Perched on a stool in a cavernous warehouse in north London, a model with bright blue eye make-up carefully adjusts her top as a photographer works the light around her. She is dressed in a beautiful, sleek, black satin shirt, topped off with a simple, unadorned hood.
As the photographer lifts up his camera, the model brings the hood up to cover the back half of her head. “That’s it,” he says, as the flash fires. “Beautiful.”
Welcome to the world inhabited by the “Hijabistas”, a trendy set of up and coming Muslim fashion designers who are doing their bit to forge an indigenous British Islamic identity. Until relatively recently, young Muslim women who wanted to dress according to Islamic rules of modesty (hijab) had pretty limited options. They could either adopt the type of immigrant clothing worn by their parents, or try to cobble something together from high street chains, where modesty isn’t exactly seen as a best seller, especially in the summer.
Frustrated by this lack of variety, a small number of devout young Muslims are making their own way into the fashion industry to try and provide a middle road – sleek, elegant clothing that is both beautiful and Islamic.
The seeds of this particular sartorial movement have only just begun to be sown and the number of Hijabistas in Britain can probably be counted on one hand. But their arrival heralds a shift reflected in the wider Muslim demographic of a community making their way towards the mainstream and forging their own indigenous identity.
The shoot in north London has been organised by Hana Tajima, a 23-year-old designer who founded her own clothing label with her husband Nibras.
Maysaa, an Arabic word which means “to walk with dignity”, has been taking its first pre-orders online for the past two weeks and will launch fully next month.
Critics of hijab often argue that Islam shuns a woman’s right to be beautiful, a myth that Tajima says she is keen to dispel.
“Islam has a really amazing definition of beauty,” she says. “Hijab is about how a woman can be beautiful without placing overt emphasis on her sexuality. In western society it’s quite difficult to separate the two. I design clothes that are beautiful in the way that women find each other beautiful.”
Tajima made a name for herself amongst fellow Muslim fashionistas through her blog Style Covered, which receives about 2,000+ hits a day from women looking for tips on how to look good in hijab.
Her move into fashion was fuelled by her own personal journey towards Islam. Born to a Japanese father and a British mother, both of whom were artists, Tajima grew up in a creative family deep in the heart of the Devonshire countryside.
She converted to Islam while studying fashion at a college in Exeter. “The night before I took my shahada [the declaration of belief in Allah and his Prophet] I had to make myself a long skirt, because I couldn’t find anything”.
But now that she had become a Muslim, she also had to work out how to express both her own personality and her new faith through her clothes. “In the beginning it was quite difficult,” she admits. “All I could do was copy what my Muslim friends were wearing.”
So instead she decided to make her own clothes.
“People would come up to Hana all the time and ask her where she got her clothes from,” explains her husband Nibras, in between shoots. “It made sense for us to turn her creative talent into a business.”
Tahmina Saleem, co-founder of Inspire, a consultancy which helps Muslim women become vocal members of their communities, says the Hijabistas are simply doing what Islam has always done, integrate and assimilate with the culture around it.
“Despite what some people may claim Islam is not a religion that tramples over culture,” she says. “In China, mosques reflect the indigenous culture. In India the clothes that we now think of as Islamic were originally taken from the Hindu culture. It’s only natural that British Muslims will begin to make their own creative choices that fuse both their nationality and religion. It’s not about choosing one or the other.”
Sarah Elenany began designing clothes for similar reasons to Tajima. She grew up in the UK with her Egyptian father and Palestinian mother. She began exploring her faith in more detail in her late teens, and started making her own clothes because there was little on the market seemed to reflect her identity as a British woman growing up in a city.
Her eponymous label Elenany has been up and running for more than a year now. It’s sporty, unapologetically urban and – most importantly – Islamic. One of her most famous designs is a long grey coat, with a hood and a lining that features bold orange graphics of a minaret. Overseas her designs are being snapped up and she’s just returned from Indonesia.
“That was an amazing trip,” the 26-year-old enthuses. “The Indonesians just love their punk and rock. They’re so creative and love mixing things up.”
Britain, she says, is a little less adventurous at the moment but she believes that will change over time.
“You’ve got to remember that the most of the people running fashion shops for Muslim women are first generation, older men and they’re reluctant to try anything too new” she says. “But people are crying out for more variety. As Muslims move towards the mainstream they’re giving up some of the more traditional clothes in favour of items that express who they are.”
She adds: “In the next decade or so we’ll get a lot more Muslim fashion designers. Many first generation parents wanted their kids to be engineers or doctors, but I think the second and third generations are a lot more open about their children’s careers.”
And it’s not just Muslims who are interested in hijabi fashion. Elenany says half of her sales go to non-Muslims, whilst Tajima is deliberately making sure Maysaa caters for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Maxi dresses are a classic example of this cross pollination. This summer’s latest must-have is about more, not less fabric. For once Muslim women can walk down a high street and see that long skirts are back in vogue. Unsurprisingly, Tajima has adopted the maxi dress with relish.
“I like to think my clothes would appeal to anyone,” she says. “There a great potential for crossover.”