Islamic fashion: A modern makeover for mums abaya

Statuesque models clad in black robes with strategically placed slits and headscarves boasting vibrant flashes of color sashay down a Dubai runway to the theme song for a James Bond movie.

For the Dubai-based designers of the Rouge Couture line on display, the Western music combined with the unusual twists on the traditional abaya worn by observant Muslim women is the perfect contrast which sums up Islamic fashion.

“Our designs are there, in part, to empower women and show that traditional Arab women are strong,” said Rouge Couture founder Sarah Madani at the show in October. “Our line is both traditional and religious and no matter how far we go with it, our clothes are still modest.”

Modesty and religion are the cornerstones behind the fast-growing Islamic fashion industry, which is making a mark on runways from Indonesia and Dubai to Monte Carlo. Islamic fashion is part of a growing appetite for sharia-related industries and assets, ranging from finance to halal food.

Some of the biggest names in couture, such as Christian Dior, are racing to produce Islamic-inspired attire that will tap into the spending power of Muslim women globally.

Muslim designers are also eager to find their place in a fashion industry that is conservatively estimated to be worth more than $96 billion globally.

But the industry has its detractors, who say Islamic fashion misses the spirit of Islam and exploits the faithful by producing attire that is labelled Islamic, but whose aesthetic appeal owes much more to Western ideals of beauty.

A fashion show in Monte Carlo last August — where the Malaysian prime minister’s wife was a patron — sparked protests from student groups and politicians in Malaysia as well as widespread criticism on the Internet.

Some designs featured at the Islamic Fashion Festival were reviled for portraying the Prophet Mohammed’s name in Arabic calligraphy on the chest of a sleeveless abaya-inspired gown.

“The pride of the entire Islamic community worldwide has been tarnished by the Islamic Fashion Festival,” one Malaysian parliamentarian said at the time.

A Facebook page was created calling for the Prime Minister’s wife, Rosmah Mansur, to apologise to Muslims.

But Islamic Fashion Festival founder Raja Rezza Shah said critics missed the point of the event, which brings together designers of all faiths to create clothes with consumers from the Muslim world in mind.

“My event is about showing the gentle side of Islam to a non-Muslim audience,” Shah said. “There will be mistakes made by some designers that do not have a deep knowledge of Islam. How can I show Islam is gentle if I chop a designer at the first mistake?”

Shaykha Halima Krausen, a German-born sharia scholar, said there is always a concern that religion will be exploited for economic gain, but there were also opportunities to be had.

“Rather than looking for conflicting Western and Islamic values … I would really like Muslims to be more creative themselves in order to revive their cultural wealth,” she said.