Chaste yet chic

Muslim women can keep their modesty under wraps while looking fashionable. 


MENTION Islamic fashion and probably the picture of a long voluminous piece of shapeless cloth covering a woman’s body comes to mind. Not forgetting the smaller piece of cloth to cover the head and face, too. That’s the image we usually get from the Middle East and other neighbouring regions. 

One man hopes to change that perception. Datuk Raja Rezza Shah, chairman of the KL-Jakarta Islamic Fashion Festival (IFF) 2007, also hopes to see this region, namely Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, become the hub of Islamic Fashion. The event will be the third in the series after the one held in KL in November last year and in Jakarta last June.  

“Islamic fashion is not just about drape and cover but going about it in a fashionable way. You can be trendy and elegant, without having to compromise on propriety and decency. Hopefully, Muslim women will be inspired and proud to cover themselves, as required by the religion, without being too extreme. 

Ashley Wong (left) and Kem Salleh of Kapas Couture.

“We are trying to create a platform to show the correct way of covering oneself, for Muslims, particularly Muslim women. Though there are general guidelines they are open to interpretation and we hope to give Muslims, with different levels of religious understanding and readiness, choices,” says Raja Rezza. 

The majority of designers for IFF will be from Malaysia, followed by Indonesia and one representative each from Singapore, Iran, Dubai, Bangladesh and Pakistan.  

One Malaysian design label that has been with the IFF from the start is Kapas Couture. Helmed by the design expertise of Ashley Wong and the business acumen of Kem Salleh, this label’s forte is contemporary Malay design, which lends itself to Islamic fashion. 

“If you follow the rules strictly it’s about covering the aurat (parts of the body that are supposed to be covered up, according to Islam), which not only means covering the body but also the shape so that it does not suggest sensuality. So, wearing a tudung (headscarve) with a pair of tight jeans would still go against this definition. And even our kebaya like those worn by some airline stewardesses is not Islamic if you follow this interpretation. For me though, religion is something personal and it’s up to the individual to define what they want or are comfortable with,” says Kem. 

For Salikin Sidek who will be taking part for the first time, Islamic fashion is all about wearing something that is decent, which “covers the body, not necessarily the face”. He sees no reason why only Muslim fashion designers should be involved as he thinks the non-Muslims in our multi-racial, multi-religious country have a good grasp of what constitutes Islamic fashion. 

Shimmering: An outfit by Datuk Tom Abang Saufi.

In the previous two editions of IFF, designers like Datuk Bernard Chandran, Melinda Looi, and Carven Ong have contributed their vision. This time round, Calvin Thoo has joined the fold and he is not nervous about his first attempt. 

“Many of my clients are Muslimah and I cater to their needs. I base my understanding on the requirements of my Muslim clients and friends. I know you can’t expose the aurat but some say that even includes the voice. So you have to make clothes that follow the general guidelines depending on what each person is comfortable with,” points out Thoo. 

Salikin doesn’t think the guidelines will restrict the designers’ creativity. 

“It’s our business, we are supposed to be creative in our designs based on any given conditions, whether predetermined or set by ourselves. There are 1,001 ways you can come up with a design if you put your mind to it,” adds Salikin. 

Kem agrees and cites the fabric as an example. “If you take chiffon, the material itself would not be appropriate as it is too thin and clingy, which would reveal the body too much. But we can employ layering and use an inner lining that’s thicker and more structured, and put chiffon over it. So there are no real limitations on the type of fabrics you can use.” 

Some quarters think many designers (and the public) equate Islamic fashion to Middle Eastern styles. 

Kem feels that is a common misconception and one shouldn’t think that both Islam and Arab are synonymous. This doesn’t just relate to fashion. 

“There are Islamic societies and cultures all around the world. They have their own interpretations according to their culture and lifestyle. One should not copy blindly however, there is nothing wrong in being inspired by them,” says Kem. 

Trendy: Ashley Wong offers this stunning layered ensemble that has a touch of flamenco.

Thoo concurs and says it is fine to use Arabic fashion but one should adapt to suit local considerations. He points out that the clothes there are usually very ornate and detailed but one can tone it down to cater to Malaysian tastes. 

For Salikin, he says looking to our region is a much better bet, as our culture and environment should be taken into consideration. Why look so far for inspiration, he asks, when we have our own baju kurung, songket and batik?  

And what about Muslim men? Kem says he does not cater to the men because there isn’t really much of a market.  

“For the men the aurat is from the navel to the knees so any normal outfit out there can be used by them.” 

Nevertheless, there will be some designers who will be giving their own spin to men’s Islamic fashion. It should be interesting to see how 53 designers interpret Islamic fashion for women and men. 

Don’t forget the reminder from Raja Rezza that Islamic fashion need not be for Muslims only. Modern contemporary designs can be for all who want to be modest yet reveal the beauty within. After all, as Kem says, a ball gown that covers the body can also be considered Islamic! 

IFF 2007 will be held at the KL Convention Centre on Saturday (charity gala dinner) and Sunday (fashion shows). For details, call 03-4256 1060 /2060.

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