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In Tehran, Islamic Fashionistas Brood Over Chinese Valentino

Friday, Sept. 29, 2006

TEHRAN, Iran -- A battery of flashbulbs pop to the rhythm of a leggy model sashaying down the makeshift quadrangular catwalk, striking a pose for the audience at every corner. Sporting a billowing, Chinese-inspired gown with matching red slippers, her neck and bare feet are covered in artfully wrapped white gauze. Other models exhibit chunky silver jewelry while all wear a uniform black head covering that obscures the eyes. For the men, blindfolds and chest-hugging shirts complement graceful linen waistcoats, cargo pants and accessories.

At the show's conclusion, the designer is escorted out by the models to a storm of applause. But the success of the show does not hide the fact that it has taken place in an underground parking lot specially converted into a catwalk. All female audience-members wear the headscarves and baggy manteaus that Iran's Islamic regulations oblige them to wear in public.

"The best place I could find was this parking (lot)," said Nina Ghafari, the 26-year old Iranian-American designer who came up with the idea for the show. "I tried for a museum and a gallery but I couldn't get permission."

The lower-than-expected turnout of some one hundred guests belies the event's significance. The discreetly-organized fashion show is reportedly the first such mixed-sex event to have taken place in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution led to the overthrow of the Shah's secular dictatorship and his replacement by a theocracy led by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In the cultural crackdown that followed, morality militias set up street checkpoints and admonished or arrested women judged not to be toeing the Islamic line.

Fashion shows in the Islamic Republic are usually closed affairs exclusive to women, where photography is banned. Unlicensed gatherings in which unrelated men and women socialize run the risk of being broken up and participants arrested.

Aware of the risks she was taking but driven by her passion for fashion, Ghaffari organized the show and publicized it through the well-trodden electronic networks of popular websites and email that Iranian youth use for spreading the news about illegal parties, rock concerts and other social events. On occasion, such gatherings are raided by Iran's security forces and guests hauled off for a night or two in prison.

In designing the female line of her collection, Ghaffari took the basic, knee-length manteau worn by most women in public and interpreted it away from its utilitarian role towards a more artistic direction. Covering the models' eyes helped minimize the impact of the head covering and reduced the gender difference.

"I don't know what the penalties are," said Ghaffari about the dangers of being caught. "But if they (the authorities) came in, they would see that my models were more covered up than the people walking outside in the street."

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Looser social rules and dress codes are one of the few legacies left from Iran's once-strong reform movement. In Tehran's traffic-clogged streets, the number of women adhering to the austere uniform of the early days of the Islamic Revolution is decreasing. Young girls wear scarves that showcase rather than cover their luxuriant locks of dyed-blonde hair and opt for figure-hugging jackets that stop just under the waist. The new uniform of Iran's secular urban middle classes is completed by jeans, sandaled feet and painted nails.

"When I used to go to school (in the mid-Eighties), even our socks could not be white," said Alaleh Rahmani, a Tehran-based fashion designer. "They had to be brown, dark blue or black and our teachers would call up our parents if we wore white socks and call them in to take us away."

Accusations of excessive westernization have led conservative politicians to argue for a public dress code that would offer a colorful local alternative to western fashions. At present, traditional Iranian women cover themselves with the chador, a shapeless black garment that obscures all the body except for the face.

"It's more a case of helping Iran's beleaguered textile industry," said Saeed Hadian, an Iranian businessman, of the proposed code. "Turkey and the West have been dictating dress models (to young Iranians) so this is an attempt to find a colorful alternative that will help local factories and at the same time counter bad hijab."

Iran-based civil rights groups warn that the proposed code could be the first step on the slippery slope towards imposing the uniform across the society.

A misreporting of this law by a Canadian newspaper, based on the accusations of Amir Taheri, a member of the exiled Iranian opposition, led to a major controversy in May. Taheri claimed that part of the law would require Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians to wear special insignia identifying them as religious minorities. Echoes of Nazi Germany were invoked before it was established that no such plan was in the works.

At the Ghaem bazaar in North Tehran's bustling Tajrish district, elegant -- mostly female -- shoppers prowled the aisles on the lookout for bargains. Sporting tight rupushes, intense makeup and brightly colored scarves, many of the women stretched the Islamic Republic's clothing restrictions to their seams. This has not escaped the attention of the authorities, who have stationed members of the religious Bassij militias at the mall's major entrances to ensure that the mostly female shoppers are correctly attired. Ever enterprising, many of the teenage girls frequenting the brightly-lit shops on an outing with their boyfriends get around the religious police by entering the mall through an underground gold souk and climbing the internal stairs.

Unlike weapons smuggling, bringing clothes into Iran illegally is a lighter, easier and less risky business. Brought over the mountains on donkey-back from Turkey or by speedboat across the Persian Gulf from Dubai, they are then loaded onto vans and shipped off to the sprawling bazaars of the capital.

"Our lady customers go for dual-use clothes -- the kind they can wear both in the house and at a party," said a trader who identified himself only as Nazeri, in a sign of the fear that exists. "They're very picky: they want the item they buy to be American, to be top-notch quality, original . . . and cheap! Which is why most of the clothes you'll find in this bazaar are fakes from Turkey."

The wealthy female crowd prowling the mall appears as if it is more likely to sneer at than buy the clothes they finger on the displays and racks. Despite suffering from a weak economy, the high end of Iran's consumer market shun Chinese products, whatever their quality, due to a stigma attached to non-electronic Asian goods.

"Iranians have a negative view of China so if they realize that an item they're looking at is Chinese, they won't buy it," said Nazeri. "Good Chinese products don't make it over here because Iranians traders are experts at going abroad, finding cheap textiles which they then bring here and pass off as quality."

Iranian traders get over the public's dislike of Chinese clothes by using industrial staples they buy in Dubai for $10 to attach the labels of well-known brands onto the back of no-brand clothes. They then sell them to Iranian consumers for up to 50 percent higher prices.

"I've had customers come in who liked a top but didn't buy it because it didn't have a brand stuck on the back," said one trader. "Iranian girls are like that, they like to wear brands, even if they're not real."

The Ghaem clothes bazaar's garishly lit vitrines are populated by a bright selection of clothes, mostly smuggled in from the United Arab Emirates and Turkey. What is missing though, are mannequins. In accordance with Islamic law, there can be no uncovered women seen in public, even if they are only made from plastic. Taheri says that mannequins are allowed in downtown but not in more secular northern Tehran.

"There they put chadors on them, here we would decorate them with sexy tops and tight trousers," he said.

But with conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power, there has been a subtle social crackdown that first began in universities and government-affiliated workplaces and is slowly spreading throughout Iranian society. The Bassij religious militia that have been posted at the entrance to the mall are one sign of it.

"Women here (in north Tehran) like to wear daring clothes, something revealing, with a split down the middle," said Nazeri. "Girls in north Tehran go to parties, weddings, they want to wear something sexy, appealing. But women in the south don't have parties to go to, they're religious, they don't buy sexy low-cut dresses."

For Ghaffari, who turns heads when she walks through Tehran wearing her self-designed baggy interpretation of the Islamic hijab, much of her work is more an implicit criticism of middle-class Iranians than of the Islamic regime running the country.

"They don't have a daring streak, they're very conservative," Ghaffari said of her fellow Iranians. "They're always ready to point the finger and make you an outcast. I wanted to do something where everyone would turn around and either hate it or love it."

Iason Athanasiadis is a Tehran-based analyst and writer. He has written for the Christian Science Monitor, the Financial Times, the Sunday Telegraph, and the Guardian, among other publications.