City Life - Iran's women make fashion a statement
The Independent, London
June 12, 1999
Tehran: 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
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 using the 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.