Fashion designer Hind Beljafla makes abayas to match the Gucci shoes and Hermes handbags of high- spending women in the Gulf.
Now these women can buy her elegant versions of the black Islamic robes, which obscure the contours of a woman’s body, when they head to London this summer to escape the Arabian Peninsula’s sweltering heat. Harrods started selling abayas by Beljafla’s DAS Collection in June, a month after Qatar’s sovereign-wealth fund bought the landmark store.
“Muslim women are like any women around the world: they love fashion and love shopping,” Beljafla, 24, said in a July 1 interview in her Dubai store. Together with her 26-year-old sister Reem, she uses splashes of color, embroidery and even leather and metal studs on the plain black abaya.
Fashion houses in Milan and Paris are waking up to the commercial potential for Muslim women’s clothing that respects religious values and sets new standards for style. The global Muslim fashion industry would be worth $96 billion if half of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims spend just $120 a year on clothing, according to French Fashion University Esmod in Dubai.
Gas exporter Qatar ranks among the world’s wealthiest nations, with a gross domestic product per capita of $121,000, while Saudi Arabia sits on a fifth of the planet’s oil reserves.
John Galliano was among 21 designers who participated in a Paris show in June 2009 at Hotel George V, owned by Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal. The made-to-measure abayas displayed there, worth up to $10,000, were donated to buyers, including members of the Saudi royal family.
Saks Fifth Avenue, which hosted the event, then put designer ready-to-wear abayas on sale for as much as $12,000 at its stores in the Saudi cities of Riyadh and Jeddah. The abayas are displayed alongside designer evening gowns on the women-only floor of a shopping mall in Riyadh’s glass skyscraper, the Kingdom Center, owned by Alwaleed.
At the top end of the market, Saudi princesses sometimes buy 15 to 20 evening gowns for as much as $20,000 each after ordering Saks to bring a selection of the latest Paris and Milan collections to their palaces, store manager Mohammed Nafisa said. They want abayas by the same designers to match.
“They normally buy an outfit to be used only once at an evening reception,” which is an all-female gathering, he said.
Saudi Arabia, which follows a strict interpretation of Islam, forbids mixing in public between men and women unrelated by family.
Clients have asked DAS to make abayas to match the color of their designer bags and high heels by brands such as Christian Dior, Hermes, Channel and Gucci “because they will be wearing the abaya in public where they cannot show a dress that would match with their accessories,” Beljafla said.
“High-end designers such as Hermes and Gucci are also trying to break into the Muslim market with scarves and other products,” said Tamara Hostal, director of Esmod Dubai.
Four years ago, Christian Dior SA had one store in the Middle East, in Dubai. Since then, it has opened other outlets in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Lebanon, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, bringing the total to 10 in the region.
Paris-based Jean-Claude Jitrois, who has made leather clothes for celebrities including French rock musician Johnny Hallyday, designed a silk black abaya with hand-woven leather embroidery and Swarovski Crystals for the Hotel George V show. He has since made abayas for several Saudi princesses as well as a collection of 40 for sale at Saks Fifth Avenue.
“There is no contradiction between the modernity of European fashion and modernity of Middle Eastern women,” he said. “Every culture has its traditions and you have to respect this while giving it a twist.”
Tamara Al Gabbani, a TV presenter and Dubai businesswoman whose family comes from Saudi Arabia, said she feels like a “modern Arab woman” with fashion abayas.
“Wearing abayas has always been part of my lifestyle,” she said. “The new generation wants something different. They are educated, working and lead busy lifestyles. The modern woman wants to keep her identity, but also look fashionable.”
In the U.A.E. and Qatar, local women can be seen walking around high-end shopping malls with bouffant hairstyles that at times allows the headscarf to expose some of their hair.
Islamic fashion has a potential that has “not been completely estimated yet,” said Milan-based designer Alberta Ferretti, who took part in the Paris show.
The market extends from the Middle East to Muslim-populated countries in Southeast Asia, Europe, Africa and North America. The Islamic Fashion Festival started in 2006 in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta and expanded to Dubai in 2008, with more than 200 designers participating.
Dato Raja Rezza Shah, chairman of the IFF, said he wants to establish the three cities as the Islamic fashion capitals of the world, just as London, Paris, New York and Milan are for Western labels.
Turkish firm Hasema sells full-body Islamic swimwear dubbed the burqini after the Afghan burqa, designed to allow Muslim women to swim while retaining their modesty, in more than 30 countries. While some burqinis are black, others come in bright colors. The burqa is a robe that covers the entire body and includes a mesh over the eyes, while the burqini, like the abaya, leaves the face exposed.
In Dubai’s Atlantis water park, visitors see Muslim women dressed in burqinis frolicking in the slides.
World Cup Abayas
Saudi Arabia designer Rania Khogaer created a stir last month in her home country by introducing a collection of abayas adorned with the logos and flags of nations competing in the soccer World Cup.
In London, where summertime visitors from the Gulf throng the streets of the U.K. capital’s upscale Knightsbridge district, the abayas at Harrods have proved popular.
“DAS arrived at Harrods a few weeks ago and has been performing well and receiving a lot of interest from our customers,” said Helen David, the store’s Womenswear General Merchandise Manager.
DAS, whose designer pieces sell for as much as $5,000, counts members of the ruling families in the U.A.E. and Oman among its regular clientele. The label is in talks with Harrods to put on sale a new collection in 2011, which it hopes will cement the brand’s international appeal.
“As long as you are covering the body, as long as you are conservative in the way you dress, why not be fashionable?” Beljafla said.