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Islamic Dress Goes High-Fashion

  • Stasia Demarco

Muslim fashion is more than burkas and chadors. It's a hot industry that is heating up in the United States, especially among African-American Muslims.

Sakina Uqdah shops at the Al-Furqan Bazaar on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at least once a week. "The skirts...I love the skirts and the pants outfits," she gushes. "He has a couple of pants outfits and it's the color. He just has so many different varieties of style and it's like every week. I come in here and I get mad because I say 'You have something new in' and I have to get it." She laughs as she admits, "I get upset when he has something new and I haven't seen it first."

Mervin Khalil Ghani has owned the Al-Furqan Bazaar for 15 years. He says he and his wife decide what to stock in the shop. "There are a few factors; primarily what I think would sell. Some things are in more demand than others like the Islamic dress. What we normally call the over-garment. And other things are more non-traditional that Muslims as well as non-Muslims can wear. Like the blouse and skirts and suits and those types of things."

More and more, American Muslim women are mixing and matching their outfits, incorporating Islamic with Western styles. Sakina's non-Muslim friends regularly join her in shopping at Ghani's boutique "because of the African styles he has," she says. "I have a girlfriend who is a Christian. She and her husband come here and shop. The neighborhood comes for the jewelry. So there is something here for the entire family."

Muslim women around the world are also finding something they like in the growing Islamic fashion industry. Young designers are infusing traditional styles with a modern sensibility. Models showed off designer burqas and colorful over-garments in July, in Kabul's first fashion show in decades. Tehran also hosted a fashion week this summer, albeit with more traditional styles. The International Festival of African Fashion has attracted European designers Yves Saint Laurent and Jean-Paul Gaultier, hoping to appeal to Muslim women.

Recognizing an untapped market, major clothing retailers are highlighting how their top name fashions -- like a tailored jacket by Anne Klein or a long ruffled skirt by Ralph Lauren -- already meet the Islamic requirement of full coverage.

Queen Samiyyah Mu-El is a designer in Philadelphia who creates what she calls "global women's fashion." She imports her fabrics and jewelry from all over the world and sells her clothing to private clients at her vending stand. "What I do is create a modest-style fashion that will not only cover a woman modestly but it also will uplift her spiritually because we deal with textures and colors."

The designer says she imports only natural fabrics, and adds that the feminine styles she favors are appropriate for all women. "Where I am at spiritually is that I am trekking on something very ancient, very feminine so it seems that between last season and this season I have seen an increase in sales in more feminine style fashions."

That doesn't surprise designer Khadijah Sabir, who says Muslim women's fashions are not that different from what other women wear. "It's just our modesty, the way we dress, you know. Because we can wear the same dress as anybody else would but our jacket might be longer to cover our backside…because we are really fashionable. We wouldn't wear anything different. It's just the modesty of the way we dress."

Sabir, who's worked in the fashion industry for 30 years, wears only her own designs. She says most of her business in the Muslim community comes from word of mouth or from women who meet her and like what she's wearing. Sabir has also developed a new market in young women's fashion, with her colorful embroidery. "A lot of the fad that I did one year for the Eid, a lot of the young girls were into denim, and I do a lot of embroidery on my denim. So I made so many over-garments but it was all out of denim one year and everybody had different embroidery on it."

While many younger girls crave flashy designs, young women are often drawn to more conservative clothes. That's what Khalil Ghani sees in his shop. "More Muslim American women are wearing the Nikab and the hijab, growing number actually as opposed to fewer. But for many of them, it just a matter of choice. I've heard of several women, who -- I guess they are rather attractive and men are paying more attention to them than they want. They feel relief when they wear that type of garb."

The long skirts and more feminine designs now being seen on runways may be a subtle reflection of the influence of Islamic style, according to some Muslim designers. But whatever the reason, they agree that when it comes to fashion, it's all about whatever sells.

A version of this story can be found in Dragonfire, an online publication

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