In search of mainstream markets, Muslim textile designers are pushing the boundaries of sharia compliance.
ISLAMIC fashion websites can be pretty drab. KhaleejiAbaya.com, an outlet based in Teesside, North England, plies its selection of faceless black coverings under the somewhat overstated slogan “effortlessly elegant”. Alongside, its website carries a health warning on the “dangers of al-tabarruj”, the impermissible exposure of beauty. Defying such prudishness, leading Muslim designers recently took part in London Fashion Week, a global showcase of threads, to prove that what they called “Modest Fashion” could be as sleek as a bedtime story from a Thousand and One Nights.
The organisers avoided the word sexy, since that would be un-Islamic, explained one. But their models on the catwalk wore make-up, nail-polish, and figure-hugging costumes. Some had veils, though these tended to slip from their heads as they strutted to techno beats. Abayas were embellished with leather straps, transforming nun-like uniforms, said the publicity, into “edgy urban wear perfect for warrior princesses”. Nearby, cosmetics companies plied alcohol-free perfume and lipsticks free of animal fat, which made the products halal, though still viewed by some clerics as not sharia-compliant for being flirtatious.
Yet as they push to enter the mainstream, Muslim fashionistas are struggling to balance the demands of Islamic law with those of a style-driven market. One Saudi woman, who leads a secular life in London, found it hypocritical. “They are wearing pyjamas, as if they are dressed for going to bed,” she sniffed. “Modesty make-up is a contradiction in terms.” Another questioned why the addition of headscarf made tight jeans “Islamic”. There is, it seems, a way to go.
Originally published on www.economist.com