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Flattering fashion an underground success

Date

Steve Meacham

Gorgeous, elegant, individual. How a handful of Australian designers cornered a global market.

Elegant ... an evening gown from Integrity Boutique.

Elegant ... an evening gown from Integrity Boutique.

The women are beautiful, their clothes gorgeous. And if you had to choose another adjective, you might opt for fashionable; elegant; individual; modest. Most of all, Australian.

As we approach the end of Australian Fashion Week, another contemporary fashion show begins today. This time at the Powerhouse Museum, charting an underground success flourishing rapidly but largely unnoticed in Sydney's western suburbs.

The clothes exhibited in Faith, fashion, fusion: Muslim women's style in Australia come from a handful of Sydney designers. Yet the market they are targeting is global.

''Obviously, Australian Muslim women come from many countries with many different traditions of dress: Moroccan, Malaysian, Indonesian, Afghanistani, Pakistani, not just Saudi Arabian,'' curator Glynis Jones says. ''But the majority of Australian Islamic designers tend to come from Lebanese families.''

Aida Zein - who specialises in denims for mums on the run - is an exception. Her family background is Syrian. A law student, she had just begun to wear the hijab before September 11, 2001. Thereafter, as she explains in her YouTube interview that is part of the exhibition, wearing the hijab wasn't simply a matter of personal choice but a declaration of where she had come from.

Another exception is the founder and chief designer of Hijab House, Tarik Houchar. When he opened his first store in Bankstown Centro in 2010, he says it wasn't just one of the first Islamic women's clothes shops to be found in a mainstream shopping mall in Australia. ''Actually, we were one of the first in the Western world,'' Houchar says. ''You'll find [such stores] in the shopping centres of the Arab countries. But there still aren't very many in the shopping centres of non-Islamic countries.''

For Houchar, who has since opened a second outlet at Stockland Mall, Merrylands, his online store is the way of the future. ''There's been this hijab revival around the world,'' he says. ''Some call it hijabification, when new generations of Islamic women are turning back to wearing the hijab. They want to reconcile [their faith] with living in a non-Arab-centric nation.''

Jones first noticed the trend in 2006, when she saw photos of Mecca Laalaa, Australia's first Muslim female surf life saver, wearing the Burqini invented by Australia's most famous Islamic fashion designer, Aheda Zanetti of Ahiida swimwear and sportswear.

Since then, thousands of Muslim women have adopted the Burqini, allowing them to take part in sports previously off limits - including members of the Auburn Tigers women's AFL team.

Such is the Burqini's global success, it was selected by the Macquarie Dictionary as the 2011 word of the year. Zanetti's story has even been adapted by writer Alana Valentine into a play, The Modest Aussie Cossie, while an Indian baby-name website listed Aheda alongside names of other world-famous female designers, Stella (McCartney) and Gabrielle (Chanel). Like most of the other designers in the exhibition, Zanetti's modest outfits appeal not just to Muslim women but to non-Muslim women looking for garments that protect them from the sun or prying eyes.

''Aheda says that her global reach is now so vast that she sends her clothes to places even TNT doesn't deliver to,'' Jones says, laughing. ''As I researched, I began to realise there was an emerging group of young designers specifically making clothes for the 'modest market'. We've just concentrated on a few to show the range of clothes they are designing.

''There are lots more designers out there in the modest market. And it isn't just happening in Sydney. It's a global thing.''

Nor is it just a Muslim thing. Many of the scarves, dresses and trousers appeal to non-Muslims who don't feel comfortable in the figure-hugging, skin-bearing designs of mainstream Western fashion. ''It was a huge social change when Hijab House and Integrity Boutique [run by sisters Howayda Moussa and Hanadi Chehab] both opened at Bankstown Centro,'' Jones says.

''Previously, Muslim women went to the shopping streets of Lakemba and Auburn, where garments from Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan had been bought in bulk and were being retailed in an unattractive mass.''

Kath Fry, of the label baraka, was raised a Christian but converted to Islam after a life-changing trip to Egypt. She met her business partner Eisha Saleh while studying Islam at the Daar Aisha Shariah College in Lakemba.

In 2009, baraka was named Muslim business of the year. Fry and Saleh say their clothes are aimed at women of various faiths who share a desire for ''flattering clothing that offers more coverage''.

As a man, Houchar faces more challenges in the niche industry than most. A video accompanying the exhibition shows him directing a fashion shoot for his Facebook site. The models are non-Muslims - an Indian, a South African and a Russian. That's partly because he wants to market his designs as widely as possible but also because he would be more restricted with Muslim models.

''For example, I probably wouldn't alter [a Muslim model's] scarf out of respect,'' Houchar says. ''As a man, I obviously have to respect female spirit and identity. In Islam, there are parameters I cannot cross.''

 

 Meanwhile, on the streets ... 

What women actually wear on the street is as important as the fashionista commentariat, which these days increasingly means fashion bloggers.

Some of the most striking images on the website version of the exhibition are of real Muslim women who live in Sydney photographed wearing clothes they own and chose to wear themselves.

A separate photo shoot asked Muslim women in Sydney to wear their favourite outfit and write a pithy, three-word encapsulation of their character. Delina Darusman-Gala (muslimstreetfashion.blogspot.com.au) and Mya Arifin (myazfashionspot.blogspot.com.au) are Sydney's first Muslim fashion bloggers. Both are stay-at-home mothers in their 20s who live in Lakemba and Punchbowl, respectively, and share an Indonesian background.

Visitors to the exhibition will be encouraged to have their photo taken carrying a similar card of self-description. As the sign says: ''Are you what you wear? Your style only tells a small part of your story. Tell us something about yourself that we wouldn't know from your appearance.''

 

Faith, fashion, fusion: Muslim women's style in Australia is at the Powerhouse Museum until February 2013, powerhousemuseum.com.

8 comments

  • It has occurred to me, as a researcher in theatre and music, that Muslim women must be very restricted in opportunities as actors and performers, not just because the very act may be seen as immodest (is it seen that way by Muslims?) but because they are restricted to costumes that do not bare much flesh and usually that also cover their heads. This must be a great obstacle in the way of casting Muslim women in non-Muslim roles.

    Commenter
    frau_stechpalme
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    May 07, 2012, 4:01PM
    • as a Muslim woman I would have loved to be part of Hollywood but 2 things are very restrictive:

      1: I cannot do intimate roles
      2: I cannot wear revealing clothing

      So I continue my repetitive job day in and out :D

      Commenter
      Blaze
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 07, 2012, 4:52PM
    • As a sweeping statement, I wouldn't think so. Like all religions, followers of Islam have varying levels of practise. For example, some may drink alcohol. They may not be considered 'good Muslims' but I'm sure there's plenty of 'practising' Christians who cheat on their spouses and have killed people (IRA). In all faiths some are more moderate in their beliefs and practises than others.

      Commenter
      SS
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 07, 2012, 5:30PM
  • Reading this I couldn't help but pick up on fashion designer Houchar's lines - "''For example, I probably wouldn't alter [a Muslim model's] scarf out of respect,'' and ''As a man, I obviously have to respect female spirit and identity. In Islam, there are parameters I cannot cross.''
    It made me think that he would 'respect' a Muslim woman but not offer the same respect to a non Muslim woman?

    But that aside, I think Islamic fashion in various countries leads the way in modest clothing which look presentable (It doesn't need to be fashionable) and look good which other designers could follow.
    It shouldn't be about less, less and less, but how more can be beautiful as well.

    Although its a very broad term ("Islamic fashion") its as diverse as Muslims are - many would argue the hijab is to conceal beauty, so why would you dress to flaunt even if it covers everything? It still isn't "modest".

    Like every other religion, Islam is as diverse as the people who practise it.
    Very interesting!

    Commenter
    Green Tea
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    May 07, 2012, 4:33PM
    • His comment that he wouldn't alter a Muslim woman's scarf out of respect definitely doesn't mean he would disrespect non-Muslim women, don't assume such things!!

      The scarf is to cover the hair hence they wouldn't want him to alter it in case it slips or whatever but he never stated that he wouldn't alter their clothes, he is just speaking about the scarf

      Commenter
      Blaze
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 07, 2012, 4:50PM
    • Perhaps you may need to re-read the article before criticising. Houchar does not say that he respects Muslim women (and therefore, by implication, not non-Muslim women). That's an offensive interpretation.

      Rather, the act of adjusting the scarf may be seen by some Muslim women as disrespectful. As a designer preparing to exhibit his fashions either in a parade or through a photo shoot, he needs to alter and adjust the clothing (including the headscarves) as a matter of course - often done very quickly with no time for nicities or explanations. Given that, it is difficult for him to use Muslim women as models because he would not like to cross that line and risk offending them when he adjusts the head scarves. The same act done to a non-Muslim woman in the context of modelling would not be received as disrespectful.

      It really is that simple. Nothing sinister in his comments.

      Commenter
      Miss S
      Date and time
      May 07, 2012, 5:53PM
  • Wish these designers well.
    Whilst an atheist I'm so over flesh everywhere. In particular the muffin look and fat people baring it all.
    We need to regain style and some modesty again.
    Fashion and street wear has hit an all time low with the masses. So much of it is trampy, so sick of seeing silicone cleavages and bums everywhere not to mention the rolls of fat on display even in winter. And shoes resembling the Chinese feet binding torture of old. Having seen an xray of a traditionally bound foot, I fear we will have feet and fertility problems abound with this recent addiction to ridiculous heels aka the helpless look!
    Alternative looks have always given more emphasis on texture, fabrics, colour, layering etc. Mass market fashion needs an infusion of style and if this alternative culture adds to our sense of style- good on them.
    Wish them all the best.

    Commenter
    a country gal
    Date and time
    May 08, 2012, 1:12AM
    • what is not shown in the picture is the emphasis on beautiful cloth typically chosen for the hijab/head covering - these are often very fine quality and a thing of beauty in themselves.

      Commenter
      Frank
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 08, 2012, 8:35AM
      Comments are now closed
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