Modeling and modesty are two words that seem mutually exclusive, but a Muslim fashion designer in New York City is trying to change that. A new agency for Muslim models, called Underwraps, is launching next week during New York Fashion Week. Its goal? To prove that models can be gorgeous, stylish, and yet still maintain their religious beliefs.
Nailah Lymus is an American-born Muslim whose parents converted to Islam before she was born. She adheres to the modesty tenets of the religion, which require that clothes be loose enough so as not to reveal your shape, and that basically the only body parts that can be visible are your face, hands and feet. Sound challenging? It doesn’t have to be. I chatted with Lymus this week about her background, Muslims in fashion, and her plans to launch a modeling agency.
Lymus is a self-taught designer who originally studied child development. While interning at a boutique, she ended up designing and selling some pieces there, and what was once a hobby suddenly got lucrative. She’s since made it a full time profession, and has turned her eye towards models. Specifically, Muslim models.
There historically haven’t been many well-known Muslim models in western fashion, but that may be changing. Lancôme just signed its first ever Muslim model, Hanaa Ben Abdesslem, who’s Tunisian. Abdesslem broke into the mainstream after debuting on Vivienne Westwood’s runway, and is signed with IMG. Abdesslem doesn’t have her head covered in photographs, and doesn’t seem to be adhering—at least in her professional life—to modesty standards, and Lymus acknowledged that it has to be that way to get recognition right now.“[Muslim models] come from a background where they dress Islamically appropriate, but to be in this industry and to be a model you kind of have to forfeit that,” Lymus said. “That’s why I wanted to start this agency, so you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to lose who you are to be in this business.”
To that end, she’s starting Underwraps as an agency for girls who are committed to maintaining modesty standards in their dress, but hope to work with mainstream designers. That’s Lymus’ long-term goal. “We take things seriously and are professional just like other models. During fashion week I’ll be sending them out to castings just like anyone else,” she told me.
Right now Underwraps has four girls in development, who aren’t officially signed yet. She’ll bring them to industry events during fashion week and let them get a taste of the attention. Besides having a “look”, Lymus believes that the girls have to have strong personalites and be able to handle the pressures of the industry, and also the misconceptions. Especially since 9/11, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about Islam and its expectations of women. Lymus hopes to shatter the more common ones—like that women can’t work or that they have to wear full abayas.
Could an agency like this succeed? It would take a special girl, and an open-minded designer to make it happen. While runways featuring lots of bare skin tend to get attention, there are many designers who could theoretically use Muslim models. Haider Ackermann’s spring show, which featured layered looks and even veils, is one that comes to mind. Regardless of whether or not Underwraps is successful, we love that agencies featuring non-traditional models are trying to make a go of it.
Photos: AK Photography