Yves Saint Laurent's business partner Pierre Bergé made headlines this week when he told a French radio station that "creators should have nothing to do with Islamic fashion." According to The Guardian, he continued: "Designers are there to make women more beautiful, to give them their freedom, not to collaborate with this dictatorship which imposes this abominable thing by which we hide women and make them live a hidden life." He criticized designers for taking part in what he calls an "enslavement of women."
Bergé's comments are the most outspoken criticism yet of the fashion industry's recent efforts to better cater to the Muslim shopper. Last year, Uniqlo partnered with UK-based Muslim fashion designer and blogger Hana Tajima on a collection of "modest" wear including hijabs, kebayas, relaxed pants and long skirts. The spring collection, in stores now, is available in the U.S. for the first time. Dolce & Gabbana released the first images of a new luxurious line of hijabs and abayas in January. Brands have also started targeting Ramadan with special capsules and marketing: Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY, Oscar de la Renta and Monique Lhuillier have all designed special pieces for the month-long Islamic event; Net-a-Porter and Moda Operandi have also addressed Ramadan directly. There are many different types of pieces worn traditionally by Muslim women (and many Muslim women who prefer not to dress traditionally), but Western designers have focused on "modest," covered-up styles: versions of the the abaya, a long black cloak that is worn over clothes and already available in many luxurious styles; and the hijab, most commonly identified as a head scarf that covers the head but not the face, as opposed to veils with more controversial connotations, like the niqab and the burqa.
Bergé's inflammatory comments are perhaps in line with rising suspicion and misconceptions of Muslim people by the Western world — and suggest a perception of "modest" fashion as automatically oppressive. "I think people focus so much on what is different from what they're used to, so they automatically assume that it's restrictive," said Mariam Sobh, a journalist and founder of Hijabtrendz, over e-mail. She called the fashion industry's standards for women its own form of enslavement. "What is wrong with me deciding that I'll find a way to dress that ensures my outfit isn't form fitting, and that it's keeping my body parts hidden?... I think a lot of people get upset, because they think it's their right to see every inch of a woman's body." Nafisa Bakkar, whose site Amaliah features an edit of modest fashion from mainstream brands, agrees. "For some, doing a march naked is liberation, for others covering up to the point where all you can see is her eyes is liberation," she said in an e-mail. "Is either display of empowerment and values superior over the other? No. Are they different? Yes." She said her site aims to celebrate Muslim women in a way that the industry as a whole does not and that true freedom is the freedom of choice.
Asma P., the writer behind "modest" fashion blog Haute Muslimah, said Bergé carries antiquated views of what it means to be a Muslim woman. "I'm really disappointed, but honestly not surprised by his words, especially with France's women's rights minister recently referring to women who cover in a derogative and rude way and criticizing brands that market to Muslim women as 'irresponsible,'" she said in an email. (That's a polite summary of the minister's comments.)
As prejudiced as Bergé's comments may have been, they do raise some valid questions, like: should non-Muslim designers create fashion for Muslim audiences? At what point does inclusivity turn into appropriation? And is inclusivity just an excuse for commercial gain? Dolce & Gabbana certainly doesn't have a stellar record for cultural sensitivity. "I think it's great to see designers catering to the Muslim consumer market, but I think they're doing it for the money and not out of genuine concern," said Sobh, adding that name brand collections grab attention and people feel validated by them. "I also think if a mainstream brand wants to target Muslim women, they need to get a consultant who wears hijab and understands the community and the market." She also suggested collaborating with Muslim designers, as Uniqlo did with Hana Tajima. "It lends for more trust, and a better perspective."
Regardless of the intentions, brands have a huge commercial incentive to cater to the Muslim customer. A 2011 report estimated Muslims will make up over a quarter of the world's population by 2030 and a more recent report predicts their spending on clothing and footwear will increase to $484 billion by 2019. But these recent comments from one of the most legendary names in luxury fashion (albeit one known for being a tyrant) highlight the fact that Western brands need to fully understand the market before throwing their hats in the ring. The best first step? Partner with talented Muslim designers.