Islamic Fashion Receiving Heightened Interest

While many fashion designers around the world are looking for ways and means to survive in these difficult economic times as even high-end consumers tighten their purse strings and look for bargains, Malaysia's fashion designers have discovered the niche market of Islamic fashion to beat the dry economic season.

Kuala Lumpur-based Dayang Fatimah "Tom" Abang Saufi, the chief designer and managing director of fashion company Ethnicite Sdn. Bhd., is one of the pioneers of Islamic fashion. She first drew headlines when she launched her business in 1985, featuring women's clothing in bright colorful designs.

"Moslem women, particularly professional women, want to look chic while maintaining their Moslem identity, a trend evident not just in the Middle East, but also in Western countries, including the United States, which has a growing Moslem population," Abang Saufi said in an interview with Apparel.

"After attending a one-year course at the London School of Fashion, I further honed my skills in fashion designing. But when I started out, there was a recession in many countries of the world and stores were not doing well because of high prices and low demand," she recalls. 

Fortunately for Abang Saufi, the recession was on its way out, and she also had the good fortune to design the wedding gown for a royal wedding in Brunei. "The Brunei wedding catapulted me into fame. Since then I have never had to look back," she said. 

Although she has buyers in the West, her main market is in Asia, particularly the Middle East, which is ripe with potential buyers for her Islamic fashion apparel. Initially, Abang Saufi was unsure how to break into the Middle Eastern markets - where consumer taste is considered "bland" - with her array of bright colors, but increased global travel among this group has familiarized Middle Easterners with "good labels such as Roberto Cavalli which are quite colorful," she says, helping her to gain a foothold.

Islamic fashion, an enigma to many in the world of haute couture, conjures up images of garments conforming to strict religious needs, but Asian designers such as Abang Saufi have learned to create collections that are fashionable while adhering to religious dictates. 

Abang Saufi said that she discerned a "growing interest" in Islamic fashion at her fashion exhibition in Paris last year and says that she considers Moslem women in the United States to be"more trendy" than those in other countries. She has also cast her eye on markets with sizable Moslim populations such as France, the U.K. and China. 

While Abang Saufi is influenced by Malaysian colors and designs - she avoids using zippers and buttons - her style is a curious blend of East meets West.  Some of her products are designed in such a way that they can be tied by hand or threaded through gleaming shell buckles.

She defines the core elements of Islamic fashion as elegance with modest. "It does not have to be boring. Women in Islamic countries are adding color to their traditional black clothing" she says, adding that each country in the Gulf has its own style, and that some, such as Egypt, Iran, Syria and Jordan are more liberal in their fashion styles than others.

While her turnover of nearly US$1 million is modest by Western standards, it is quite impressive for a developing niche market.

Manik Mehta is a free-lance business writer specializing in textiles and apparel, fashion, globalization and emerging markets.
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