to tight, re­stric­tive, re­veal­ing cloth­ing. An­other sign that modesty is fil­ter­ing through came last year, when Ayana Ife, a Mus­lim fash­ion de­signer, made it to the fi­nals of TV show Project Run­way. While some may still be happy to dis­miss mod­est dress­ing as a niche mar­ket, clearly there is a global ap­petite for it.

With such a large topic to cover, Con­tem­po­rary Mus­lim Fash­ions is split into var­i­ous sec­tions, mainly gov­erned by ge­og­ra­phy, and places a spot­light on gar­ments and styles from around the world. The main gal­leries fo­cus on the Mid­dle East, in­clud­ing the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Ara­bia, which is rep­re­sented by la­bels such as Mashael, a Saudi brand that plays with sur­face tex­ture and shi ing scale on what other­wise seem like de­cep­tively sim­ple cuts. The UAE is rep­re­sented by Bouguessa, whose min­i­mal­ist cuts have drawn a large and de­voted fol­low­ing, and The Modist, the on­line por­tal ded­i­cated to bring­ing high­fash­ion mod­est­wear to dis­cern­ing cus­tomers.

An­other sec­tion is ded­i­cated to South East Asia, an enor­mous mod­est­wear mar­ket be­cause it is home to such a large Is­lamic pop­u­la­tion. In­done­sia, for ex­am­ple, has about 225 mil­lion Mus­lims (about 88 per cent of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion). Malaysian de­signer Haslinda Rahim’s la­bel Blancheur spe­cialises in high­end mod­est­wear that in­cludes sharply cut trouser suits and dra­mat­i­cally tai­lored jack­ets that segue into tops. In­done­sian de­signer Itang Yu­nasz blends mod­ern shapes with tra­di­tional tech­niques, in­clud­ing the highly dis­tinc­tive indigo ikat weav­ing of Ti­mor.

An­other name fea­tur­ing in the ex­hi­bi­tion is Dian Pe­langi, an In­done­sian de­signer and dig­i­tal influencer who was named by the Busi­ness of Fash­ion as one of the top 500 peo­ple shap­ing fash­ion, aided no doubt by her 4.8 mil­lion Instagram fol­low­ers and 14 stores. Pe­langi reg­u­larly shows at Jakarta Fash­ion Week, and in­ter­weaves sharp cuts with tra­di­tional re­gional tex­tile tech­niques, such as hand-drawn batik and tie-dye. Pe­langi is also a keen doc­u­menter of Mus­lim street style and has pub­lished a book on the topic.

Many of the la­bels in­cluded in the ex­hi­bi­tion deal with high-end de­sign, but street style is also rep­re­sented, most no­tably Sarah Ele­nany from Lon­don, who started her line to pro­vide prac­ti­cal, wear­able mod­est clothes for ac­tive, sporty women. In 2015, Ele­nany made her de­sign for a sport hi­jab hoody avail­able for free down­load, for any­one to make. Also from the UK is Rebecca Kel­lett, whose work brings a cos­tume-like feel to cloth­ing, with sculp­tural neck­lines and ex­ag­ger­ated shapes. She was nom­i­nated for the Best Cos­tume De­sign Award in 2015 by the In­ter­na­tional Fash­ion Film Awards.

With such a ex­pan­sive area to cover, Hollein skil­fully drew on the mu­seum’s own track record to in­tro­duce Is­lamic fash­ion to a new au­di­ence. “FAMSF is well po­si­tioned to tell this story; it has a long his­tory of cre­at­ing crit­i­cally ac­claimed fash­ion ex­hi­bi­tions, in­clud­ing Os­car de la Renta, Jean Paul Gaultier, Ba­len­ci­aga and Spain, and Yves Saint Lau­rent.”

Ul­ti­mately, fash­ion is and al­ways will be sub­jec­tive – one woman’s Mano­los are an­other woman’s men­ace – and not ev­ery de­signer se­lected for this show will res­onate with an Amer­i­can viewer. That aside, the fact that this ex­hi­bi­tion is tak­ing place at all is a real cause for cel­e­bra­tion. Whether one sees mod­est dress­ing as a re­li­gious re­quire­ment or just a per­sonal pref­er­ence, the im­por­tant point is that, to­day, women have a mul­ti­tude of choices.

“Mu­se­ums are places where you can have com­plex cul­tural dis­cus­sions in non-polem­i­cal ways, and Con­tem­po­rary Mus­lim Fash­ions is a unique plat­form to en­gage with is­sues that are ex­tremely rel­e­vant to to­day’s au­di­ences,” Hollein con­cludes.

Malaysian de­signer Haslinda Rahim spe­cialises in high-end mod­est­wear, such as tai­lored jack­ets that segue into tops

An out­fit stocked by The Modist, one of the UAE brands that will be rep­re­sented in the ex­hi­bi­tion in San Fran­cisco

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