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Somali-Born Designers Seek Foothold in Fashion World

  • Carolyn Weaver

Twin sisters Idyl Mohallim (left) and Ayaan Mohallim (right) are fashion designers behind the Mataano clothing line

New York Fashion Week, when designers present their latest collections at shows for fashion editors and buyers for stores and boutiques, is a semi-annual rite in midtown Manhattan. In the flurry of big-name presentations, it's not always easy for a small firm to find an audience. But the designers behind the two-year-old brand Mataano, Somali-born twin sisters Idyl and Ayaan Mohallim, are hopeful that their Spring 2011 collection will attract notice.

To that end, they staged their presentation at The Museum of Biblical Art. It's not the first place you'd expect to find a fashion show. Yet seated among gold and scarlet-painted icons centuries old, the Mataano models, delicate, crane-like creatures with an otherworldly grace, also seem like visitors from another time.

Idyl Mohallim said the presentation, which they decided upon as less expensive than a runway show, was going well. "Not only because we're showcasing at a museum with great art," she said, "but because we're only one block away from Lincoln Center, where this year's Fashion Week is taking place."

The Mohallim sisters created Mataano, which means "twins" in Somali, in 2008, when they were just a few years out of college. It was something they had long hoped to do. When war in Somalia led their family to immigrate to the U.S. in the 1990s, the nine-year-old twins were immediately fascinated by the styles they saw in magazines and on television.

"We always say we learned English by reading fashion magazines," said Idyl. But the kind of clothing they had seen women in Somalia wear remained with them, too.

"We definitely take from Somalia, but we give it a very modern New York edge," Ayaan said.

The two live and work in their Brooklyn, New York apartment, where they create designs on their computers and meet with models for final fittings. Most of their clothes this season are highly feminine: airy silk dresses, blouses and pants in a muted palette they call "desert blossom."

"The printed organza, this is just absolutely beautiful, it has the right stiffness so you'll get a fullness," Ayaan said, showing a blouse paired with pearl-pink shorts made of silk moiré shantung.

In July, the sisters traveled to South Africa to present their Spring 2011 collection in a runway show in Johannesburg. They said the enthusiastic reception to their work there has led them to rework their business plan to focus on African buyers, too.

"Africa is definitely a market we want to tap into, and in Africa they're very supportive of African designers, because there aren't that many of us," said Ayaan.

Later this month, Idyll and Ayaan Mohallim will take the Mataano spring collection for shows in Ethiopia and Nigeria. They say they hope that someday, conditions in Somalia will permit them to visit their native country again, as well.