After years of turning heads with her riotously colorful frocks in Malaysia, fashion designer Tom Abang Saufi can't decide whether to shed a few shades on her batik dresses for the Middle East.
“If you wear red and fuchsia in the desert, you'll stick out like a sore thumb,” she says. “(But) it's slowly getting to be accepted because the Saudi Arabians are well traveled people. They're global, they wear Roberto Cavalli and they're all very colorful.”
For many, Islamic fashion might seem synonymous with strait-laced garments that leave everything to the imagination, but some Asian designers are trying to equip modern Muslim women with a wardrobe that obeys both sartorial trends and spiritual dictates.
This fusion of creativity and conservatism is showcased in the Islamic Fashion Festival, which has entered its sixth year and runs through Thursday in a Kuala Lumpur hotel. Malaysia, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates take turns hosting the event.
The festival opened last week to a catwalk show audience of Malaysian royal princesses and corporate women who cheered an avant-garde celebration of chiffon and crystals that cast off black burqas, austere abayas and homely headscarves. Shows featured 1,000 outfits by top couturiers from Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and the Philippines.
Diverse influences lent a twist to typically loose tunics and serpentine skirts.
Models strutted the festival runway in silver-shot scarves sparkling with Viennese-made Swarovski crystals. Some designers drew inspiration for their evening gowns, prayer clothes, bridal outfits and full-body Lycra swimsuits from Indian Mughal carpet motifs, Spain's Moorish palace patterns and even Moroccan scenes from the classic film “Casablanca.”
Indonesian designer Ronald Gaghana's ensemble, considered the centerpiece of the launch, was adorned with Japanese kimono-like sleeves and intricate African embroidery.
“It's a global market for us. For me, it's very important as a designer to (go) abroad to see everything” in the latest trends, said Gaghana, whose custom-made Islamic dresses cost at least $2,000 each but are snapped up by women who want something fancy for special occasions.
Fashion gurus say Islamic apparel is a fast-growing segment of their worldwide industry, fueled by growing numbers of affluent, liberal Muslims who want to balance propriety with style and globally renowned designers such as Elie Saab whose creations can fulfill religious rules.
“When I went to do my fashion exposition in Paris in September, the clothes that people were interested in were Islamic fashion,” said Malaysia's Tom Abang Saufi. “There's going to be money made from this because it's huge.”
Tom says she has begun exporting Islamic attire to the United States, where Muslim women “want to be a little bit more trendy than what is being given to them from Yemen.” She hopes to expand her collections to other countries with sizable Muslim populations, such as China and France.
Designers are also targeting Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, where stores in Jiddah have begun openly stocking a new generation of cloaks, or abayas, that swap all-black, drab traditions for vibrant color and flamboyant glitter.
Some non-Muslim designers are getting in on the action, including Malaysian ethnic Chinese fashion maverick Lee Khoon Hooi, whose idiosyncratic zipper necklaces and tulip-shaped gowns have been sold in boutiques from Beverly Hills to Taipei.
Even though modesty is Islamic fashion's overriding theme, Lee insists experienced designers will face little trouble adapting to the restrictions and coming up with chic creations that would appeal even to non-Muslim women who want to experiment with a different garb.
For this week's festival, Lee pushed the boundaries with slinky, silk satin dresses that came in nude-colored hues and dropped waistlines.
I just twist (my usual creations) to make it longer, less sexy (but) keep it elegant, feminine,” Lee said. “You can still see a little bit of the (female) shape, so it's not like a tight corset. Sometimes covering up, (you) still can be sexy.”