“The exhibition forwards the view that in order to grow, we must return to our collective and cultural roots. The result is a nourishing and sustainable harmony of modesty and the avant-garde.”
That text welcomed me as I walked into a white room, suddenly overwhelmed with emotions. Eight mannequins stood around the small space in the most exquisite clothes and they were all decorated with hijabs! Very refreshing. What’s even more exciting is that these clothes were designed and made by people from Indonesia: Dian Pelangi, Restu Anggraini, Jenahara and Zaskia Sungkar. Well, hello there neighbouring country!
This is during the International Fashion Showcase (IFS) February 2016 in Somerset House, London. Selected designers from varied countries get to exhibit their most creative and innovative clothes to unite their different voices and perspectives while proving that fashion have gone global. It is no longer about brands from New York or Paris, but a platform to showcase local and traditional identities in a universal scale.
The significance of the hijabs that were put on those mannequins hit closer to home and yes, that was part of the reason why it was overwhelmingly good.
But also because, the IFS chose Dian Pelangi’s designs (models donning hijabs and all) to be on the cover of their main newspaper catalogue that was given to everyone who visited the showcase. All of this happened during London’s Fashion Week (LFW) where “the world” has set its eyes on and most media outlets are ready with their juiciest headlines.
So when Dian Pelangi’s designs that she collaborated with two London-based designers, Nelly Rose and Odette Steele (who were trained traditional clothing making techniques in Indonesia) were picked to show her entire collection for LFW’s Fashion Scout, the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘hijab/headscarves’ are followed with ‘change’ and ‘new’ instead of ‘oppression’ or ‘terrorism’. As a student researching on modest fashion back then, I felt that the under- and misrepresented were finally being heard. It was, quite honestly, an exciting time!
These line of events created a rippling effect during which, at that time, Dolce and Gabbana releasing modest apparels were creating headline after headlines how the Western fashion industry suddenly realizing that the Muslim consumers make up about US$230 billion on clothing (according to the 2015-2016 State of the Global Islamic Economic Report).
The modest fashion phenomena was also made into an academic book by Professor Reina Lewis from London College of Fashion and it was a bit odd to read about how something we are accustomed to (wearing hijabs or burqas) being theorized and kind of put under a microscope.
Perhaps, that is because being in Brunei, where the Islamic faith is one of its main identities, women in headscarves and colourful outfits are deemed as the norm. Over in the UK, there are stories about how Muslim women are being the victim of hate crimes and so, literally wearing your heart on your sleeves or on your head became the biggest political and social statement. That being said, being here at this event, almost made my heart leap out of my chest, and I was touched to the core- we hijabis are finally making a mark in the global fashion world!
The IFS was supported and organized by the British Fashion Council and also by HijUp.com, Indonesia’s fashion e-commerce empire which sells the designers’ clothes in the exhibition as well as other modest apparels. When they held HijUp International Bloggers Meet Up and Trunkshow during the busy LFW schedule, I thought it was going to be quite demure with only a bunch of booths set up. What I didn’t expect was meeting the designers in person and the different personalities who came to celebrate the beauty of this faith. Never have I ever in one room when my inner Muslim feminist fashionista were raised all simultaneously.
One of my favourite quotes is when Diajeng Lestari, founder of HijUp.com (talk about the ultimate #ladyBOSS) said that, “We have to be the player rather than just a market,” and added the fact that as Muslims, we wear what we need and so we understand our values. This generation is equipped with new technology and all access to numerous social media platforms that we have the opportunity to rewrite headlines and let our voices be heard. With that in mind though, it is not easy to forget that these bloggers and designers have collectively more than 20 million followers on Instagram.
But the way they carry themselves with such grace and humility was so inspiring and a great reminder to always remain humble because at the end of the day, Allah is the one who has more than enough to provide us with blessings and wealth. That was the biggest take away that I remembered from Diajeng’s talk: Why be selfish and not give back to the community? From then on, I felt a true sense of sisterhood that unites us as women, with or without headscarves, through the strong bond of Islam.
How about the fashion, you ask? Yes, it was a spiritually empowering event but they are undoubtedly fashion folks and were not afraid to bring their A-game. My standout faves (that are caught on camera) were this woman’s 80s inspired look – big shoulder pads and cinched waist – which I thought was incredibly daring and Zaskia Sungkar’s (one of the Indonesian designers) black flowy mullet skirt worn over a pair of trousers that just exudes the ultimate outfit goals. Others that were not captured on my camera include a woman in a full-on burqa worn over a long lightweight jacket and get this – with a cap worn backwards on top of her hijab! If that does not sound like the epitome of Muslim cool swagger, then I don’t know what is.
I was also fortunate to meet Mariah Idrissi, well-known for being the first H&M hijabi model. Her look was a reflection of what street style stars would wear to accommodate London’s weather: cosy yet edgy with a touch of glam. But I would say that the most prominent feature was her presence. It reminded me of the TED talk she once delivered about her meteoric rise after that H&M campaign: “Something so small can have such a major impact. I was simply being myself.”
Ultimately, she mentioned that the influence of fashion can change the world and I could not agree more. What we decide to wear is so ingrained to our daily life that clothes can become emotional. Perhaps that is why some female Muslims get excited when we see someone that is a positive representation of our faith in the industry of fashion. Even if cynics persist with “what’s the big deal?” we cheered on saying “YASSS, you go sister!”. My hope is that the sisterhood will remain strong and spread globally throughout, sending encouraging messages that could turn into a thousand more firsts: first female Muslim Avenger, first female Muslim prime minister or first female Muslim to walk on Mars.
What I learned from the modest fashion scene in London and also from the Indonesian designers who went above and beyond to share their creations is that they are not afraid to express themselves. Traditional or modern or a mix of both or none at all, the ability to choose is where the freedom lies. Some of them are risking their lives to be unapologetically Muslim – stylishly, if I might add – even when Islamophobia rates are increasing.
So, the next time you open your wardrobe to decide on what to wear, think of these brave women and embrace what most people would have heard of a million times: “Just be yourself!”