City Life: Tehran: Iran's women make fashion a statement

SHOKUH AND Foruzan Zavieh run a medium-sized fashion outlet in Tehran, catering to a large clientele of wealthy and stylish Iranians. Fearful of being accused of promoting "depraved" Western culture in a revolutionary Islamic society and beset by restrictions, the sisters keep their operations discreet in a tucked-away garden and try to avoid publicity.

The austere showroom, where a collection of ready-to-wear outfits is displayed, is open only to female customers, and some 30 tailors working in the back are segregated by sex to avoid provoking the authorities. A few outlawed European fashion magazines, which the sisters have managed to sneak into the country on their return from foreign trips, are preciously guarded in a glass bookshelf. A television set is tuned to a European fashion channel, received through an illegal satellite dish and once in a while, the sisters set up private catwalk shows for an all-female audience.

Given their limited exposure to developments in the world of fashion, their designs are admirably up-to-date - a fact which, coupled with their prices, has earned them customers among sophisticated Iranian expatriates.

Shokuh and Foruzan are among a generation of talented couturieres who have blossomed in Iran after the 1979 revolution imposed a strict dress code on women and banned designer clothing as a symbol of upper- class vanity. Although women comply in public, wearing the uniform-like long dress and scarf, they take the opportunity to flaunt their taste for fashion in frequent house parties. Many even style the obligatory frock so as to set them apart from those who opt for the black chador.

Iranian designers say they are constantly challenged by demands for the latest Parisian fashions. "The Iranian upper middle class has a more sophisticated taste for fashion than the middle class in America or even Europe," says Shadi Parand, a young designer whose clothes are aimed at a young clientele. "Many teenagers born after the revolution have a better eye for European designs than the older generation."

Her casual ready-to-wear clothes could be presented at any hip boutique in New York or London. She may not feel free to indulge in extravagant styles or loud colours, but her dresses are designed usingthe latest cuts in contemporary fashion.

Some designers have circumvented official channels and established contact with agents in the United States and Canada to distribute their fashions. The Zavieh sisters have managed, through relatives, to set up shops in Toronto, San Francisco and Nice.

Iranian youth's frantic pursuit of fashion often runs contrary to the austere sensibilities of officialdom and, up until recently, drew punishment from Islamic hard- liners. But the election, two years ago, of President Mohammad Khatami has led to a more tolerant atmosphere, although many are still wary of the "blind imitation" of Western lifestyles.

"Unfortunately our young people have become slaves to Western fashion. Even those hard pressed for money still try hard to get fashionable Western clothes so as to keep up with the latest trends," said the state-run newspaper Kar-Kargar. But, it went on to say, "we cannot suppress the desire for fashion," and proposed instead to "shape and direct it by reviving our own traditional patterns in tune with our national and Islamic heritage". At least one Iranian dress-maker is doing just that, but her colourful ethnic designs appeal more to the tastes of the middle-aged upper class than to hip, young Iranians.

Maryam Mahdavi gets many of her ideas from illustrations in classic Persian poetry books and Iranian rural culture. She presents her one-size-fits- all Kurdish-style pants as an alternative to jeans. "Many people make fun of my clothes and think they are old-fashioned. Most people are after Western fashions," she said.

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