Hijab Chic

How retailers are marketing to fashion-conscious Muslim women.

Undercover at Nordstrom

“Full coverage,” not your typical fashion show prerequisite, was the theme at a “fashion seminar” recently hosted by Nordstrom at the tony Tysons Corner Center mall in McLean, Va. The show, called “Interpreting Hot Trends for Veiled and Conservative Women,” was perhaps the first high-fashion hijab event sponsored by corporate America. The target: well-heeled Muslim women living in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, where mansions and mosques are filled with rich Muslim immigrants, an increasing number of whom shop at Tysons Corner.

The Nordstrom show is part of a growing trend: Western retailers and designers are beginning to market directly to Muslim women. In 2000, for instance, European designers Yves Saint-Laurent and Jean-Paul Gaultier showed at the International Festival of African Fashion in Niger while ultraconservative Muslims paraded through the streets in protest of the “satanic” presentation. A 2004 Hermes ad featured two women with the dark hair, dark eyes, and olive skin of many Middle Easterners and wearing the company’s iconic scarves wrapped around their heads in the Muslim style of hijab. (When asked, the Hermes advertising department would say only that its marketing pitch is “global.”) And a little over a week ago, French designer Judith Duriez, co-owner of the Dubai-based company Arabesque, debuted her fall 2005 collection of “sheilas” (veils) and “abayas” (gowns) for the cloaked Muslim woman. These fashions, traditional long black gowns (the color is one rule Duriez refuses to break), are enhanced by non-traditional accents such as mother-of-pearl trimmings and chiffon ribbons.

Retailers have likely caught on to the fact that conservative Muslim women are as interested in fashion as any other women and that, as a population numbering at least 500 million—an estimated half of which cover up regularly—they constitute a large, and potentially lucrative, untapped market. Indeed, to anyone who’s paying attention, it’s evident that Muslim women are going to great lengths (and in some cases spending a substantial amount of money) in an attempt to reconcile their religious mandate to dress modestly with their desire to look fashionable. Many women interpret the idea of “hijab”—the term comes from the Arabic word “hajaba,” which is translated as “to cover,” and is used generally to refer to modesty, and more specifically, to mean headscarves and formless gowns—quite liberally. They wear Diane Von Furstenberg mini-dresses over Levi jeans or rapper-style do-rags as headscarves. Other women don scarves by designers such as Christian Dior, Hermes, Gucci, and Dolce & Gabbana. And even the traditional dress is no longer black and shapeless but comes in various cuts, colors, patterns, and textures: slim-cut, baggy, silk, chiffon, fringed, fur-cuffed, hand-painted, and even embroidered with rhinestones and feathers.

The trend would be just another marketing gimmick, except that the hijab is not merely an article of clothing, but a politically charged symbol. The hijab, as most people know by now, has become emblematic of an ideological and political movement that promotes a puritanical interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia. In this interpretation, it is “haram,” or illegal, for a women to reveal her arms, legs, or any bodily curves. In the most conservative circles, revealing the face, ankles, neckline, and hands is also verboten. (The Quran, while calling for modesty, does not mandate that women wear hair scarves or long gowns.)

To attend the fashion seminar, I had to go undercover in more ways than one. Nordstrom’s publicity department called the show a “private event” that was closed to the press. When I asked why, I was told the company hadn’t “media trained” its sales representatives. What if, God forbid, a Nordstrom saleswoman pitched a gauzy scarf that left a woman’s hair visible? I’m a Muslim woman, but I don’t cover my hair except when I go into mosques with a hoodie over my head in a look I call “ghetto hijab.” So, at the diner across the street, I draped a hot pink scarf from the Tie Rack over my head and covered my body in a flower-patterned Nine West trench coat—more Grace Kelly than hijabi Muslim, but it worked—and prepared to see what Nordstrom thought was in fashion for the veiled-and-shrouded set.

The morning of the event, about 100 women—their hair covered by scarves, their bodies cloaked in abayas or burqas, and at least two of them with their faces fully veiled—pulled into the Tysons Corner parking lot in Volvos, BMWs, and Lexus sedans. In liberal Muslim circles, these women are sometimes derisively called “hijabis.” The chicest among them—those who wear silk Hermes scarves and long Barneys  jackets—are dubbed “fashionable fundies” (as in “fundamentalists”). The women call themselves “muhajabah,” or “women of hijab.”

The women and I slid into chairs set up at the top of the store’s escalators, a few feet away from a display of slinky Nicole Miller gowns. The Nordstrom sales team was composed mostly of non-Muslim Americans, but there was one Muslim saleswoman with a scarf pulled up high over a bun in her hair. A chipper Nordstrom saleswoman in an appropriately modest business suit opened the show by pointing to a row of mannequins outfitted in what she called “the latest fall trends.” There was a full-length Eileen Fisher skirt: “It allows for fullcoverage,” she emphasized. And a black Anne Klein jacket: “It closes up high,” the sales lady stressed. Finally, a $425 green-and-black Tesori tweed coat: “Just perfect for your unique style.” In other words, it would cover the contour of a woman’s butt—another no-no to reveal. The Nordstrom Web site promotes the jacket as a “tailored fit,” but that wasn’t part of the sales pitch here.

But something was obviously missing. A saleswoman stepped forward: “Of course, we have scarves!” Of course! Each mannequin had a scarf wrapped around its neck, ready to be pulled up. There were also brooches, which were said to be “perfect for pinning up scarves.” A Muslim woman in the audience snickered at the effect of one broach atop a headscarf; it looked like a cake decoration.

Of course, the most puritanical Muslims would say that hijab is not meant to be flashy. According to these men and women, it’s supposed to be the sartorial equivalent of a burlap sack, not a trimly tailored Anne Klein jacket. It’s supposed to be black, not trendy colors like fuchsia and teal. Preachers from New Jersey to California rail at the pulpit against women who put too much fashion in their hijab. To quote one rant on a conservative Muslim Web site: “Everyday we see our Muslim sisters proudly displaying names and initials on their clothing. … What are they advertising? CD, YSL, D&G,”—as in Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Dolce & Gabbana—”How ironic that the most modest of dressing—the cloak and scarf—should become contaminated by advertising the names of some of the most shameless and perverted people in the world.”

But women will no doubt continue to thwart such dictates in a desire to look stylish while remaining pious. And it may be Muslims themselves, versed in the nuances and requirements of the hijab, who will be best equipped to introduce it to the world of high fashion. Next month, on Nov. 10, Femmes Arabes, a magazine for Arab women, will sponsor a fashion show in Montreal featuring caftans—long flowing garments popular among Muslim women in North Africa—designed by five Canadian designers and five Arab designers; it held a similar show last year. And Eve N Black, a Dubai-based boutique founded by Muslim fashion designer Mohammad Bahrami, sells abayas that cost anywhere from $1,500 to $10,000 and are often displayed with matching shoes and purses. (If she spends $6,500 or more, a woman can get a copyright for her personal abaya design.)

If the Nordstrom event made one thing clear, it was that it’s not easy to combine high fashion with religion. While one woman walked away with a long orange duster sweater, women on both sides of the figurative catwalk were grumbling unhappily. A Moroccan woman found a black polka-dotted top inappropriate because of its “three-quarter-length sleeves.” Sleeves, according to the strictest standards of hijab, must extend to the wrists. A George Mason University law school student groused that a black Anne Klein skirt was “too short” because it hit the calves. A young scarved woman became frustrated that she wasn’t able to find “an A-line skirt without a slit.” And the Nordstrom cashiers mumbled to each other they weren’t ringing up enough sales. Indeed, the fashion seminar, to borrow a phrase from the fashion world, was a definite miss.