WHEN IT COMES to fashion, we are all over it – covering shows from Milan to Mumbai and the exploits of Messrs Dolce and/or Gabbana along with the second most famous Beckham and the less musically gifted (we assume), but infinitely more stylish McCartney.
So it was with some surprise when we were contacted by the Islamic Fashion & Design Council (IFDC) based here in Dubai that there was a whole other side to couture of which we were unaware. Not only that, but it was a faction some of the aforementioned mainstream magnates were also trying to get in on at the ground floor.
Dressing modestly according to one’s faith may not always go hand in hand with the popular view of catwalk shows, but according to the IFDC’s research could be an industry worth up to $500 billion.
Here we speak to the Council’s founder and chairwoman Alia Khan – recently nominated for a Gulf Business Award – about what faith-based fashion is, how her organisation helps and what brought her to this position.
How would you describe Islamic fashion?
Islamic fashion is about allowing the fashionista to be able to adhere to her faith-based values. Normally what happens is this type of a consumer has committed to her faith and thus chooses a path of modesty. It generally means things are more covered up and loose-fitting but not unflattering.
In mainstream fashion you can wear anything. In Islamic fashion you can wear anything as long as it stays within the guidelines of your value set.
The value set is pretty standard. A strong secondary market is made up of women of other faiths who find options limited especially when shopping for garments to attend their place of worship.
Who sets those guidelines?
They were originally proscribed by the scriptures. You have a consistency that has been there throughout – longer hemlines and covered arms for example – but things do get modified as time and generations move on.
What first interested you in Islamic fashion?
I grew up in Canada and California. I was surrounded by a stylish lifestyle. Girls my age always wanted to look good. That first piqued my interest in fashion.
As I grew older, I felt I needed to know my own, originally Pakistani, roots better. September 11th happened. Here I was, the second-generation child of immigrant parents, growing up in what was home for me. It was the lifestyle I knew. Suddenly I wanted answers about who I was. It was a profound journey for me. I wanted to learn about religion and our culture. My parents gave us a taste of it, but we were never fully immersed nor could anyone really say that they are if they are in a non-Muslim country. It’s very difficult to say you understand everything about your religion if you haven’t been influenced fully by it.
In 2005 my parents retired and moved to Dubai. They wanted to be in a Muslim country where they could get better exposure. That led to me going to Jordan for a year to learn about Islamic sciences and Koranic sciences.
When I explored the fashion side, I liked the dressing style. I started wearing a hijab and covering modestly. Modest fashion with style was a revelation.
Was this change difficult to adjust to?
I wasn’t exposed to things like the hijab in the West. It’s not something I knew much about. It’s a good lesson for all of us. Unless we understand and extinguish our ignorance about things, we really don’t know what we’re talking about. I may have had certain reservations about hijabs myself in the past, but I really didn’t know what I was talking about. Unless I took that initiative to learn I would have remained ignorant. That should be a lesson for anyone who judges other peoples’ cultures or religions.
You then moved to Dubai. Why set up the IFDC?
When I looked at starting my own line I realised there was no support. Not even your local chamber of commerce knew about Islamic fashion. I felt there needed to be a platform that could create some order or sense for all these amazing designers around the world.
What is the IFDC?
The IFDC is a leading advocate for Islamic fashion and design professionals and aspiring talent, has an array of products, services, and training programmes for all levels. The platform is designed to aid the success of Islamic fashion and design in the global marketplace and facilitate the industry players in accessing its growth potential.
How have you seen the industry evolve in the time since starting the IFDC?
You see more attention coming from the mainstream fashion houses. Dolce & Gabbana, DKNY and Tommy Hilfiger have all had a go. That’s because it is a lucrative market. Depending on which report you read you’re looking at up to $500 billion of spending power by 2019.
And the fashion? Does that change much?
Incredibly. There’s fusion styling going on. It’s traditional but with a bit of a Western or Far Eastern touch. There are Japanese designers doing kimono abayas for example.
Where would you recommend Islamic fashion shoppers head to?
One of the challenges the mainstream labels have is they’re not quite understanding the consumer profile. There were many Ramadan collections that came out that were full length but made out of sheer fabric. That doesn’t work. You have to be careful where you do shop.
The best places are still online. The Turkish designers still have a one-up on everyone. Because of their positioning in Europe they naturally get it. Indonesians too. Lots of American clientele are going to Indonesian designers.
What innovations are coming up with the IFDC?
We’re introducing an IFDC pop-up design school. We’ll take on leading names in the industry to give classes on the whole business of fashion from design to marketing. It’s in the final stages right now.