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The Rise of Muslim Fashion – With Hana Tajima

By Guan Tan

Model clad in Uniqlo x Hana Tajima Fall Winter 2017 dress, inner blouse, and head scarf.
Model clad in Uniqlo x Hana Tajima Fall Winter 2017 dress, inner blouse, and head scarf.

Modest clothing of late has been a salient conversation in the fashion industry. The realisation came early in 2014 when fashion houses started turning to the otherwise largely untapped Arabian markets. DKNY released a 'Ramadan' collection in February that year.

Another trailblazer was Uniqlo's 2015 collaboration with British-Japanese Muslim fashion designer, Hana Tajima. Later that year, Stefano Gabanna joined the dialogue. In January 2016 the house officially launched their Arab collection – dramatic and fluid silhouettes peppered with floral motifs, applique lace, and decadent embroidery work. This March, Nike revealed a 'Pro Hijab' targetted at Muslim athletes and sporting enthusiasts alike. The United Arab Emirates has been estimated to boast highest growth rates in fashion in the coming years, and is predicted to be a US$484 billion market by 2019. Little wonder why fashion brands are hopping on the modest fashion bandwagon. 

UniqloModel in Uniqlo x Hana Tajima's Fall Winter 2017 collection.
Model in Uniqlo x Hana Tajima's Fall Winter 2017 collection.

Modest fashion has been the working title for Muslim fashion at large. It's the first and continues to be contested. Although Tajima uses it to refer to the genre, she thinks "'Modest Fashion' is an awkward term. It feels very singular... There's a lot of variation from person to person. It's really important to understand it for yourself and to feel comfortable with that. People will always have opinions about how you should dress – whether you're Muslim or not. So it's vital to have a strong sense of your own identity." The ambivalence reaches back to personal and subjective interpretations of the Muslim dress code. 

In the Qu'ran, a commonly quoted verse on this subject is found in Chapter 24, The Light, verse 31. As the scholarly interpretation, Sahih International has it, "And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment...". Islamic ladies all over the globe cover up in varying degrees according to their personal interpretations and local teachings.

UniqloModels in Uniqlo x Hana Tajima's Fall Winter 2017 collection.
Models in Uniqlo x Hana Tajima's Fall Winter 2017 collection.

It's conventional that Muslim women patronised specific Muslim seamstresses that they knew from friends and families. "When I was living in London it was really localised to certain [areas], and about knowing the best seamstresses." It was an industry that kept to itself. 

For that, the 27-year-old thinks there's been a stereotyped "specific look" defining Muslim dress. However, in the recent years, the situation has changed. "I think that feeling represented within the wider fashion conversation is really important for all women, and the fact that it then becomes more accessible gives us choice." 

She's heartened to know that Muslim dress has diversified, offers more options, and no longer confined to one stereotype. Altogether, Muslim fashion is taking a life of its own, responding to and participating in mainstream fashion trends. "The looser silhouettes that you see in modest fashion can act as an antidote to the body conscious idea of beauty that has been dominant." 

It's strikingly clear in the launch of Dubai and London-based The Modist this March, which reverberated throughout the industry. The e-commerce curates a selection of Western designers clothes that fits the conservative bill, and delivers to 100 countries – Muslim and non-Muslim cities alike. 

UniqloPieces from Hana Tajima's Fall Winter 2017 collection for Uniqlo.
Pieces from Hana Tajima's Fall Winter 2017 collection for Uniqlo.

It's exactly like what Tajima is doing at Uniqlo. "I never [intended] to design for a specific type of woman. What I want is to connect to the idea of beauty that exists in all women. Her collections for Uniqlo were initially launched in South-East Asia in 2015 but later expanded to the United Kingdom and the United States in the subsequent year. It's priced affordably – from USS$9.90 a top to US$29.90 for a pair of pants. To Tajima, the worldwide consumption and accessibility of her Uniqlo collections catapult the state of Muslim fashion forward. "I think it's even more indicative of the fact that these clothes are for all women." 

Making modest dress relatable to the wider public is an important cause for Tajima, only because she once saw Muslim fashion from the other side as well. 

Tajima was born to a non-Muslim family in Devon, England. Her father's Japanese and mother's English. In the late 2000s, she attended college in a city, "where I met a few Muslim students. It was a time when everyone else I knew was partying a lot and that [social] interaction felt very prescribed. When I [talked] to my Muslim friends, they weren't particularly drawn to that lifestyle, and it was something of a curiosity to me." Tajima also studied philosophy and "spent a lot of time faced with these different ideas." Eventually, she learned more about Islam, and "it got to a point where I couldn't say that I wasn't Muslim." She converted but doesn't think she changed. Her conversion was more a realisation that she identified with Islamic values. 

Uniqlo27-year-old British-Japanese Hana Tajima poses in her designs for Uniqlo.
27-year-old British-Japanese Hana Tajima poses in her designs for Uniqlo.

Tajima self-taught fashion design and construction, and briefly studied fashion textiles. "Some of my earliest memories are of cutting up fabric and using a hand-operated Singer sewing machine." Around 2009, Tajima then started a womenswear label, Maysaa, which ceased operations in 2012. But she kept her accompanying online blog, Style Covered, which has been renamed to hanatajima.com.

"It was sort of [an] open sketchbook for me, and a way of exploring ideas and connecting with other people... I wanted it to feel more ambiguous. Early on, there were a lot of people trying to define what 'Muslim fashion' was, and I wanted to do the opposite and to un-define," she adds. Three years later, when Uniqlo approached Tajima to collaborate, it's as if her endeavour to fracture the facade of Muslim fashion finally saw a breakthrough.