An Audrey Hepburn devotee with a soft spot for silk scarves and elegant dresses, Hülya Aslan could well be a contemporary version of her style icon. Aslan is a former editor of Alâ Dergi — a Turkish fashion magazine aimed at Muslim women — who now runs a consultancy for emerging conservative fashion brands. The 29-year-old epitomises a new, and increasingly prominent trend in Turkey: “Muslim chic”.
Aslan is a product of the upper-middle class of Islamic entrepreneurs who emerged when Turkey started to embrace neoliberal economic policies in the 1980s. These “Islamic Calvinists” or “Anatolian tigers” played a part in the Justice and Development (AKP) party’s success, and the 2013 overturning of the secular Turkish state’s ban on wearing the hijab in public institutions.“It’s not that a type of Turkish hijabi woman who enjoys finer things in life didn’t exist before — she was always there, she has just gained confidence and become visible,” says Aslan. “But what didn’t exist until 2010 or so was a supply of Islamic fashion . . . Before the boom in the conservative clothing industry, if a woman wanted to look stylish, she basically had to go to a seamstress.”
As purchasing power, education levels and connectivity rise among Turkey’s conservative circles, hijabi women are increasingly recognised as a profitable demographic. Turkey leads the Islamic clothing market with an annual spending of $39.3bn, according to the 2014-15 State of the Global Islamic Economy report. And in July 2015, Fortune magazine described Muslim women as the “next big untapped fashion market”.
“Now the markets are dominated by the second-generation Anatolian tigers. And there are big differences between them and the first generation,” explains Ercan Uygur, an economics professor at Ankara University and president of the Turkish Economic Association. “The first generation were all about saving. The second generation is more cosmopolitan, educated and innovative. They enjoy spending, too. So mainstream and western brands have been tweaking their catalogues.”
Internationally, DKNY and Mango produced Ramadan collections to exploit the “Ramadan rush” of Muslim shoppers. While high-street brands including Uniqlo and H&M have teamed up with Muslim designers and models to better serve the hijabi shopper.
Luxury brands are also adapting with the needs of hijabi women in mind, offering items such as scarves or long trenchcoats. Earlier this year Dolce & Gabbana boutiques in the Middle East, Paris and London took delivery of the label’s first collection of hijabs and abayas with the brand’s sultry aesthetics. And Valentino’s broad selection of modest, full-length gowns and apparel has contributed to the Qatari-owned house’s booming revenues (reported last month to have been $1bn in 2015, up 48 per cent from 2014).
Furkan Ortakaya of Kayra — one of Turkey’s earliest conservative fashion brands, established by his father in the 1980s — believes that as they become more socially active, the sartorial needs of hijabi women become more complex. “We began our line with basic topcoats and headscarves,” says Ortakaya. “A woman at home all day might not have very complicated fashion needs. But when she works, when she goes to university, she needs other clothes.”
For hijab-wearing Turkish women, the point at which glamour and clothes clash with the principles of Islam differs wildly. “There are people who say we miss the point of wearing a hijab,” says Aslan of the less encouraging comments she’s received on her Instagram account, which has 400,000 followers. “Some say we are sinning and encouraging wastefulness and consumerism.”
“Wearing clothes that reveal the body lines, putting on make-up and spending beyond one’s means not only clashes with Islam but looks odd, too,” says Sema Marasli, an author on Islam and femininity. “That said, it’s a Muslim woman’s religious responsibility to look neat and good. [A woman’s] beauty is an important value for Islam. Prophet Mohammed encouraged women to beautify themselves. But this doesn’t mean excessive make-up or spending thousands on a headscarf.”
“There’s nothing about looking good and being fashionable that clashes with my faith,” says 21-year-old student Kevser Kirdemir. “But people criticise me if I wear lipstick. It seems that when you’re hijabi, people — hijabi or not — feel they can judge you. But hijab isn’t a dress code, it’s a way of living that’s about modesty. A little make-up won’t disrupt that.”
Zehra Birisik, a 23-year-old therapist, loves dressing nicely and sometimes wears heels, but never make-up. “God created each of us beautifully. My hijab is an elegant way of both protecting and showing that beauty. I don’t think we need make-up,” she says. “When people look at a hijabi woman, they just see a single reality. But everyone’s different and there are different manifestations of the hijab way of life.”
“People will talk,” Aslan admits, “but those who say we’re sinning are the ones who want us to just sit at home. “What they don’t see is that many women have become entrepreneurs and contributed to the economy, thanks to the boom in conservative fashion . . . Islamic clothing is now a multi-billion-lira market, with Turkey leading the game.”
Originally published by the Financial Times Weekend Magazine.