Flattering fashion an underground success
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.