The idea may seem like a bad fit for some fashion mavens, who when thinking of Islamic fashion usually picture drab black or white cloths used to cloak female beauty rather than celebrate it.
But the Islamic-fashion industry has taken off in recent years as designers look for ways to incorporate the bold colors and rich textile traditions prevalent in some Islamic societies while still maintaining sufficient modesty to adhere to Muslim mores.
Indonesia, as the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, is already one of the main players, with a local fashion industry now estimated to be worth $6.6 billion dollars a year. But local designers and retailers – led by an industry group called the Indonesian Islamic Fashion Consortium – are hoping to expand the Islamic fashion component of the industry even more by drawing up a road map to make Indonesia the “capital” of global Islamic fashion by 2020.
Right now, Malaysia, Thailand and France are among the leading Islamic fashion hubs, industry officials say.
For the past two years, Indonesia’s consortium has embarked on road shows in Europe, Asia and the Middle East to introduce Indonesian Islamic fashion designers to the outside world. Its members have toured Indonesia’s provinces and organized workshops for local entrepreneurs and designers on marketing and production.
It has also organized an annual Indonesian Islamic Fashion Fair and, for the first time last year, a national Muslim beauty pageant.
“The creativity of these young (Indonesian) designers is endless,” said Jetti Hadi, editor-in-chief of local Islamic fashion magazine Noor and a co-founder of the consortium. “Their designs are fashionable but still adhere to the Islamic rules of modesty, which means that the clothes are loose-fitting and do not reveal the shape of women’s bodies.”
The Indonesian pavilion at the International Fair of the Muslim World in Paris last year attracted more than 2,000 visitors, Ms. Hadi said. Back at home, there were 164 booths at an Islamic fashion show in Jakarta this year, compared to only 30 booths two years earlier, she said.
Meanwhile, at this year’s Muslim beauty pageant, known as the World Muslim Beauty Contest, more than 750 women participated. Women from as far away as the Netherlands, Germany and Australia and from various professions such as lawyers, engineers and athletes applied to take part in the contest, but only 20 made it to the final on September 15 and all of them except for one are Indonesian.
Participants were judged not only by their beauty, but also their ability to read the Koran in Arabic and other Islamic knowledge as well as their social activities. Most importantly, they were required to wear Muslim clothing. Judges voted environmental activist and entrepreneur Nina Septiani as the winner of the crown.
“Whenever people around the world hear about terror attacks (conducted by Islamist militants), the image of Islam is tarnished somewhat. We want to change the perception that Muslims are extreme,” said Aries Muftie, a member of the jury, and an expert on Islamic finance.
Long known as a relatively secular Muslim nation, Indonesia has seen an increase in the number of women wearing hijab, or Islamic dress in recent years, which some analysts have attributed to rising Islamic conservativeness.
But as that has happened, it has also increased the demand for designers to help add more variety to the attire. It has also led to a mushrooming of online shops and boutiques that cater to Islamic fashionistas, known locally as hijabers. Entrepreneurs use popular social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Multiply as well as local online marketplaces to promote their items.
A rising middle class in Southeast Asia’s largest economy has also fuelled a boom in the domestic fashion industry.
The sharia unit of the state-owned Bank Rakyat Indonesia has embraced the Muslim fashion aficionados by issuing a debit card that also serves as a membership card for the “Hijabers Community,” which has 77,000 “likes” on Facebook and almost 57,000 followers on Twitter.
For aspiring entrepreneurs and designers like Jakarta-based Rika Septiana, Facebook provides an opportunity to start a business without having to rent space. Armed with a laptop and an Internet connection, Ms. Septiana started her online Islamic fashion shop in 2010, offering hand-stitched headscarves, necklaces, hand-made crochet flower brooches and other accessories popular among hijabers.
She said business is good enough that she’s thinking of giving up her other job as a secretary at a foreign company and turning to designing full-time.
“I have a lot of ideas that I have yet to put into reality. Also working from home means I can have more time with my children,” she said.
Despite the proliferation of designers, it’s still not fully clear how much of an impact Indonesian designers are having on the Muslim world at large, as statistics are hard to come by. Export numbers are difficult to estimate because most transactions with overseas buyers are conducted individually and aren’t reported to national authorities.
Nevertheless, more and more Malaysians and Singaporeans are now traveling to Indonesia to sample its styles, says Irna Dewi, a manager at Mosaict Hijabstore, a popular Islamic fashion chain that caters to middle-class customers.
Indeed, Indonesia is increasingly becoming known as a trendsetter for Muslim fashion styles, says Annisa, an Islamic fashion observer who like many Indonesians goes by one name and writes for www.fashionesedaily.com, a local fashion website.
“The current trend incorporates bold colors, bold patterns and cutting-edge designs,” she said, which together show that “Indonesian Muslim women have become more expressive and confident in hijab.” At a recent Islamic fashion show, for instance, models walked the runway wearing bright-colored tie dye blouses combined with long skirts of floral-patterned songket, a hand-woven fabric from Sumatra island.
They also put on bold accessories such as huge beaded necklaces, oversized bangles and headscarves embroidered with Swarovski stones.