Dallas-area designers bridge culture gap, empower Muslim women
By SARAH MERVOSH
THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS/June 25, 2012
At a sleek venue in Dallas’ Design District, Ndaa Hassan burst through the curtain and rushed backstage. The fashion show was about to start. She was a flurry of nerves, wrapped in light pink from head to toe. “Ladies, it’s a full house!” she shouted.
The 30 or so models wore vibrant eye shadow, bejeweled dresses and high heels. But in this case, the stilettos didn’t lead up to bare, twiggy legs. In fact, they led no further than the hems of loose-fitting dresses that revealed almost no skin.
This was fashion, all right, but with a Muslim influence.
Hassan and her friend Zeena Alkurdi were presenting their first fashion show to about 150 people, spotlighting stylish but modest clothing — including some of their own designs. As entrepreneurs, Hassan and Alkurdi, both 22, design and sew hijabs whose chic styles range from tie-dye and sequins to cheetah print and vintage floral.
Each has launched an online boutique to bridge the gap between the Middle Eastern traditions of their parents and the American culture they grew up in. A stylish hijab, they say, empowers Muslim girls to feel more confident and find common ground with non-Muslim peers.
Using the Internet and social media, these entrepreneurs have expanded their businesses in ways that wouldn’t have been possible even a few years ago. They have a growing Muslim population to cater to, with around 2.6 million living in the U.S., according to census data, and about 150,000 in North Texas, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives at Pennsylvania State University.
And they are providing a product that wasn’t always easy to find, said Elif Kavakci, who spoke at the fashion show. She designs high-end, one-of-a-kind outfits for powerful clients, such as the first lady of Turkey, through her company, Kavakci Couture. “There is a high demand,” Kavakci said. “In 2012, women have so many more options.”
A way of life
Both Hassan’s and Alkurdi’s parents came from the Middle East. The friends grew up in North Texas and attended local universities. But neither has a background in fashion. Their mothers and grandmothers taught them how to sew, and they taught themselves the rest —finding time to make hijabs outside Alkurdi’s job at a Muslim school and Hassan’s part-time marketing work.
Their clients range from teens to women in their 30s. They each field orders from around the world — Malaysia, Canada, Brazil — and sell their scarves for $10 to $30. In the last year and a half, Alkurdi has sold about 350 hijabs. Hassan, who started six months ago, has sold between 150 and 200.
Hassan’s boutique, Écharpe á la Mode, offers classy scarves with a simple design, while Alkurdi prefers a bold style inspired by Kim Kardashian. “If I was going to a night out with my friends, I would wear Zeena’s hijab. If I was going to a wedding or a brunch, I would wear Ndaa’s,” said Hanan Qasem, 20, a college student and one of the models at the fashion show.
Alkurdi named her business Pearl Boutique, inspired by Muhammad Ali. As the story goes, the legendary boxer told his daughter that oysters cover pearls, and since she was even more precious than a pearl, she should be covered, too.
This story resonates with Muslim women. Wearing the hjiab as part of their faith makes them feel empowered, proud and beautiful. Alkurdi says the best compliment she can get is when she’s wearing a hijab. For “hijabis,” the scarf is not just an item of clothing; it connects them with God and reminds them who they are. They wear the hijab every day. Only other women and male family members can see them without the scarf.
“It might be an accessory and clothing, but it is a way of life,” Hassan said. “With the hijab on, we’re always representing our religion, and it forces us to be on our best behavior.”
Ten years ago, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Alkurdi’s father asked her if she wanted to take a break from wearing the hijab. She broke down in tears. “This is a part of me,” she said. “I can’t take it off.”
Alkurdi and Hassan both chose to wear the hijab at young ages. Alkurdi was in the sixth grade and Hassan was in 11th. It was a choice they wanted to make, but they struggled to put together outfits that looked good and also fit a hijab lifestyle.
They say it’s a problem many young Muslim girls face, and it can take its toll on a girl’s confidence. That was true for Hanan Qasem. Growing up, she wore the hijab and was overweight, a combination that made her especially sensitive to feeling judged. She often wore sweats or all black. “That doesn’t give the best impression,” she said.
Qasem also attended schools where she was one of only a few Muslims. Once, a boy ripped off her hijab and exposed her hair. “I was a fish with sharks,” she said. “I was swimming by myself.”
Opening the door
Once a girl begins to wear the hijab, she has to prepare for questions and, sometimes, ridicule. Over the years, Hassan and Alkurdi have been called many offensive names.
But it’s not all bad. By wearing fashionable hijabs, Hassan and Alkurdi have encouraged others to ask questions: You don’t always have to wear black? Are you assigned to wear a certain color hijab each day of the week? Can you really exercise while wearing the scarf? (No, no and yes.)
“It opens that door,” Alkurdi said. “It allows a sort of forum between you and people who admire the way that you dress.”
Though many Westerners — and some Muslims — think Islam is incompatible with being stylish, Hassan and Alkurdi disagree. They quote an Islamic saying: “God is beautiful and he loves beauty.”
Kavakci, who has hosted similar fashion shows in the Dallas area, understands. “People say, ‘Is that a fashionable outfit or a religious attire?’” she said. “I say, ‘Both. Why can’t it be both?’”
After the fashion show, Hassan hurried back to her booth to sell a scarf. A girl stopped her. Hassan had never seen her before, and she didn’t catch her name. But the girl told Hassan what she needed to hear at that moment.
“This has inspired me,” the girl said, “to put on the hijab.”