SHAFAQNA – Despite the arrest and subsequent release this week of a young Saudi woman wearing a miniskirt in a video that went viral, a growing number of Canadian fashion designers are looking to prove that fashion for Muslim women can be both modest and fun.
Shahad Mahdi is one of the 14 designers showing their collections at the Mississauga Fashion Week’s third edition, set for Saturday night at a hockey-rink-turned-runway.
One of her main goals with her label, Black Orchid, is to shatter negative stereotypes around fashion for Muslim women.
The recent Ryerson University fashion grad is already getting lots of positive attention for her funky, pop-influenced graphic designs for Black Orchid that also satisfy clients searching for apparel that offers fuller coverage for religious reasons.
“I’m just trying to take fun, playful designs and add them to apparel to represent misrepresented people in the fashion industry,” she told CBC News while fitting her models for the fashion show.
“I think there’s a stigma around Muslim women and Eastern women in general, and I just want to let the world know we can be fashionable, we can be fun, we can be strong, we can be successful.”
Stamp of approval from models
The young Muslim women modelling her clothes said they found wearing Mahdi’s garments liberating.
“Before when you think about Muslims, it would always be this bland type of clothing,” said model Nabila Rezwan. “It’s nice designers are coming up with new ideas to make the new generations look better.”
Her fellow model Fatima Ibrahim agreed, as she admired her outfit designed by Mahdi.
“It’s super proper, it doesn’t disregard our beliefs, it’s covered up and it’s fully amazing,” Ibrahim said. “I’m excited that someone has that at the back of her mind while preparing an outfit.”
Adapting a look
Osob Mohamud is the Toronto fashion designer behind the online fashion label Alene.
She watches international fashion trends to keep up with what’s en vogue and then adapts the look to suit the needs of her Muslim clients, such as turning midiskirts into maxiskirts.
“It’s important as young women to show other women that it’s possible to follow your religion and be happy and also dress the way that you want to dress and follow the guidelines that are set for you without feeling … frumpy or out-of-fashion and off-trend,” Mohamud said.
Big brands entering market
It’s not just small, independent designers in North America who are taking notice of the growing market for Muslim women who want something fun and fashionable.
Uniqlo has launched a collection by British-Japanese Muslim fashion designer Hana Tajima that features fashionable hijabs in muted tones, along with tunics and flowing dresses.
Similarly, American Eagle Outfitters announced a denim hijab this week, and it quickly sold out.
In a statement to CBC News, the company said the limited-edition item represented its core values since it is “strongly committed to inclusivity and cultural diversity.”
There is no word yet on whether more denim hijabs will be manufactured or if the company plans other Muslim-oriented items.
Part of the appeal for retailers such as Dolce & Gabbana, Uniqlo and American Eagle Outfitters is that the modern fashion market is lucrative and underserved.
According to a report compiled by Thomson Reuters on the global Islamic economy, Muslims around the world spent $243 billion on clothing and apparel in 2015, and Muslim women spent $44 billion on modest fashion — and those figures are expected to keep growing.
But undoubtedly, the big brands are stepping carefully.
Earlier this year, Nike announced its Pro Hijab, made with lightweight polyester for maximum breathability to help female Muslim athletes compete.
A company press release enthused: “Nike aims to serve today’s pioneers as well as inspire even more women and girls in the region who still face barriers and limited access to sport.”
Nike received praise mixed with criticism. Calls for a boycott of the company peppered social media, as some accused the sports clothing company of supporting the oppression of women.
Controversy is par for the course
Hina Ansari has written about modest clothing for various fashion publications.
She said online backlash at the introduction of Muslim-oriented lines is par for the course in the current political climate, especially with something as “visible” and “polarizing” as the hijab.
“It will really show the testament of the business in terms of how they handle it but at the end of the day, fashion is fashion,” Ansari said. “If it’s something that’s cool and hip and Muslims want to wear it, they will.”
She added that big international brands without a deep understanding of Muslim culture may not be fully aware they’re also treading a fine line in their treatment of religious attire.
“There is the beauty of appreciating diversity and appreciating the hijab fashion scene, but there is that danger of trivializing it so much where it’s turned into a token and a hot trend.”