Introduction by curator Glynis Jones

The business of modest fashion

The Australian fashion industry has flourished over the last decade; many Australian designers are showing on the international runways and their distinctive signatures are sought after locally and globally. Though small the industry is quite diverse ranging from globally recognised swimwear and boardwear brands to designers of bespoke handcrafted shoes. This publication and the accompanying exhibition explore a relatively new sector in the local fashion industry, one where faith and fashion, two words that don’t normally appear in the same context, form a new relationship in the emerging modest fashion market.

This is a global phenomenon being played out in a variety of modes in Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority countries across the globe. In the Australian context we focus on a group of Sydney based Muslim entrepreneurs who are designing and retailing stylish clothing for the growing number of Muslim women who want to dress creatively and fashionably while still expressing their faith. Many of these labels were founded by Muslim women whose own experience of putting on the headscarf and not being able to find modest fashionable styles led them to start designing and making their own clothes. Requests for similar garments from family and friends alerted them to the potential market for modest fashion, setting them on the road to establishing their own fashion businesses.

Australian Muslims are a culturally diverse community; while most are Australian born their families come from over 70 different birthplaces all with their own dress traditions. The designers featured here come from Lebanese, Syrian and Anglo-Australian backgrounds and have established their businesses in Western Sydney, a population hub for Sydney’s Muslim community. Through online e-tailing and social media many of these brands are reaching out to the global Muslim community – a potentially huge market. Aheda Zanetti proudly notes that her global market is so extensive she sends her famous Burqini® to places even global delivery company TNT doesn’t service.

Like all new businesses the designers have carefully selected a name to reflect their market and values. Tarik Houchar clearly signalled his focus on the Muslim market with his choice of Hijab House. Some of the other designers have selected names with a more universal identity, recognising that modest styles have wider appeal, not only to women of other faiths, but more broadly to women who prefer longer, looser fitting, fashionable clothing. This focus on the broader market is reflected in their clothing ranges which have the versatility to be adapted to degrees of coverage and modesty through the addition of layers and accessories.

Essentially these designers are fusing global fashion trends with more modest cuts and lengths and some are also referencing or reworking the cultural dress traditions of Muslim communities from the Middle East to the Indian sub-continent. Fay Tellaoui, for example, works with the traditional form of the abaya (a full length, loose fitting, long sleeved gown) re-designing it with a more tailored fashionable silhouette into forms like her streetstyle fleecy lined hoody abaya. The versatile salwar kameez of the Indian sub-continent is also frequently referenced, baraka give it an on-trend feel in the printed tunic top and pants of their latest collection.

Faith, fashion, blogging

Fashion bloggers have overtaken traditional media and PR companies as the people influencing trends and the modest fashion industry is no exception. We profile Mya Arifin and Delina Darusman-Gala Sydney’s first Muslim fashion bloggers. They are building their own online fashion communities and networks where they share their love of clothing, offer inspiration and advice on modest fashion, where to buy outfits and accessories, how to make mainstream fashion trends more modest as well as providing creative hijab tying tutorials.

Street style fashion

American Scott Schuman’s The Sartorialist is one of the world’s top five influential fashion blogs. When Schuman posted a photo of a stylish Muslim woman, (Manelle Chawk) on Melbourne’s Chapel Street in 2009, the image drew one of the largest and most positive responses from fans of the blog. Inspired by Schuman we sought to capture the diversity and creativity of Australian Muslim women’s style through street style photo shoots at events and locations around Sydney. The images show an eclectic range of styles reflecting a reality somewhat different to media representations of Australian Muslim women.

Women in profile

In Australia and the west generally there are many misconceptions and assumptions surrounding Muslims and Islam, and in particular Muslim women who express their faith in the way they dress. In the course of researching for this project we spoke to a number of Australian Muslim women who are actively working to dispel these misconceptions but are frustrated by being constantly asked to justify Muslims women dress choices. As Shakira Hussein writes in her essay, ‘This preoccupation with the veil (however defined) has come at a cost’, limiting the ability of Muslim women to speak about who they are rather than what they wear.

The ‘Muslim women in profile’ chapter introduces a group of women who, through very different activities are involved in breaking down stereotypes, building understanding between Australian communities, fighting injustice and mentoring Muslim women and youth. Connecting with the exhibition’s fashion theme each has a sartorial story to relate however the interviews allow them to speak more broadly about their experiences, opinions, challenges and achievements. Writer Randa Abdel-Fattah refers in her interview to the increasing numbers of Muslim ‘comedians, artists, writers and poets and poetry-slam artists who are using something that is potentially quite negative which is the stereotyping and prejudice, and channelling that anger into something positive and creative.’

Are you what you wear?

One such initiative is the Crooked Rib Art collective, a Melbourne-based group of Muslim women artists who create and participate in public art projects that bring communities together and challenge stereotypes of Muslim identity. based in Melbourne. Inspired by one of their projects, we photographed local Muslim women holding up placards on which they have written something about themselves, challenging the viewer to examine their own assumptions when judging people based on their appearance.