The launch of the world's first Muslim model agency, in New York's fashionable Tribeca district, offered an interesting alternative to the options presented at New York Fashion Week a few blocks uptown. A coming-together of a particularly stylish segment of the Islamic community in this cosmopolitan city, the event on Saturday night played host to everyone from a fully veiled woman in black abaya to dramatically coiffed fashionistas (and fashionistos) curious about a groundbreaking project.
The founder of the Underwraps agency, Nailah Lymus, is a born-and-bred New York Muslim with a love of fashion and a mission to prove Islam's worth and tolerance to a city whose inhabitants remain, in many cases, emotionally fragile and somewhat suspicious of Islam more than a decade after the tragic September 11 terrorist attacks.
"It's just always been about contradicting a lot of the negative stereotypes and misunderstandings about Muslims and our religion, as well as about Muslim females; there's a whole lot of other negative stereotypes that go with that," says Lymas at the launch, in the Rare salon on Church Street. "We can walk on the runway, we can wear colours, we can do things independently of our husbands ... It breaks down so many misunderstandings, even regarding nationalities of Muslim women; it's a religion that's international."
In fact, arguably, much of the fashion that has been shown so far in New York for autumn/winter 2012 would be perfectly at home on a Muslim model, with hats, high necks and long sleeves all crucial trends. One guest at the event, Ismail Sayeed, a Harlem-born blogger and artist otherwise known as The Calligrafist, argues: "Those things are incorporated into western fashion. People who are not Muslim can cover and still be fashionable. If you look at the runway a lot of models are covered, and designers especially play with veils."
The owner of Rare, Fatima Sheikh, agrees. "When I met Nailah, I didn't even realise she was wearing hijab. It just looked so hot that I was like, I love what you've got going on!"
Sheikh runs a monthly "hijab night", during which she blocks off the windows on the premises, allowing local Muslim women to enjoy the benefits of a beauty salon in the privacy required by their beliefs. A practising Muslim herself, she was attracted to Lymus's project from the start, and was happy to offer her salon for the buzzy event.
"We met and everything she was talking about, the femininity and mysteriousness, that there's more to being feminine than being naked all the time, I agreed with. Anything I can do to help out each other [in Muslim fashion] I'm down to do."
Judging by the eclectic crowd that gathered on Saturday night, there are plenty of people with the same approach: some were there out of curiosity, some were bloggers looking for the next big story and many were Muslim fashionistas wanting to be part of a bigger movement.
Mohammed Shariff, a New York-based fashion and entertainment lawyer, was there to support his fellow New York Muslims, but he also saw a business opportunity. This was, he thought, just the tip of a future iceberg. "When I saw this I thought it was a perfect fit for Muslims and non-Muslims who don't want to be so revealing. I know we're going to start catering for this international market in America, whether it's at Neiman Marcus or JC Penney," he argues. "It's happening."
Shariff also points out the issue that has been troubling for so many of those who would like to be Muslim models - and those who would employ them. "I work with models and modelling agencies," he says. "I do see Muslims in modelling agencies who suffer from the assignments; they feel that they compromise who they are for it."
Sayeed has a similar experience. "I personally know many Muslims who want to model but they don't want to take anything off; they want to stay within their faith. People have their different views on it, but if you look around the world, Muslims dress differently. Culture plays a big part in how Muslims dress."
It's nevertheless a thorny issue for Lymus, who inevitably finds herself "representing" the Muslim world in fashion. How has she dealt with the doctrinal and religious issues?
"I've spoken to two imams, and they seemed to be supportive of it as long as I'm representing the religion properly, once I explained the direction I'm going in, which is really to bring awareness to a fashion forum. The models know that I'm devout in my religion." Still, if, as she suggests, the agency does start to cater for an international market ("I would love for my girls to walk Lincoln Centre during New York Fashion Week"), there are going to be some serious backstage issues, in a world in which it is completely normal for models to change in front of a whole room of men and women.
"Our contracts are really detailed, to make sure everything is understood," she says. "I'm even in the process of designing a portable fitting room for the individual model, because we can't have men dressing us, and I don't want it to be a burden or inconvenience to designers who might want to use our models."
Whether the madness that occurs backstage at a mainstream fashion show will support such measures remains to be seen.
By Gemma Champ
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