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Dubai based designer Rabia Z’s A/W2011 collection: modestly chic.

Fashion model Ayaan – contender for the Best Model category at this year’s Lux Style Awards – is hardly recognizable in the new billboard in which she endorses a shampoo devised specially for women who cover their hair. Reason? She’s never been photographed in a head dress before.

There’s a whole jamboree of fashion activity that is being whipped up to serve a new clientele of women. Fashion shows are being organized for ladies only, designers are participating in Islamic Fashion Weeks in Malaysia, others are designing abayas for the Middle Eastern market, etc.

Fashion isn’t just catering to high society fashionistas who dare to bare any more but just as much to the majority of millions of women who prefer to dress modestly. While fashion designers have always quietly catered to conservatives, flashing skin on runways while adding sleeves (to the same garments) in their studios, they have hardly ever considered it ‘cool’ to go down the religious road. That is changing now that fashion is decidedly spreading its wings to fly into unchartered territory. The image of the veiled woman is rapidly becoming acceptable to all those people who felt that she would be the icon of regression rather than progression in fashion.

It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that the money being invested in conservative fashion – and designers have always kept a keen eye on which side their bread is buttered – ie the involvement of multi-nationals, is one thing pushing this change. Corporations have realized the sales potential in catering to an uprising conservative clientele, hence the modest albeit stylish billboards that draw a balance by revealing the face while concealing the hair. Secondly, with money coming in from their conservative clientele, fashion designers are all too willing to let go of any (falsely) progressive ideals they may have harboured earlier. It is smart business policy and the best thing is, it’s pushing a new level of bilateral tolerance.

While fashion activists will have to stop complaining about fashion turning a conservative, new green leaf, conservatives will realize that fashion doesn’t necessary mean risqué and revealing clothing. Eventually fashion will evolve with equal tolerance for the sleeveless figure of Neha in a Sana Safinaz advertisement as much as it will for an Amir Adnan campaign in which the male models hold rosary beads in reference to prayer. As in other Muslim countries like Dubai and Malaysia, where a Gucci ad featuring a half-clad model will share the skyline with abayas and hijabs, Pakistan too must learn to co-exist respectfully for people with different beliefs.

But like everything new and untested, these things have the tendency to spin out of control, cases in point being Shahid Afridi’s Widyaan campaign and Junaid Jamshed’s latest Eid campaign.

How is it okay to reveal arms but not the face, Afridi should explain.

No matter what it depicts, fashion will always be synonymous with two things: aesthetics and symbolism. The fashion image, irrespective of what it is, will always strike a visual balance and it will always make a statement. When Ismail Farid designs a military collection, it means he is paying tribute to the army. When Kamiar Rokni uses leitmotifs of Pakistani culture in his collection, it means he is proudly paying homage to his heritage. The question is, exactly what statement is Afridi making when he conceals his model’s face in the Widyaan campaign. And what statement is Junaid Jamshed making when he himself is all too visible on television and on billboards, but he cuts off the head of every human figure in his campaign, even that of young children?

Cricket hero Shahid Afridi’s name and infamous silhouette punctuates the promotion of his new Widyaan brand of embroidered fabric (yes, he is a fashion retailer now). The billboards are hard to miss as they lace most roads in Karachi. While Widyaan prints and pictures (bare arms included) are on full display, the model’s face is concealed, muffled under her own dupatta. Not all Muslim women believe in covering the face but Afridi certainly does as he advocates it in this unaesthetic campaign. It cannot be given fashion’s seal of approval.

One would have no problem with JJ’s censoring of the face if he were applying it to himself as well but he is all too visible on bollboards and TV, head intact.

 Junaid Jamshed, of course, advocates that human beings should have no face at all. His new Eid campaign finally has a human figure on billboards (after years of arguing that depicting the human figure was unIslamic) but the head of each figure is strategically cropped out of every single picture. The message is disturbing and just as ironic as Jamshed himself graces gigantic billboards all over town, his head in tact on his shoulders. One feels that the colourful hot air balloons or packaged boxes in JJ’s previous campaigns were much more aesthetic and stylish.

With neither Junaid Jamshed or Shahid Afridi available for comment, we spoke to Amir Adnan, a designer who has championed the balance between fashion and religion.

“Religious clothing is a definite need and it is sensible to cater to it,” he spoke to Dawn Images. “But taking it into the fashion realm is a different thing altogether. I would not label either of these campaigns as fashion as they are not aesthetically balanced enough. I feel they have nothing to do with religion but are just designed to attract a religious element. How is hiding a woman’s face and showing her arms religious? As for people who censor faces, how do they justify showing their own face on TV and advertisements? The Sunsilk ad is fashionable and balanced and informative for women who cover their hair. They are not claiming to launch a religious product rather a product that caters to a niche market.”

Dubai based designer Rabia Z, who caters to a hijabi yet extremely fashionable Arab clientele is iconic of what conservative, modest and Islamic fashion should look like. She designs sportswear as well as formal wear for women who cover-up and yet desire to look good. There are no figure mutations, no erased faces; only fashion that is contemporary and yes, modest in its approach. It convinces one to believe that maybe it does take one Muslim woman to understand another. Shahid Afridi and Junaid Jamshed certainly do not.

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