It’s the first (theoretically) annual Philly Islamic fashion convention “Show Me How 2 Cover,” and emcee Saidah Brown, a local humorist and motivational speaker, has just one question.
“Now, repeat after me,” she calls out from her perch astride a gleaming runway that glows pink from within: “Why do they hate us, Saidah?”
Six hundred women in folding chairs lining the runway, wearing garb ranging from merely modest to head-to-toe swaddling, echo her: “Why do they hate us?” And Brown is right there with the punch line: “Because that black just looks so good.”
The crowd goes wild.
The implication that there is a “they” and an “us,” and that in between snakes a thread of something resembling hatred, is one of many complicating notions surrounding Philly’s community of fervent hijabinistas — that is, women who embrace all the requirements and restrictions of hijab, the Muslim dress code, but who also want to feel chic and express who they are with fashion. In a religious culture that commands women to be modest, dressing to impress is a tricky business. And in a city where hijab has suffered a spate of bad publicity at the hands of criminals who’ve co-opted the garb in crimes ranging from bank robbery to kidnapping, celebrating Islamic fashion can also mean staring down stereotypes, adversity and sometimes outright abuse.
But Muslim women say those who don’t get where they’re coming from are not only missing the point — they’re missing a vast business opportunity. Given Philly’s booming Muslim population — estimates are tough to nail down but range from 40,000 to 200,000, with more believers “reverting” to the faith all the time — Islamic merchandise is a brisk business. Local boutiques, seamstresses and design houses are drawing clients from across the country and even overseas. And they’re pushing the envelope with looks that rethink what an observant Muslimah, or Muslim woman, looks like.
The point of “Show Me How 2 Cover,” a showcase held in a converted factory building on a run-down block in Frankford on a recent Saturday afternoon, was to give women ideas and resources to help them merge faith and fashion. And women traveled from across the mid-Atlantic region to pay between $25 and $50 for the opportunity to line up 20 deep on red carpets outside, cordoned off from the crumbling sidewalk by velvet ropes. Inside, rows of vendors were showing diaphanous evening wear, sporty tunics and conservative abayas, or overgarments — some items that hijabis could safely wear in public and others that would require added layers for optimal coverage. Also included was a fashion show featuring 10 designers’ spring collections and a women-only space where they could literally let their hair down for a few hours.
The event was staged by Muslimah Conventions Inc., a startup run by a group of local women who want to accelerate Islamic fashion’s shift from subculture to mainstream. For 2014, they’re planning to expand the event into an international Islamic fashion week, drawing designers from the U.S., Europe and the Middle East.
Shea Bates, 25, the company’s chief executive — who was wearing a silver mermaid-style gown that included a bubble skirt, a ground-sweeping hem and, of course, total head, shoulder and arm coverage — wants the event to help kick-start a fashion revolution. “Hopefully, major designers will start making stuff geared toward us. Because we spend a lot of money on the stuff that we wear. Hopefully, one day we’ll go into Macy’s and there will be abayas in Macy’s. There’s a lot boutiques, independent owners and seamstresses that sew just for us. But we would want the fashion world to take our seamstresses and put them in department stores everywhere.”
Some Muslim designers are already profiting from the crossover potential of non-Muslim clients who find retail clothing too sheer or skimpy.
Akilah Baynes, who helped organize the fashion show for Muslimah Conventions, has had her own design house, Akilah Fashions, since 2007. She says business is good — and getting better all the time. “The market has evolved tremendously,” she says. “It grew progressively over a short span of time.” She sews and sells everything from burkinis (full-cover swimwear) to evening gowns to medical scrubs in modest cuts, and ships her custom-made garments to clients in Wilkes-Barre, Trinidad and even Yemen — where, theoretically, there should already be plenty of Islamic fashions to choose from. But clients there tell her “they like American fashion, because it’s something different.”
She hopes to open a brick-and-mortar store in West Philadelphia — “by June, inshallah” — and expand from there. After all, she has clients who travel from Atlantic City and Delaware to get fitted, and who tell her there are just no good options closer to home. She thinks she could change that. “To stop at one storefront — that’s not my goal,” she says.
Na’ilah Zawjatul Yusha, who designs overgarments, scarves and accessories under the fashion label CrowCoveredCandy, says it’s only a matter of time before the U.S. catches up with other countries, where hijab-safe fashion is everywhere. “If more stores got into how they do overseas and carry Islamic garb in their stores, they would notice that their business would make a lot of money,” she says, pointing out that Muslim women can be big spenders, given the need for an at-home (and under-abaya) wardrobe in addition to modest going-out clothes. “We’re still women and we love to shop. We love to shop as much as any other woman.”
“Show Me How 2 Cover” is just like any other fashion show — until it isn’t.
It starts off as you’d imagine, with models streaming down the catwalk, working the flowing garments. But these models come in all shapes and sizes. The important thing, says Bates, is not so much their body type as their walk — “more of a flowing stride than a sexy strut,” to showcase the drape of each garment. “You walk differently in an abaya than you would in a pair of jeans,” she notes: “It’s a science.”
On several occasions, though, the action grinds to a halt. Brown stops to point out which direction is east, toward Mecca, so that women who so choose can break for prayer. (There is some debate: Is it over by the door, or a bit to the left near the vendor who’s selling animal-print khimars for $10?)
Later, Brown pauses again after noticing women snapping photos with cameraphones. She’s not pleased. Her tunic, she points out, leaves her forearms exposed; she’s only wearing such a thing without extra layers of coverage because no men are present. Moreover, some of the models don’t even have their hair covered.
“When we come out — and we don’t get out often — and we get to come out to something that’s in good taste, that’s halal,” Brown tells the crowd, it’s a rare treat.
“But when you take pictures of me with my arms not covered and that girl with her hair out … and you take those pictures home and you show them to your husband to show him what he missed — well, maybe you aren’t gonna have a husband no more.”
If the logic of this supposition eludes you — the home-wreckingly irresistible allure, that is, of the bare forearm — well, there’s a lot non-Muslims just don’t understand, says Sahira Taylor, 37, who was helping run the fashion show.
“People will say, ‘I thought Muslim women didn’t do this or didn’t do that,’” says Taylor.
And Taylor, who holds an M.B.A. and has a career in corporate mental-health care, is used to defying those expectations.
That’s true of many local hijabinistas, who tend to be working mothers whose faith doesn’t dampen their career ambitions. In fact, that self-sufficiency (and disposable income) may be part of what’s driving the demand for more and better quality Islamic fashions. Nu Sbah, a Wilkes-Barre designer who runs a company called Konservative Kreations, says the bulk of her clients are working women in Philadelphia. By contrast, among the Muslim community in Wilkes-Barre, “a lot of women here don’t really come out of their homes much,” and so have little need for scarves or overgarments.
But Taylor notes that when she walks down the street in Philadelphia in her modest black attire, people make assumptions about who she is.
“I do wear the face veil, and I’ve had someone grab at it and say, ‘Get that off your face,’” she says. The recent kidnapping of a 5-year-old girl from a Southwest Philly elementary school by a woman in an abaya and niqab, or face veil, made matters worse. Recently, Taylor was shopping when a couple of children ran near her. Their mother called them back, saying, “You know those Muslim women are kidnapping children.”
People perpetrating such crimes in disguise “don’t realize the danger they put Muslim women in,” she says. “Why would you use Islam? Why would you use any religion to commit a crime? It puts women in danger.”
“You know the good thing about being Muslimah?" Brown asks the crowd. “Non-Muslims walk around butt naked. Our people like to leave something to the imagination.”
It’s undeniable: When it comes to fashion-marketing buzzwords, many companies opt for “sexy,” “flirty” or “pretty.” But in Islamic fashion marketing, one word matters above all: “modest.” Because of that, Islamic fashion can be something of a paradox: Being noticeable, dressing to stand out, is considered immodest — so how can it be done modestly?
For some, the solution is to dress exclusively in dark colors, which are considered less conspicuous. At “Show Me How 2 Cover,” plenty of women are going this route. “This particular market seems a little more conservative; a lot of sisters are in all-black,” observes Lakisha Bellamy, a manager for the U.K.-based IslamicDesignHouse.com. Philly is a top U.S. market for the company, which sells long, loose dresses with sporty hoods and fun pocket detailing that wouldn’t seem out of place at Urban Outfitters.
Taylor, who's wearing a black abaya adorned with strands of glittering rhinestones, opts for black almost exclusively when away from home. Her explanation: “Islam is my entire way of life, and everything else falls around that. I don’t really make my Islam fit everything else, I fit everything else into my Islam.”
Many other women feel the same — but not all. Dina Movich, who runs the Hartford, Conn.-based Dalliance Designers, says she began designing clothing “out of need” after she became Muslim. “As an American, these dresses, long and black, don’t appeal to me. And nowhere in my religion does it say I have to dress that way.” Instead, she makes jewel-toned dresses and flowing printed tunics; she hopes someday to be the “J. Crew of Muslim fashion.” She believes these clothes are completely acceptable under hijab, and that any further restrictions are cultural, not religious.
That, of course, is up for debate. And those are just the types of arguments Keziah Ridgeway has learned to avoid.
Take a link she recently posted on her Facebook page, along with the message: “Salaams!! I for one have been waiting to see something like this. However, this is NOT up for discussion.” The controversy she was trying to avoid stirring was whether breathable nail polish is acceptable for the observant Muslimah. (The trouble with regular nail polish is it makes it impossible to practice wudu, or ritual washing before prayer. Ridgeway and others get around this by applying nail polish for special occasions, then removing it as soon as they get home.)
Ridgeway, who runs an Islamic fashion blog called Philly Hijabis Killing It, says the perils of nail-polish politics are only one facet of the ever-shifting, sometimes-heated conversation on the essentials of hijab. Fake hair is another, as weaves are against the rules. And there’s the issue of which types of makeup are permitted, since any cosmetics must be permeable to allow for ritual cleansing.
One thing Ridgeway doesn’t have to negotiate on is her vast collection of 4- and 5-inch heels. The history teacher also wears color, so much of it that her students call her “Skittles.”
“In college, everyone knew me as the fashionable hijabi with the heels on,” she says. “Fashion has always been incorporated into my lifestyle as a Muslim woman.”
She knows not everyone will approve of everything she wears. She’ll always be too conservative for one person and too ostentatious for another. That’s just life as a hijabinista.
“I wear what I like, and I try not to worry if somebody thinks it’s too much,” she says. Besides, she says, the most important element of modesty is not a woman’s attire but her behavior: “If you see a man, then look down. Lower your gaze.”
There’s one thing Philly’s hijabi culture has over its mainstream fashion counterparts: affordable bespoke fashion.
There are a smattering of boutiques around town and a concentration of all-purpose Islamic shopping in the bustling 52nd Street corridor in West Philadelphia. “People travel here, to Philly, just to shop for Islamic clothes and books and CDs,” Bates says.
But in many such stores, abayas and scarves are sold on overstocked racks, tucked in the back like an afterthought behind the incense, essential oils and shelf after shelf of books with titles like The Major Sins and Ninety-Nine Names of Allah. That may be convenient for one-stop shopping, but Neiman Marcus it’s not. Which is one reason most self-respecting hijabinistas go straight to the source: local seamstresses.
“If you buy a garment from 52nd Street, you’ll see a whole bunch of other people with that same garment on,” says Raisah Hafiz of Mount Airy, waiting for the fashion show to get started. “I’d rather just get something custom-made.”
Hafiz and her cousin, Asia Haines, say they favor H&M, Forever 21, Target and Steve Madden for accessories, wear-at-home clothes or things to layer underneath their conservative overgarments. But when it comes to abayas or headscarves, bespoke is the only way to go — though custom tailoring doesn’t mean they won’t borrow each other’s clothes.
“The sisters, they find a way to squeeze and belt [borrowed abayas],” Haines says. “It’s always a competition. Everyone looks at everyone and says, ‘That’s cute,’ or ‘I could have wore it better.’ Women will be women.”
As such, they’re trend-watchers, always looking at how runway styles can be applied to their modest overgarments. Zawjatul Yusha, who runs the label CrowCoveredCandy, says when ruffles were in, she was doing tuxedo-front abayas; now, she’s borrowing current trends to incorporate black-and-white, leather accents and lace overlays into her designs. “It’s just taking the western trends and making them modest. We also create our own trends, too.” For example, bishop sleeves were everywhere at the fashion show, as were elaborate jeweled pins to keep headscarves in place.
Quandera Quick, who traveled from Brooklyn for the fashion show, says finding stylish attire made for hijabis is a relatively new experience for her. “The [Islamic] clothes in Brooklyn are pretty basic, very safe. Here, it’s much more urban. You have the opportunity to be modest and stylish at the same time,” she says. Usually, she just makes do with shopping in regular stores, which can be a gamble. Last summer, there was good news: Maxi dresses were on trend. When that happens, “you have to get them all,” she says. “If I see a maxi dress, I’ll buy every color.”
By late afternoon, Quick had an armful of shopping bags — a sign that the event had been, scandalous photos of forearms aside, a success. Maybe it was that M.B.A., but Taylor wasn’t surprised: “You know women. No matter what culture you’re in, women like to shop.”
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