Sewn in Secret : Iranian Designers

Article excerpt

Models strutted down the catwalk in high heels to the blare of Persian pop, while chatty women gawked at wispy dresses showing off shoulders, legs, and arms--sometimes all at once. The fashion show, held in the ballroom of a Tehran apartment complex last month, would be pedestrian in the West. But by just attending the surreptitious event, the 275 women there were committing a crime.

While Iran's strict Islamic dress code requires women to wear the form--hiding manteau overcoat and a hijab that covers the hair, there is a quietly growing demand for homegrown haute couture. Despite an unprecedented security crackdown following the summer's disputed presidential election, a network of high-end underground fashion designers, photographers, and models continue their subversive work, sketching, cutting patterns, conducting fittings, and strutting the catwalk in secret locations. "In the post-election situation, everything has gotten worse," says Hassan Rezaian, a fashion photographer in his mid-20s. "I don't want to call [what we do] protesting, but we are standing our ground." (For security, names have been changed.)

The mere existence of this hidden world of fashion is a slap to the fundamentalist regime. During President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first term, the mullahs tried unsuccessfully to stamp out Western fashion

influences by arresting hundreds of women for wearing manteaus deemed too short, showing too much hair, or even choosing overly colorful dresses. "Those who have indecent appearances are sent by the enemy," declared Ahmadinejad in 2007. Even so, knockoffs of high-end Western imports have been flooding the market, and the government appears increasingly aware that large swaths of the country's youth, raised on satellite TV and the (filtered) Internet, have rejected Islamic dress in favor of tight jeans, low-cut tops, and strapless dresses. Lacking the manpower to crack down on this barrage of Western clothing, authorities have zeroed in on local designers--especially female ones--whom they consider a greater threat to the values of the theocratic regime than racy imports like Victoria's Secret lingerie or Manolo Blahnik pumps.

So local fashionistas have headed underground, working out of private backroom studios and warehouse galleries. Their designs include evening gowns with plunging decolletage and slinky sleeveless blouses banned in public, as well as chic manteaus. "If the government knows an Iranian designer is designing [Westernized] clothes, the problems will start," says Roya Parsa, a designer in her late 20s who organized the ballroom fashion show last month.

She is one of perhaps a dozen top designers in the country, many of whom were trained in the West but ultimately returned to Iran. Her dresses, including classic dresses and wedding gowns, as well as more experimental designs fusing Western and Persian elements, fetch between $2,000 and $6,000, a princely sum only the country's elite can afford. …