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Challenging Islamic fashion perceptions

by The Worldfolio

Ms Alia Khan, Chairwoman of the Islamic Fashion and Design Council, is trying to challenge perceptions of Islamic fashion on a global scale. However, Islamic fashion is undoubtedly enjoying an ‘alarming & wonderful’ growth. Here, Alia tells us more.

The UAE has struck a unique balance between its deep-rooted traditional customs and the more modern vibrant global dynamic. In this context, Islamic fashion is growing very fast, but what is so Islamic about Islamic fashion?
That is a very good question. It is popular for a few reasons, among them that there are slight variations in interpretation on what is Islamic or Islamic-compliant when it comes to fashion, so people have different opinions on what should be covered or not and how. Particularly at the IFDC (Islamic Fashion and Design Council), we make it clear that we are not a religious council, so we are not here to tell you what is correct and what is not correct, although generally speaking, you are talking about full sleeves, full length and adequately loose fitting. Yet, you are free to be stylish, you are free to adhere to any type of colour combinations that you prefer and, of course, there is a focus on quality. In fact, one of the mandates of Islamic living is to live in the highest quality, and if you put something out, you put it out in the best of ways. This commitment to excellence is a very big staple of Islamic lifestyle.

just by default it is breaking stereotypes, and you realise this when you actually see Islamic fashion and the diversity, the elegance, the beauty and the options that it offers to women around the world.

If you look at Europe, there has been controversy about women wearing hijab in public places and many of them felt under pressure to remove it in their workplace. Can this be attributed to Islamophobia?
I think being upset about hijab is like being upset with Grace Kelly for wearing her iconic scarves. If you are going to be upset, then be upset with everybody, because many women do it as a cultural norm in France as well as in other European countries, in America and in Australia. My American friends’ grandmothers, even today when they go out, they like to put on a light scarf. It is a norm for many people, so to pinpoint any particular group I think is unfair; you might as well include everybody. The way I would answer their viewpoint is that they are looking at it from a very negative position, as if women are being forced into it. However, as I have just pointed out, there are celebrities and I always say that no matter what form it takes, fashion is a language. In fact, it is the language that requires the least effort, because all you have to do is see someone and the ensemble they are wearing and right away you automatically – whether you like it or not – have put together a certain perception about that person and they have communicated something to you. Therefore, fashion is an extremely important medium, so now when you take Islamic fashion it becomes further intriguing and important as it has an opportunity to rebrand the image, if you will. I think that just by default it is breaking stereotypes, and you realise this when you actually see Islamic fashion and the diversity, the elegance, the beauty and the options that it offers to women around the world.

It is no wonder to us that we are finding a secondary market for Islamic fashion boutiques, among non-Muslim consumers. So many women come in and find that they are falling in love with the elegance that is being offered in this space. It is a beautiful language and people are speaking it everywhere.

In 2012, forecasts estimated Islamic fashion would have a volume of USD 224 billion by 2018. A year later, it was estimated to be USD 322 billion and last year the prospects were USD 500 billion for 2018. The market is growing so fast that is difficult to find data that keep up..
Yes, it is generally growing at an alarming and wonderful pace. Everybody gets shocked every year and I think that as the IFDC is more out there, we realise that perhaps we need to put together a more comprehensive study because there seems to be a lot more to the picture than what we originally surmised, and I think experts everywhere and researchers are realising this. At IFDC, we are addressing that now by designing our own comprehensive study; we feel like we need a more clear picture, so we need to go to all areas of the study and see what the demographic is exactly, who has got the spending power, who spends more, who spends less, and what their demands are.

Figures show that the Islamic fashion market worldwide would be second only to that of the U.S.
The GIES Islamic Economy Report for 2014-2015 said that if this market were a country, it would be third after America and China. Apparently, now they are saying it would be second after America, which is wonderful. I can see why they are saying that, as every year the numbers keep surprising us and keep increasing exponentially; it is not even a 40 percent, increase, it is closer to double that; we have a huge market in our hands to play with.

Why did you pick New York as your HQ?
To be frank, when we were first setting up we needed an easy place to be a council. With all the requirements and everything that a council needs, it is really a multi-pronged organisation, so if you were trying to set that up as a corporation in other countries, there were just a lot of limitations. It was because it was easier. Besides, I am from America so that was sort of a comfort zone for me, to be able to set up an entity there as I know how things run. Now, thank God, we have chapter offices and a lot of branches that are springing up, which makes things much easier, so we can have affiliate offices where councils are not as easy to set up but affiliate offices are. Our next one will be in London and we are going to be in Paris after that. We also have been approached by Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia, so it is something that is evolving. We have also been approached by Australia, as there is a group in Melbourne that is interested and approached us hand in hand with the African market, wanting to set up IFDC offices there.

People think Islamic fashion is the abaya, but the abaya is actually a minority in Islamic fashion.

So as you can see, it is extremely necessary to continue to grow on a global level because Islamic fashion can never be contained to a region, which is one of the misperceptions surrounding it. People think Islamic fashion is the abaya, but the abaya is actually a minority in Islamic fashion.

That is just one of the preconceptions people may bring to mind but there are so many other facets to Islamic fashion. You do have cultural norms like the abaya and the chador, but by the same token, in Germany Muslim consumers have a cultural norm and in New York they have a different one, so we must address that but we must also be the platform where each corner of the world can be appreciated for what they are putting out. We were approached by Japan, as now there are some Japanese designers that want to come up with a kimono-abaya and we encourage that, we think it is really fantastic and very creative. Our role is to encourage that level of creativity and we do our best to make it happen, or at least facilitate their success.

Looking at the geopolitical situation and the spread of extremism, did you expect to have this kind of responsibility in terms of shaping the image of the Islamic community in the world?
I don’t think we can worry about conditions in the world to the extent that they detract us, or anyone else, from a sound vision. What we do is do our best and we put out absolute excellence in whatever we do; we believe that alone will change perceptions. Thus, rebranding is a default result of our work. Frankly, we are not trying to ease any political tensions or get involved in situations that we may not have any control over. We do, however, realise that a lot of our work is by default rebranding the image, and we are happy with that result.

I think anyone, and not just within the Muslim population, when they put something out that is there to be admired, in the end it appeals to everyone. I think anyone who is in their right mind would have no choice but to marvel at someone’s beautiful creations, no matter who you are or to what social or religious group you belong. If you produce excellence, I believe the world should stand up and applaud that excellence, and that is what we want to do. We want to contribute to the global excellence that all races and religions are contributing to.


This article originally appeared in a special publication by The Worldfolio produced in conjunction with the 11th World Islamic Economic Forum.

17 Nov 2016
Last modified: 25 Oct 2017
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