Marwa Atik needs five pieces of trim, the kind embellished with pearls and black jewels. At a store in downtown L.A.'s Fashion District, boxes of trimmings line the walls from floor to ceiling, but Atik scans quickly and zeroes in on what she wants. At her direction, a clerk climbs a tall, wooden ladder and pulls down one of the cardboard boxes. He counts out five pieces and, after 30 seconds of bargaining, Atik makes her purchase.
For the next five days, the designer will create elaborate hijabs, which are head-scarves for Muslim women, to display at an upcoming Irvine fashion show. Atik's company, Vela, specializes in unique designs of an item known more often for its conservative connotations than its stylistic value.
But for Atik, a 21-year-old student at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, who has worn the hijab since the eighth grade, conservative dress provides an opportunity for style. For her first scarf, in 2009, she used a brass-colored zipper as trim for charcoal gray fabric, giving a softly draped piece an urban touch.
Shopping, she admits, can be a challenge for Muslim-American women because the fabric of hijabs often cover the designs of blouses. So Atik creates headscarves that can be the focal point of an outfit: say, pastel ruffles and pleats that hang down the front of scarves.
This year, at the Irvine show, she debuts a white scarf with a white-to-black gradient fringe — think Tina Turner singing “Proud Mary,” but styled into the front panel of a headscarf. The jeweled pieces she picks up downtown are hand-sewn into the fronts of a few limited-edition formal-wear scarves.
Leaving the trimming store, she walks a block, past the rolls of polyester and cotton fabrics — often in dizzying patterns or, inexplicably, covered in feathers — greeting proprietors. She's come to know them well since starting her company. At the next store, Atik walks purposefully to the back, where rolls of fabric are stacked one atop another. She's looking for a particular shade of red silk chiffon.
“I'm really mad,” she jests with the clerk. “Why don't you have really good reds?”
But a coral-colored roll has caught her eye, and she begins to envision a different scarf. When she has an idea, Atik explains, she just has to run with it right away. As she leaves the store, the clerk jokes about her black jumpsuit. “It's a safari suit,” she retorts, putting on her oversized sunglasses to go back outdoors.
Four days later, on June 3, Atik is one of seven designers whose conservative clothing is on display on the UC Irvine campus. Hosted by the nonprofit Fashion Fighting Famine, the fashion show raises money for charitable causes, including One Laptop Per Child and Syria Relief & Development.
More than 800 women watch the runway for ruffled maxi dresses and harem pants; head-to-toe abayas, with ruching or silver studs on the shoulders; and bright caftans, including Marena y Sol's jeweled creations, famously worn by Kim Kardashian on a trip to Dubai last fall. After the show, the women cram the lobby to connect with designers and buy the pieces they like best.
It's the biggest show Fashion Fighting Famine has hosted since its 2007 beginning, organizers say. Designers and guests traveled from as far as Cairo and Singapore to attend, paying up to $75 a seat.
While the show has always been limited to women — the volunteer models and customers are, after all, interested in modesty, and might not feel comfortable being watched by or shopping with men — organizers are beginning to open up beyond their Muslim audience. This is the first year they have invited the media to cover the event, and co-director Nida Chowdhry says they haven't ruled out expanding to events that include men. The organization also is tasked, in part, with providing a platform for female entrepreneurs to show their products to the world.
And while modesty is the one thing every piece has in common, Muslim-American fashion is diverse. Some women wear hijabs; some do not. And those who do cover their heads wear their scarves in many different ways, from Vela's side knot to the leopard-print, mohawk-shaped hijab of one of the guests.
Muslim women often buy stylish clothes but have to layer underneath in order to provide more coverage, Atik says. Here they can purchase right off the shelf items that fit their beliefs. A woman in a plain black abaya and niqab, a face veil, shops for colorful scarves and skirts amid young girls chattering excitedly about their choices.
Amani Alkowni, 21, came to the event with her friends from San Diego. She bought a turquoise, pleated Vela scarf two years ago; people still ask her where she got it, she says.
At the show, Singapore-based designer Nancy Hoque debuts the “flag line” for her headscarf company, SixteenR. The display, which is swarmed by shoppers before and after the models take the runway, features American and British flags, as well as a scarf of the French flag with an imprint of the Eiffel Tower. France in 2004 banned girls from wearing headscarves in schools.
For Marwa Atik, the show is a chance not only to meet new customers but also to debut her first dress. She wears the long-sleeved gown herself, modeling the flowing gray-and-beige silk charmeuse skirt worn open to the front over a black skirt. She pairs the dress with a hijab, accented with rich brown belt buckles over the coral fabric she found downtown earlier that week.