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Muslim Women Unveil Fashion Stores

It wasn’t easy being the only 12-year-old in her Texas school to wear a hijab, the Islamic head scarf.

While Elif Kavakci wanted to follow Islamic guidelines, she found it important to look trendy in front of her classmates. But she had a tough time in American stores finding clothes that covered her body, a struggle that continued as she got older.

In 2007, Kavakci started her own couture clothing line of stylish but modest clothing for Muslim women after an international women’s peace organization asked her to put on a fashion show as a fundraiser.

Aisha Alam likes to shop at Islam Fashion in Queens, N.Y. (Photo by Zoe Read/CNS)

Muslim women “feel like they can’t go into the stores and find what they want,” says Kavakci, now 36. “I thought I could design clothes that were Islamic, but modern, and look beautiful and chic at the same time.”

In the United States, Muslim women have struggled to find clothes that satisfy both religion and fashion in American stores. It is often difficult to buy outfits that cover the legs, arms and chest, or tops that are long enough to cover the buttocks. More religious Muslims who wear traditional clothing, such as an abaya (a loose over-garment) or a kaftan (a variant of a tunic), are often limited to a handful of Islamic stores that usually don’t carry a wide selection.

Noor Alvi has to get creative when she shops to adhere to Islamic guidelines. She wears tank tops underneath low-cut tops, a cardigan above a tank top or a long shirt over tight pants.

“When I’m so busy with school and work I have to wear regular American clothes,” says Alvi, 21, of Upper Darby, Pa. “I would like to see big stores have a section of more conservative clothes. If you look at the junior section, there is not one shirt that is not revealing.”

Recognizing this need, some Muslim women are opening shops that cater to their peers. These boutiques and online stores sell traditional and modern clothing that is both modest and chic.

“I would say there’s almost a mini-boom in the modest fashion industry,” says Seema Sahin, who opened her boutique, Modern Mary, in Vienna, Va., in December.

She designs conservative clothing for all women and believes that modesty doesn’t have to be compromised in fashion. Sahin’s offerings include tops, dresses and evening wear that are modern, but the color combinations or prints have some kind of ethnic flair.

“It kind of brings together that cultural heritage within an American identity,” she says.

Kavakci, on the other hand, designs custom-made outfits and then sends the sketches to Turkey, her home country, where the items are made. Her business focuses on Muslim women who are in the public eye or are professionals.

“You have to serve religion and wear your clothes according to your religious requirement, but at the same time you don’t want to stand out and look like a pilgrim or somebody from ancient years,” Kavakci says.

Over the past 10 years, the number of Muslims in the U.S. has grown from 1.7 million to 2.6 million, according to the Pew Research Center. The population boom is driving the demand for Islamic fashion, says Liz Muhammad of Philadelphia, who opened her Islamic women’s clothing store An-Noor:31 in June. Some of her clients are converts who need to buy new modest clothes.

Muhammad sells several items, including kaftans, head scarves and long skirts, and they vary in design, from casual to formal. Prices range from $100 to $140 for kaftans and $20 to $30 for head coverings.

Muhammad opened the store because she noticed that most of the Islamic stores in Philadelphia didn’t focus on clothing, and none of them catered solely to women. Women from other cities call her to buy items because there are no stores like hers in their area, she says.

“A lot of the women don’t like to be around men when they shop,” Muhammad says.

While stores like Muhammad’s are not found in every city in the U.S., Muslim women can still find modern Islamic clothes online, says Aisha Alam, 34, of New York City, who often purchases items from Shukr, an online store for Muslim men and women.

However, many women, such as Alam, say they prefer the experience of going to a store. Alam likes to visit Islam Fashion, in Queens, N.Y., because it sells a variety of clothes, including long dresses, skirts and blouses.

“I work as a teacher, so I need something that is Islamic, but at the same time easy to move in,” Alam says. “Other stores only stick with abayas — they don’t help the working woman.”

There’s a mini-boom of such boutiques in Queens, says Fozia Khan, 52, of Scarsdale, N.Y., and they offer much more variety, selling traditional Islamic clothes that come in all colors and patterns, with or without beads.

“I remember when my parents used to shop there were two blocks of stores,” she says. “Now you can’t even find parking in that area. We carpool because of the parking space.”

Email: zr2156@columbia.edu

February 27, 2012