Page last updated at 12:08 GMT, Friday, 6 November 2009

Malaysia moves on Islamic fashion market

Fashion that adheres to Islamic rules is a largely untapped market and Malaysia is trying to position itself as the fashion capital for the Muslim world, says the BBC's Jennifer Pak in Kuala Lumpur.

Model wearing design by Malaysian designer Tom Abang Saufi. Photo from Tom Abang Saufi
Malaysia's moderate form of Islam allows flexibility in design

That modesty can be beautiful is the message that organisers of the Islamic fashion festival in Kuala Lumpur want to send to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Malaysian designer Tom Abang Saufi says many non-Muslims equate Islamic wear to draping yourself in black.

But one can be religious and fashionable at the same time, she says.

Islamic wear by definition should cover everything except the face and palms. The garment should not show off one's figure so as to not attract unwanted attention.

But how that is interpreted in the Muslim world varies from designer to designer and country to country.

Ms Tom's designs include a lot of bright coloured tunics made of silk chiffon.

"I don't just dress them in black," she says.

Islamic wear can be "a thing of beauty rather than something that is prohibitive," says Ms Tom.

Mainstream impulse

The Islamic fashion festival is part of Malaysia's international fashion week.

It will show Muslim women different ways of covering themselves, says the chairman and founder Raja Rezza Shah.

Islam is not all about calling for Jihad
Abdul Kareem Said Khadaied
Head of Khadani fashion label

The 48-year-old says he created the event in 2006 as a way to make Islamic fashion more mainstream.

Since then, more than 200 designers from all over the world have participated - half of them non-Muslims says Mr Rezza.

"I am proud to say that at least we have proven that Islam, or Islamic activities, is not a platform that will frighten non-Muslims away.

Over the last three years, Mr Rezza has taken their shows to Jakarta and Dubai. They hope to hold one in Monte Carlo next August.

Mr Rezza sees a lot of potential in the Islamic fashion market with Kuala Lumpur as the centre.

That is because Muslims make up over 50% of Malaysians. It is also next to Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population.

'Room for creativity'

Top European fashion houses like Christian Dior have tried to tap into that market this year by revamping Islamic garments like the abaya, a floor length black overcoat.

Women in Arab states in the Persian Gulf usually wear abayas with a head scarf or face veil that covers everything but the eyes.

Mr Rezza says Malaysia, with its mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian communities, is fit to become a fashion capital for Islamic wear because religious rules here are not nearly as strict as the Middle East.

"I feel we have more room for creativity."

Malaysian designer Tom Abang Saufi
Islamic clothing need not be restrictive, says designer Tom Abang Saufi

Mr Rezza says the fashion event will showcase dresses of all different lengths.

This open interpretation of what constitutes Islamic fashion has caused a lot of people to criticise him, says Mr Rezza. Most of them are fellow Muslims who question why some of the models are not covered up completely.

Mr Rezza says he wants to reflect what Muslim women are really wearing in different regions, so he is not hung up on how Islamic the clothing really is.

He says his goal is to first generate interest.

Mr Rezza says he is happy to see more boutiques in Kuala Lumpur selling Islamic fashion since he started his shows.

Gradually he says he hopes covering up is not automatically associated with being an extremist or being old fashioned.

Islamic swimwear

Malaysia prides itself as a moderate Muslim nation.

In Kuala Lumpur, Muslim women have a wide range of styles. Some wear colourful head scarves and tunics.

Others may wear a head scarf paired with a revealing top over a long-sleeved shirt to cover the chest and arms.

Trying to adhere to Islamic rules using western clothing is tough.

Nuraini Mohammed Ariffin says she could not go to public pools because the traditional bathing suit is too revealing.

Islamic swimwear by designer Nuraini Mohammed Ariffin
This swimming costume allows Muslim women to use public pools

With the encouragement of her husband, the 37-year-old designed an Islamic swimsuit consisting of four pieces: a head scarf that covers down to the shoulders, a swimming cap, a garment that looks like sleeveless surfing wet suit and a zip-up tunic to go over top.

Ms Nuraini created her company, Active Attire, five years ago.

Since then, she has noticed more competition in the market with designers from Spain, Indonesia and Australia.

But Ms Nuraini says she doesn't mind because that means Islamic swim wear will become accepted internationally.

That's the whole point of the Islamic fashion festival, says the head of Khadani fashion label Abdul Kareem Said Khadaied.

He says fashion is a good way to showcase the softer and gentler side of Islam.

"Islam is not all about calling for Jihad," he says.

Mr Abdul Kareem says the point of the fashion event is to show Muslims and non-Muslims that Islamic wear can be glamorous.

"You don't want others to look at you like a sex object but you can be beautiful."

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