With her latest collection, fashion icon Rabia Zargarpur proves that sustainable clothing at affordable fast fashion prices can be done, writes Nadia Badarudin
ON the global fashion sphere, Rabia Zargarpur has built a reputation as a pioneering, award-winning fashion entrepreneur and designer who has created an innovative market of modest fashion designs through her 17-year-old brand, Rabia Z.
The label is regarded by the Western and Arab media as one of the first truly international, women’s contemporary modest wear e-commerce brands established long before the term “modest wear” or ‘muslimah fashion’ became trending buzzwords.
Established in the United States in 2002 and known for the Original Jersey Hijab, Rabia Z is retailing well across 71 countries.
Rabia, a fashion icon herself, has been showcasing modest, ready-to-wear looks on mainstream runways and fashion weeks across major fashion capitals including New York, Miami, London, South Africa, Karachi, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Milan, Istanbul and Dubai since 2007.
She recently teamed up with renowned yet modest fashion e-commerce site Modanisa.com to create fashion conscious and sustainable ready-to-wear pieces.
The capsule collection, Rabia Z x Modanisa, was unveiled during the Istanbul Modest Fashion Week in April.
FROM DOLL GOWNS TO OWN LABEL
Rabia grew up in Dubai and moved to California after graduating from high school. During childhood, she loved making fancy gowns for her Barbie dolls, glued and stitched together from silk flowers and leftover fabric.
“I used to style my own outfits and played dress up at my mother’s fashion boutique. My mother took me to the tailoring shops often and encouraged me to choose my own fabrics, designs and embroideries for wedding parties and fancy occasions. One such gown in high school landed me the coveted prom queen title,” says Rabia, reminiscing her younger days as a budding ‘couture designer.’
“I’ve been designing womenswear since my early teens and designed bespoke couture gowns for brides in my first year of fashion school in New York. I spent five years there pursuing both fashion and business degrees while working in the mainstream fashion industry at Valentino on a part-time basis.
“I used to be obsessed with Christian Lacroix and John Galliano’s Dior couture. For ready-to-wear though, my taste was very Japanese, and I loved (and still love) Yoji Yamamoto’s work. I also love the work of Haider Ackerman and Alexander Wang as well as the tailoring of Bouchra Jarrar and sustainability luxe of Stella McCartney,” says the Emirati designer and mother of three.
Rabia started wearing the hijab in 2001, a few months before the tragic September 11 attacks.
The lack of modern ready-towear labels catering to the needs of hijabwearing and modest-dressing women at that time prompted her to create her own clothing line under her own brand.
“For a professional fashion designer and fashionista, it was a shock to realise how neglected modern hijabi women were. There were options of custom made traditional wear originating from certain Muslim regions and cultures such as Khaleeji Abaya, Desi Shalwar Kameez or Indo-Malay garbs, but they weren’t practical options in California where I lived. I had to have things tailor made for me in Dubai, but I missed that ready-to-wear comfort and feel.
“That feeling of neglect inspired me to make my own practical ready-to-wear work outfits — tunics and hijab that were beautiful and made with breathable fabrics sourced from the UAE (United Arab Emirates). The garments were made at my mother’s tailoring unit in Dubai,” she says.
She started her first hijab line with the less obvious pieces due to difficulties faced by hijab-wearing women in the United States after the Sept 11 incident.
“I wanted to shatter stereotypes around hijab-wearing women. The first hijab I designed was a ready-made turban, mainly because of the difficulties hijab-wearing women experienced given that hate crimes were rampant those days.
“I started by helping myself first and then helping my friends and the local community who reached out to me for similar reasons.
“It took me until early 2002 to kickstart Rabia Z, one of the earliest e-commerce stores in the world which specialises in modern modest fashion for women. And the rest, as they say, is history,” she adds.
DEFINING ‘MODEST FIT’
Inventing ‘modest fit’ with a high-fashion feel and look was a huge challenge for Rabia Z in the early years. Factories and pattern makers that catered to the mass market did not understand the concept of modest wear for Muslim women at that time, says Rabia.
“Smock dresses and oversized styles were not trendy back then. Working with factories and pattern makers to get the right cut was difficult as they didn’t get the concept behind the loose nature of a normal shirt.
“The use of smart draping to create the ideal high-fashion, modest fit and look posed a challenge too as it had never been done in the industry before.
“But as we got the technical aspects of creating demi-couture ready-to-wear, innovative cuts and draping, it then eventually became a strong part of our brand DNA,” she says.
Another major issue faced by the designer were the sceptics.
“I’ll never forget how many times I was challenged and insulted by people who took offence at the modest fashion concept, especially when I promoted my collections on the runways and purposely put mainstream models in full hijab.
“There were also those who were unconvinced that not showing skin was a beautiful thing in fashion especially on the runways.
“I needed to raise awareness of the importance of empowering hijab-wearing Muslim women at that time. And that was the reason behind the ‘in your face’ attitude of my collections on the runways. I just wanted to make my point clear. But so much has changed since then,” she says.
For Rabia, fashion is both self-expression and a reflection of one’s current mood, with comfort, quality and sustainable materials and styles as essential elements.
“I love the loose and oversized Japanese aesthetic and technical drapery mixed with a high-tailored cut and finish. That is my personal style and Rabia Z’s design aesthetic too.
“As an ethical and sustainable designer, I’m into clothes with breathable and natural fabrics and styles with longer closet life,” says the designer who emphasises the importance of ethical and sustainable fashion especially from an Islamic perspective.
“At Rabia Z, we never produce hijab made of polyester or chiffon (unless pure silk) because the materials are harmful to the scalp and the environment. If I won’t wear it because I know it’s bad for me, I’ll not offer it to customers.
“We’ve always been an ethical brand and sustainable to the best of our ability. We have always worked with breathable, pure and natural fabrics and created designs with a longer shelf life than seasonal trends, right from the brand’s inception.
“It has been easy for us to move more towards sustainability in the last five years, working with sustainable, biodegradable fabrics with no negative impact on the environment or waste. And in our latest collection, Rabia Z x Modanisa, we’ve proven that sustainable pieces at affordable fast fashion prices can be done,” she stresses.
GROOMING FUTURE DESIGNERS
Realising the potential growth of the modest and sustainable fashion industry, Rabia is determined to grow the next generation of entrepreneurs and fashion labels via her online mentorship programme, Modest Fashion Academy.
The academy is part of Rabia Z’s new modest fashion eco-system leadership business model which is aimed at grooming a new generation of fashion labels and businesses to come up with original ideas, authentic brands with differentiation, and be more focused on ethical and sustainable fashion.
“I feel most fashion labels need professional help to build a stronger foundation in order to be taken seriously and create a scalable venture because fashion is serious business, not entertainment.
“It’s a passion of mine to nurture modest fashion labels and entrepreneurs. And so far, it has been a fulfilling experience to give back and see the emergence of amazing designers and fashion entrepreneurs, thanks to the programme.”