The new label that you started “Nahara” is extremely chic and perfect for those looking for modest yet fashionable clothing. What inspired you to take on this particular design aesthetic?
Thank you, Mariam, for inviting me to speak about Nahara. It’s a pleasure to be featured on your website.
There were two ideas that came together to create Nahara. The first was the problematic choice between wearing Western clothes that are very form fitting, or wearing Eastern clothes with cutesy embroidery and bright, gaudy colours.
I wanted to disassociate these stereotypical ideas and create something that possessed the fluid shape of Eastern clothing with the minimalism and edginess of western design.
The second factor was that I wanted to use the brand to promote the art and textile skills from across the Muslim world in a way that is relevant to a modern aesthetic. It seems a tragedy that centuries’ worth of art and textile skills from across the Muslim world are being abandoned in the race to copy catwalk designs. Some of these skills are phenomenally intricate and beautiful, but to be wearable, they need to be re-created in a contemporary style.
I see the brand as an exploration of these ideas.
What is the process like when you decide on making a particular piece? For example do you take photographs of things that inspire you, or do you sketch ideas out?
The initial concept stage is visual and instinctive. Something beautiful and interesting will catch my eye when I am out and about, for example, the stunning green tiles inside the Green Mosque in Bursa, Turkey, or some grey and white hand-woven silk from Bangladesh.
It then takes time to produce the collection. The process involves creating the concept designs, then deciding on the more detailed design features and fabric, making paper patterns, toiles, samples and endless fittings! The styles are edited to form a collection, with the pieces brought together through the use of key shapes and colours. There is a continuous cycle of change, with some pieces taken out and some new ones added in, until the final collection has a sense of balance.
For Nahara pieces, the fabric is very important, and the design process and fabric decisions occur side by side.
Did you have a particular clientele in mind when designing items for Nahara?
Initially I set out to design for professional Muslim women living in a European setting. However, as the collection developed, I realised that I wanted to put more emphasis on Islamic art. I have received positive comments and interest from a wide range of people, including men, which is something that I hadn’t expected.
The best comment was from a male friend, who found the juxtaposition of the bright prints with the black pieces intriguing. The juxtaposition of ideas, cultures and traditions, the questioning of stereotypes and forming of identities, is very much part of the brand philosophy, so I was delighted with his comment!
I do feel that I am designing for a woman who appreciates quality of fabric and tailoring, with a subtle element of luxury. From the response I have had so far, the women who are most interested in the brand are confident, stylish and keen to stand out from the crowd. They are looking for something new and exciting that feels like it was made for them.
Where do you make your items and how long does it take to complete an outfit?
The current collection is made in a small tailor’s studio in London. The studio is very close to my home, so I am there all the time and very hands on.
It takes about 5 hours to make the long dresses in the current collection. This may not sound too long, but as there is no embellishment on these designs, the time input reflects some of the subtle and high-end details that have been added. For example, French seams allow all the fabric edges to be beautifully hidden away on the inside of the garment, but this type of finish takes double the time of the more conventional, overlocked finish. The satin trims on the cuffs and neckline are cut by hand from silk, instead of using ready-made polyester binding, and the buttons are all covered in the same silk fabric. The prints are exclusive to Nahara and have been taken from hand-painted calligraphy designs.
Making the clothes in a factory abroad would be significantly less costly, but at this early stage, it is important that the seamstresses and I are able to give our attention to every garment.
The Muslim women’s fashion market is growing and more people are starting to make their own designs rather than import ready made clothes from China. However, it seems that a lot of start-ups fail because Muslim women don’t always tend to see the bigger picture. They’d rather pay more for a well-known name brand pair of pants than someone who’s just starting, how are you planning to penetrate this market?
I think the onus is on the brand to provide something unique. Women should buy because they feel they are getting some added value.
I believe Nahara offers some unique qualities that are not easy to find in other brands at present, and I hope these will help to build a loyal clientele.
I would like Muslim women to feel that these styles have been created for them and that they celebrate all the different facets of their identity. Beyond Muslim women though, I hope that other women, and even men, will sense that the brand taps into something more meaningful and spiritual than the creation of soulless copies of catwalk designs.
The style element is absolutely key. Women who wear Nahara pieces will not be compromising on style. The quality of the design, fabric and tailoring mean that the garments are designed for women who want investment pieces. So it’s really about building up a connection with people and creating something of value, and that takes time.
Where do you see the future of Muslim women’s fashion headed?
These are exciting times! This is still a new area that there is scope to develop in many different directions. It is great that we are seeing new designers and Islamic fashion events emerging from different parts of the world, and the UK is certainly a key player.
In the early stages, the emerging brands will likely fulfill a basic requirement, which is to be covered and affordable. Some designers have gone beyond this and are injecting their brands with elements taken from local styles but creating a more contemporary aesthetic.
I want to mention a young British artist called Khyle Alexander Raja. I recently went to an exhibition of his in London. He fuses together some metaphysical Islamic concepts with popular science fiction and a dystopian futuristic vision of technology, to create some truly unique and incredibly exciting artwork. Injecting this brilliant creativity and intelligence into his work, and bringing ideas together in a completely new way – this is a very sophisticated expression of identity and values.
But this requires the confidence to believe that you have much more to contribute, and that Islam has much more to contribute, than legalistic technical requirements.
At the moment I think Islamic fashion is reacting to the existing fashion establishment. I hope that in time, it will develop the confidence to be much more creative and confident than it is at present and produce something of value to the world, in the same way that Islamic art and architecture have done for many centuries.