Earlier this month, Dolce & Gabbana garnered international headlines when the Italian fashion line announced it had designed a new hijab and abaya collection for Muslim women. The iconic brand rolled out images of a glamorous woman draped in luxurious, silky robes and bright scarves, joining brands like Oscar de la Renta, Tommy Hilfiger, and Mango in an effort to expand offerings specifically to Muslims. While it was refreshing to see a global brand embrace the hijab and abaya during a time when xenophobia and Islamophobia was sweeping through parts of Europe and America, it was hard not to remain a little skeptical of a brand that, just four years ago, used racist imagery of black women as fashion accessories.
What do Muslim women think of D&G’s abaya collection? Cosmopolitan.com talked to Egyptian artist Deena Mohamed, the creator of a web comic about a hijabi who battles misogyny and Islamophobia; Sam Elauf, the Muslim-American woman who sued Abercrombie & Fitch for discrimination; activist and Arab American Association of New York executive director Linda Sarsour; Hassanah El-Yacoubi, a fashion blogger and Ph.D. student in religious studies at the University of California, Riverside; and MuslimGirl.net founder Amani Alkhat. Read below to see how they feel about Dolce & Gabbana’s new bid to appeal to Muslim and Arab women, and what they hope fashion brands focus on in the future.
How do you feel about Dolce & Gabbana¹s new fashion line for Muslim women?
Sam Elauf: I love to see retailers connect with Muslim women through fashion and the merchandise they sell. Currently many retailers are selling “hijabi-friendly” products without even realizing it because the current trend is all things oversized and longer, which is perfect for anyone with a modest wardrobe.
Linda Sarsour: I think D&G’s new abaya collection is elegant and beautiful. I think it’s commendable of D&G to unveil this line during a time of heightened discrimination and bigotry against Muslims, particularly Muslim women.
Deena Mohamed: My initial thought was: So what? Abayas are already being sold here, and expensive abayas are also being sold here, and this is nothing new. But clearly the issue with D&G’s line is less about the line itself and more about the message it sends. I viewed it from a business and marketing perspective. It seems like an inevitability that big brands would begin catering to a “Muslim” market given the massive consumer base of not just the Arab Gulf, but other abaya-wearing Muslims worldwide. It is actually a little absurd to me that this hasn’t been adopted as the norm yet based on what a massive market it is. It’s a mark in D&G’s favor that they were the first company to act on it on such a publicized scale, but I am too cynical to think of it in terms of a “win for representation.”
It is interesting to look at from a social perspective, in that a bigger company has finally prioritized profit over excluding Muslim women from its market. But at the end of the day, what does a big brand appealing to Muslim clothing mean? For many it seems to infer the “inclusion” of Muslim women into Western culture, an acceptance of sorts, but what does it mean that Muslim women need to be recognized by a major fashion house in the first place? Does adding design and lace onto an abaya change what it fundamentally means? It seems like a shame that it takes this sort of thinking in order to convey “acceptance” and “tolerance” (and, of course, make a profit).
Hassanah El-Yacoubi: To be honest, my appreciation for it is largely
due to the implicit statement D&G made by releasing this line more so than
the fashions themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the line, but the fact that
they are catering to Muslim women and released it during a time where anti-Muslim sentiment pervades most public discourses had me sold in more ways
Amani Alkhat: I think D&G’s new fashion line could be a great opportunity for Muslim women in fashion.
What did you think about the ads themselves?Sam Elauf: I honestly got so excited when I learned that they had released this line, I just wish the models used for the line were more diverse. Muslim women come from all nationalities and I would have liked to see that better represented.
Linda Sarsour: The ads were beautiful and once again demonstrated that modest clothing can be high-end fashion, elegant and gorgeous.
Deena Mohamed: I appreciate that the ads are not sexualized, and that the abayas actually look wearable (in that they are not too tight, confusingly designed, or flashy for women to wear on a practical level) but I believe there is some major criticism in that the model was white and non-Muslim. Personally, I don’t consider this a problem with the clothing line but rather a marketing failure, because if they are truly intending to appeal to the Muslim women audience and win points for representation, it would garner more positive attention from their target audience to have a Muslim model of color wearing them. This is something H&M did last year, and it was generally well-received.
Hassanah El-Yacoubi: I thought they were pretty accurate for the audience they were targeting, which is Middle Eastern women of Arabia (Gulf countries) not women of the West. Having said that, I don’t understand why the marketing ads were accused of being loaded with Orientalist and stereotypical nodes. The “desert dunes” D&G referred to in the collection’s description is an accurate depiction of the region’s terrain, and the Abaya remains an alluring fashion piece of the Middle East until today. I can perhaps understand why some were bothered by the Caucasian models who were cast, claiming that Middle Eastern women would have been more authentic or appealing, but that in and of itself feeds into the stereotype of reducing Middle Eastern women to olive toned skin and not the eclectic scope these women actually represent.
Amani Alkhat: The thing that makes this line so exciting is that it could be a significant shift in making the fashion world more inclusive. Yet, the ads weren’t really a break from the status quo of women in fashion, even though it’s a line catered to Muslim women. There’s a lot of potential for D&G to shatter glass ceilings by pulling more Muslim women into this campaign, which would really shift it from seeming like corporate opportunism to genuinely being about women’s empowerment.
Would you personally wear any of these garments?Sam Elauf: Yes, I would totally love to add any of those pieces to my wardrobe! I love Dolce & Gabbana, and to wear something that was designed exclusively for a Muslim woman like myself makes me love the brand even more!
Linda Sarsour: D&G is unaffordable for women like me who work in an NGO, but if I could afford it, I would definitely wear many items from the new line.
Deena Mohamed: Here’s the thing. Abayas aren’t simply “Muslim woman” clothing, they are also heavily influenced by region and practicality. In the Gulf, women tend to wear abayas much more frequently on a daily basis than they do in Egypt and are more capable of buying expensive ones for different occasions. Although I lean toward modest clothing, I wear abayas if I am going to a mosque or in Ramadan (I should also point out I am not veiled), so I would not really buy an expensive abaya because it is not practical for me. For other women, it may be a pleasant option, especially on special occasions.
Hassanah El-Yacoubi: Absolutely! The lace detailing and demure draping have me goo goo gaa gaa-ing! The only thing is that in the Middle East, abayas are worn almost on a daily basis, where as in the West, they are worn on a much more occasional basis such as during Ramadan or to a wedding. So I would only wear them to specific events.
Amani Alkhat: I’ve been a supporter of D&G for many other lines and products. It’s too soon to tell if this line is going to be empowering or exploitative for us, but if it benefits Muslim women then you know I’ll be rocking their abayas. In the meantime, I’m still buying my Islamic clothing from Muslim women-owned small businesses, where I know my purchases will go directly towards supporting fierce lady hustlers that have been making abayas and scarves for years.
D&G is not the first brand to embrace Muslim clothing. Would you like to see more fashion brands do this?Sam Elauf: Eventually I feel like more brands will follow the trend and do something similar to what H&M did and feature a hijabi model in an advertisement to show their interest in promoting their products to Muslim women. There is a huge market for modest clothing and brands will attract Muslim women if they sell more modest clothing.
Linda Sarsour: Absolutely, Muslims are an untapped consumer base and we also enjoy high-end fashion. I love shopping and it’s so hard during the spring and summer seasons to find modest fashionable garments, so more options would be welcomed.
Deena Mohamed: Not particularly. I’d like to see more fashion brands properly embrace women’s clothing in general. It’s incredibly difficult to buy modest clothing not because big brands aren’t making abaya lines, but because women’s clothing is plagued by inconvenient sizing and unfortunate trends. It would be enormously convenient for me as a woman and as a Muslim woman if I could find clothes that fit, that are not oddly cropped or slashed or sheer, so I can make choices to dress modestly as I wish, instead of looking for the largest size possible and calling it a day.
On a side note, one of my grievances with a marketing campaign like this is the generalization of “Muslim clothing.” There is really no such thing as Muslim clothing. Muslims wear all sorts of different clothes, and it varies by country and culture. It is also important to note that not all Muslim women wear hijabs, although since hijabi women are very visible, they are a vulnerable part of society and benefit from a normalization campaign such as this. But it says volumes that a fashion house is needed in order to “normalize” the clothing Muslim women are wearing, and as such humanize them and prevent them from seeming “oppressed” or “otherized” for the Western public. This is nothing new.
Hassanah El-Yacoubi: Yes, and believe me when I say it’s going to happen. It’s already happening. Every few months or so, we hear of another mainstream brand staking a claim in the Muslim market.
Amani Alkhat: I love when fashion brands are inclusive of women from different walks of life. Our society hypersexualizes women in the public space, and the fashion industry has had a role in establishing revealing clothing as the standard for how women should dress. It’s great when brands make modest clothing an option, not just to be more inclusive of Muslim women, but also to return that autonomy to all women of choosing how they want to dress while not sacrificing fashion.
Regarding Muslim fashion, what would you like to see major brands do that you haven¹t seen yet?Sam Elauf: I think it would be really neat if there were hijabi Muslim women featured in brand catalogs. There are so many Muslim women who love staying up-to-date with all the latest trends and dressing fashionably while still following their religion. The number of Muslim fashion bloggers keeps increasing, and they have become a source for ideas on modest styling. But I would love to see Muslim women featured in fashion catalogs, inspiring even more modest styling. Instead of always seeing scarves modeled as being draped around the neck, it would be nice to see some modeled on the head as a hijab!
Linda Sarsour: I recommend that major brands invest in more modest styles that can appeal to all women. It’s not just Muslim women who like to don long sleeves, long dresses, and tunics.
Deena Mohamed: I think I’ve answered this previously in that I would like convenient and practical clothing that is not necessarily “Muslim” fashion. There needs to be an option for women when modest clothes are not in style. For example, the maxi dress trend was relieving for many Muslim women as it provided them with an easy, fashionable option (when it was not slit up the sides, at least) but it seems ridiculous that this is subjected to the whims of the fashion industry instead of being a consistent option to choose from. Modest clothes should be a staple of clothing brands.
Hassanah El-Yacoubi: Allocating sections of their store or online shop for “modest” attire as they would for petite or plus sizes. In my opinion, that would mark the ultimate merge of the Muslim market into mainstream marketplaces.
Amani Alkhat: I would love to see major brands make a move towards supporting the Muslim women that will be buying these lines. Many Muslim women in the Middle East are disproportionately impacted by issues like armed conflict, displacement, and unemployment. Imagine the difference for these lines if we knew that our purchases would be going towards supporting Muslim women who need it?
What advice do you have for a major fashion brand is considering expanding into garments for Muslim women?Sam Elauf: Do your homework; know how Muslim women shop and what pieces they want and need in their wardrobes, not only basics but also staple pieces. The larger the variety in garments, the better. There are lots of Muslim women, and we don’t want to all look the same. Just like everyone else, we enjoy expressing our individuality through fashion.
Linda Sarsour: Major fashion brands should seek Muslim fashion designers. There are so many innovative, creative, bold designers taking over the Muslim modest clothing scene and who knows better what Muslim women want than Muslim women.
Deena Mohamed: I am not an expert in this area, but I think they should consult the wealth of Muslim women who are already working on this. For example, here is a quote from Dina Torkia, a London-based fashion designer:
I feel like I should be happy, ecstatic even, perhaps eternally grateful? That’s what seems to be the general reaction to this news so far. But, I can’t help but feel incredibly underwhelmed, possibly even a tiny bit insulted by the collection. I’ve dreamed the day a major design house would officially recognize us, hijab clad muslim women and finally “cater” to us. But my dream wasn’t resulting in a line of lacey, embroidered traditional abayas and matching scarves. Something I’ve grown up with and a look that every Muslim woman is all too familiar with. Something that the local “abayas r us” in Brummy might have. Or if you fancy something a little more luxury, “abaya gold” in Dubai would suffice. I dreamed of being able to look at signature gowns on the runway and imagine myself in one, hijab and all. I dreamed of being included in the mainstream of haute couture & whilst D&G have managed to recognize us with this collection, they’ve also managed to exclude us.Fashion conscious Muslim women in the form of bloggers, designers & stylists have been taking centre stage for a good few years showing the world that modesty & style can coincide with faith. With barely a nod of applaud or recognition, until D&G fancies putting their stamp all over a very traditional middle eastern style & claim it’s originality.So Thank you, but no thank you.
Hassanah El-Yacoubi: Dedicate an entire line to affordable long-sleeve maxi dresses and gowns. I think it’s the biggest struggle for Muslim women when it comes time to finding that perfect dress that meets the religious guidelines. As it stands, there are only a few brands such as H&M, Mango, Zara, Adrianna Papell, and Tadashi Shoji that offer these type of dresses. Since there’s only a limited selection available, you can bet that most Muslim women show up to an event or occasion with at least one or two
other women wearing the exact same dress — no bueno. The more options there are, the less likely this will happen.
Amani Alkat: There are so many Muslim women fashion designers that have been ahead of the curve in modest fashion — it’d be in the best interest of both the brands as well as our community for fashion brands to pull them in! Hire Muslim women as designers, consultants, models — that’s when we’re really going to see a positive impact!