Devout, Yet Fashionable: A Designer Who Modernizes Islamic DressPublished January 22, 2013 in Arabic Knowledge@Wharton
Unlike most little girls, Dana Al Taji didn't want to buy new dresses for her Barbie dolls. Instead, Al Taji would eagerly await her mother's return from visits with the tailor, snatching scraps of fabric. From that cast-off material, she created sundry outfits and ensembles for her dolls.
This passion matured into the keen interest she expressed in her own clothing and later a fashion design course she took at a university. But when she made the choice to wear the full-covering abaya (a draping dress that encloses the body, which is paired with a matching headscarf) full-time, she hit a snag: "I couldn't find something that suited my taste," she says. "So, I wanted to fill that gap where young people that have style wanted to wear something that wasn't totally off of the fashion industry right now, what is trendy and what is stylish, and at the same time it was modest and nice."
Al Taji, who fled with her Palestinian family from Kuwait by car amidst the first Gulf War, founded the Layal line of both couture and affordable abayas, all designed by the precocious doll-dresser. Al Taji first earned a degree in political economy and spent some time as a teacher, her mother's occupation. She then decided to stay at home with her first child, enrolling in fashion and tailoring courses. Starting just a few years ago out of her home, the 29-year-old mother of two now owns a boutique in Cairo, employing retail staff and tailors, and also supplies her products to other shops.
She considers practicality in her garb, as seen in her nursing and pregnancy abayas, as well as high fashion, as exhibited in her eveningwear offerings. In her mind, Al Taji perceives the abaya as a versatile form and her designs, in particular, as fresh for the Egyptian market and unique from what's available in abaya-producing hubs such as the Gulf. She says many of her peers have similarly taken the initiative to start their own small enterprises, learning to be managers and risk-takers in the process.
For her, abayas are more convenient than wearing skirts, which she calls confining. "I can wear pants under and feel free," she says. When she decided to go with the abaya, she searched around Egypt but didn't like what she found. She says they didn't mix colors or fabrics nor had A-line cuts, and instead focused on beading or had slits on the sides with trousers that matched. And generally, the aesthetic associated with abayas here were for middle-aged woman, not those fitting say the younger, fashionable demographic of Al Taji's milieu.
Tailored to taste
She obtained her first abayas from Saudi Arabia that she describes as more colorful. When people traveled to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), she also requested they bring some abayas back for her. "But then again, I'm very picky, so people get me stuff and they're not really my taste," she says. "I went to a few tailors to do my own thing and I started creating my own abayas and then I thought of the business because also my friends were complaining [of] the same problem."
She began to make prototypes and displayed them at her house. She took buyers' measurements and then partnered with a tailor to stitch the abayas. She continued with the custom abaya-making for about three years, and then began to provide some of her wares at her friends' stores. In the meantime, she created a Facebook page with images of the abayas.
Some of her friends were concerned about having a photo shoot with a woman modeling the outfits, but Al Taji thought that as long as the model is covered in an abaya, there's no issue. On her Facebook page, which has almost 6,000 "likes," she posts quotes from fashion greats such as Coco Chanel, Alexander McQueen and Yves Saint Laurent. To become known, she placed advertisements on Facebook, in local publications and in the streets. "It was my friends and then word of mouth made the ripple effect," of her growing recognition, she says.
Sales went well at her friends' stores and she expanded her manufacturing. That success pointed her in the direction of trying it on her own. Her husband, she says, also greatly encouraged her to grow the business. "It's a point in time -- you need to go to the next step. And you need to develop yourself and you need to go out there to other people who haven't discovered you; I mean away from your circle of friends," Al Taji says.
She worked with an interior designer to create the elegant ambience of her store, where racks are lined against the wall with her creations and a contemporary chandelier hangs at the center. She spent money generated from her earlier sales along with some help from her family. There are two women who staff the store, which is open seven days a week, and a handful of tailors who collaborate with her.
Just five days after opening the shop, however, Al Taji says Egypt's 2011 revolution broke out. Reports of vandalism and looting made her wary, so she closed the store, sent her workers home and cleared out all the merchandise. "I was worried sick," she says. Afterward, there was a curious uptick in purchases. "The best sales we got were when [former President Hosni] Mubarak was removed on [February] the 11th. People started buying," she says. She jokes that it was retail therapy. "I think it's all psychological, because when you're happy, you tend to be in the mood for buying." Having weathered difficulties with her business in the country's new era, "I keep praying that Egypt would always stay safe and worry-free."
Chic and devotional
With the recitation of the Quran playing in the background of her shop, Al Taji, who also dons a face-veil, surveys her designs. There's the nursing abaya that comes with a zipper. The maternity look with gathers above the waist. The designer rack features a Burberry-cuffed abaya. Others range from those with a belt featuring an oversized buckle; another Victorian-inspired design with ruffles; one trimmed with a checkered, multicolored pattern; and fancier formal wear studded with Swarovski crystals. A "sporty" abaya with an exposed pocket has been popular with those going on pilgrimage for hajj or umrah. There are bargain abayas for 220 EGP (US$33). And then what she calls the "plain section" of solitary black robes.
There are also shelves of handbags and jewelry and other accessories. One of Al Taji's subtle creations gracefully flows down her tall frame, with puffed sleeves spruced with a dark blue velvet pattern extending from the elbow to wrist, matching her slippers adorned with a similar blue design. (In her own closet, she estimates she has some 50 abayas.) She consults magazines to view what's in style and considers what colors she can integrate into the abaya. And when she's out shopping, she observes how clothes are tailored and what new prints, be it stripes or polka dots, could be embraced. At home, she has drawing boards and "bags and bags and bags of fabric" with which she experiments. "Basically whatever inspires me, I just go around and draw it," she says.
As long as the main idea of the medium is maintained, namely a wide and loose garment that is not see-through, "Why not play around with it?" she asks. Al Taji says her designs "modernize" the abaya. And as someone who wears it regularly, she has an intimate understanding of what works. (She says French designers tried to conjure an abaya, but it was too foreign from their point of reference.) Though, she admits it's a trial-and-error process. "I always think of it as, 'If I can wear it, then people can wear it,'" she says.
That consideration of practicality, she says, differs in orientation from abaya fashion in Dubai, which she says is usually slanted to more glamorous output. In addition, her cuts fit more varied body types. "In Egypt, they like it to be practical. She can wear it going to pick up her kids from school or she can wear it going to work," she says. There's also a class factor in the Egyptian context that she's trying to rectify. The drab abaya is traditionally associated with lower socioeconomic classes, but women from more privileged backgrounds have adopted the dress. "For the upper class it's considered, like, totally off,'" she says, "I try to change that." At the same time, her inventory includes moderately priced, but quality and appealing abayas, reflecting her desire to elevate perceptions around the covering.
Running with the tagline "Cover up in style," Layal customers range in age from about 18 to 45, according to Al Taji, and some have remained faithful to her over the years. Most are from Egypt, though some living in the Emirates and Saudi have bought from her. They include the daily abaya-wearers and those who need it for one-time use or because they're moving to Saudi or someplace where the abaya is the norm. It's rewarding for her when women are motivated to wear the abaya every day after discovering there are chic options, and they see that it doesn't have to be a bland state of being. "I find a lot of people coming in and they're like, 'Oh, God bless you. You're doing a lovely thing. We started wearing abayas because of you. You've encouraged us a lot,'" she says. That's the kind of reaction she gets more than say those who might see her designs as being flashy and contrary to the idea of concealing one's body.
In a way, she views her work as countering societal stereotypes and enabling women to live out their choice. "It's important because it's an image, I think. And when looking at a woman trying to be modest, trying to follow the Islamic rules in a certain way that she sees correct, sometimes people look down at her, 'Oh, you're wearing the same thing every single day. Don't you feel bored? Why are you so oppressed? There are so many different things you can do with your life,'" Al Taji says. "I think I'm giving her a chance to look through her wardrobe and see things that are stylish, that go with the trends out there. She doesn't need to feel any less than any woman wearing anything out there. And she has to feel presentable. You are presenting, you're representing your religion. You chose to dress in a certain way, so let it be nice and trendy and clean and appeal to other people."
As a business owner, Al Taji is preoccupied with her increasing responsibilities, including paying rent and suppliers, training her employees and giving them incentives, monitoring which designs do well and gathering feedback from consumers. From her father, who drove the family from Kuwait to Egypt in 1990, she says she learned about being prompt and fair. "He used to tell us that you need to give people's rights before you do anything," she says.
For now, any profit is reinvested into the business. She continues to buy material herself and work directly with her producers and develop her product line. Others have gotten into the ring, and she faces competition from additional local abaya-makers. Her husband and brother are pushing her to have an official website. Concurrently, her aim to grow as a designer tugs at her and she is taking more fashion design courses and continues to release new collections each season. Her dream, she says, would be to participate in the Dubai Fashion Week's abaya show. "You have to have an edge. You have to play around with fabrics. You have to come around with new ideas all the time, not stay, like, with your old stuff. And you need to always see what people need," Al Taji says.
From the shop, she jumps into her sports utility vehicle, dodging through Cairo's dicey traffic, en route to pick up her daughter from nursery school. Al Taji says her priority has been to her children and home, which made her reluctant at first to move into business, but she now navigates the sea of duties. It's important for a woman not to lose herself, she says. She mentions how so many of her friends have started small-scale business ventures, from baking to clothes. All of which, she asserts, makes her proud.