Muslim Fashion: A leap of faith?

Integrating faith and fashion is no easy task.

Just ask the millions of Muslims across the Western world, who endure endlessly frustrating trips to the mall, trying to find something- anything- to wear which is remotely suitable. Many complain that when it comes to fashion, the Western world just does not accommodate Muslims. In the last couple of years, however, things have begun to change in the West. Blogs, website and festivals on ‘Muslim Fashion’ are growing all the time and new Muslim designers are emerging, bringing with them new perspectives on fashion. But is ‘wearing’ your faith really a positive development?

Whilst many are happy to have more suitable clothing available, others fear that ‘Muslim Fashion’ is leading young Muslims down a path of senseless consumption and is actually distracting from real Islam. I spoke with two Muslim designers, Melih Kesmen and Sarah Elenany, to tackle this dilemma.

Tackling stereotypes with T-shirts

Melih Kesmen is probably not what you have in mind when you think of a fashion designer. A devout German Muslim of Turkish descent, he is a qualified graphic designer with a wife and young son named Isaak. Yet following 9/11 and the incident involving the offensive caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed printed in Denmark, Kesmen decided to launch StyleIslam. “After September 11th we as Muslims are always on the defensive,” he explains. “Bad articles in the media, propaganda all around the world- my idea was to find a positive way to tackle these media problems.”

StyleIslam is modern and stylish brand of men and women’s clothing proudly declaring Muslim values such as the virtues of sunnah and du’a. In fact, it was the caricature incident which motivated Kesmen to design his first T-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘I love my Prophet’. These proved to be extremely popular and encouraged Kesmen to launch his brand. “It would have been nice to have launched for a nicer reason but it was a start and as a Muslim you have to say allhamdulillah,” he admits.

Talking to Kesmen, it seems clear that StyleIslam is deeply rooted in Islamic values and was launched by a need to protect Islam rather than commercialize it. The brand, which is available to Muslims across the world, remains outspoken on issues concerning Muslims in the West. Amongst its women’s range are items stating ‘Hijab, My Right, My Choice, My Life’. Yet what sparked controversy was StyleIslam’s now discontinued ‘Jesus was a Muslim’ t-shirt. “We didn’t expect this to be such an issue because for us as Muslims it’s nothing new; of course Jesus was a Muslim.”

Kesmen explains that the negative reaction is rooted in a lack of understanding of Islam and Muslims in the West. “There are many that have prejudices and bad views about Muslims and so they think we are being aggressive and say ‘These Muslims want to provoke us’.” Kesmen was even contacted by people from Bavaria, in Germany where he lives, and threatened with the police and more. “We want to build bridges, that is our real motivation and so we changed it to ‘Jesus and Mohammed, brothers in faith’ and since then we haven’t had any complaints or radical reactions allhamdulillah!”

Modesty in the mainstream

Luckily for Sarah Elenany, the 24-year old behind the label ‘Elenany’, the response to her modest clothing range has been less controversial. “From the target Muslim market the expression ‘Finally!’ keeps popping up. There’s also been good response from non-Muslims and I’ve had quite a few customers who aren’t Muslim!” she says.

Elenany’s new range was launched in May 2009 and includes modest clothing with bold graphic designs of two hands held up in prayer. Her background in engineering product design has also been useful as she explains that her collection “is born out a ‘design for need’ philosophy”. This means that it has been designed with the user, or young Muslim women and their needs, in mind.

The London-based fashion designer explained that the lack of suitable, modest clothing motivated her to launch the clothing range. “Being a young Muslim woman I always found it difficult to find clothing that I felt covered me up properly, which wasn’t the traditional abayas and jilbabs…There was a gap in the market for modest clothing for young people.” Despite, a clear understanding of the business side of the industry, Elenany insists that Muslim fashion is not about commercializing Islam. “I don’t think anything anyone ever does will water down Islam. And if Muslim fashion means bringing Islam into the mainstream- so people have the opportunity to better understand it- then I think that’s a good thing.”

Islamic Values in Fashion

Whilst many warn that Muslim fashion can be an unwelcome distraction from important Islamic values, both Elenany and StyleIslam have stuck to their beliefs. Sarah Elenany explained that while launching her collection was difficult, she was keen that her Islamic values were reflected in the manufacturing process: “I think getting the clothing manufactured will always be a major issue with any clothing label. For me, the process took a bit longer as I had to find a place to get them manufactured where, in line with Islamic ethics, I was confident the workers were getting a fair wage as well as working in good environmental conditions.”

StyleIslam was also adamant that those in need benefited from the commercial success of the label. ‘Style and Sadaqa’ is major feature of the website which states that ‘StyleIslam is not only top street and casual wear for young people with an attitude, it also stands for helpfulness and brotherliness.’ Kesmen added: “For me personally, I thought what is my responsibility? Well of course to communicate and convey the messages of Islam and the other thing is to earn your rizk [provision] to feed your family. After that we must help those who need our support and so every time you buy a t-shirt money goes to the orphan kids in Africa.”

Elenany and Kesmen were also keen to dispel any notions that they had fully resigned themselves to a Western way of life obsessed with image and fashion. Elenany insisted that Muslim fashion was not about beautifying yourself to attract other men but was a means of self-expression- something which is a legitimate part of Islam.

Kesmen also hoped that StyleIslam was building a bridge between the two worlds and inspiring young Muslims to embrace their Muslim roots. “Within the Western world, of course there are things that are not compatible with Islam such as drinking and naked women” remarked Kesmen. “But as intelligent people we should be able differentiate and so work with what we can do. As Islam says Allah is beautiful and loves beauty- what more inspiration do you need than that!”

Link to IslamOnline for the article

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