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San Francisco’s de Young Museum celebrates Burgeoning modest fashion

By Justine Browning

Sep 28, 2018


San Francisco ’s de Young Museum has opened the first major exhibit to highlight the growing modest fashion market. Contemporary Muslim Fashions explores the evolution of dress throughout the Muslim world with clothing displays, video installations and photography. There are also creations from both emerging and established designers featured as part of the event, which runs until January 2019.

FashionUnited had the chance to speak with Laura L. Camerlengo, Associate Curator of Costume and Textiles at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, about the showcase, its development, cross-cultural significance and how it serves as a step forward both in terms of the fashion world and culturally.

Why was Contemporary Muslim Fashion important to feature and what is the message of the exhibition?

Museums are not polemic environments; rather they are spaces that encourage discourse through the framework of their exhibitions. We felt the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) was an ideal venue to explore this topic for several reasons; the Museums not only has a strong history of critically-acclaimed fashion exhibitions but a costume and textiles collection rich in artworks from Muslim-majority cultures and is situated in an area with a sizable Muslim audience.

Contemporary Muslim Fashions focuses on various corners of the globe where designers are creating, and consumers are wearing, highly fashionable garments that adhere to individual concerns for modesty and related aspects of Muslim religious cultures. In the exhibition, the parameters of modesty are defined by the individual.

How did you develop the exhibition in terms of choosing what designs to feature and securing all of the items for display?

As Islam is a global religion, we have endeavored to take a broad approach to the exhibition topic, and looked for participants across the burgeoning modest fashion scene. It would be impossible to cover the total breadth of these developments, so we have focused on areas of the world where there have been major creative developments in these designs in recent years, including the Middle East, Malaysia, Indonesia, and among diasporic communities in the United States and Europe. My co-curator Jill D’Alessandro, Curator in Charge of Costume and Textile Arts, and I traveled throughout the Bay Area, as well as to New York; Jill also traveled abroad to Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and London. We conducted interviews and toured the studios of many designers featured in the exhibition. We also followed both national and international developments in the modest fashion industry, and reached out to designers via the Internet. We engaged them in dialogue, shared the concept of our exhibition, and asked them to submit their portfolios. As word of this project spread, we received support from prominent style arbiters, with loans of personal haute couture, as well.

As more designers begin to cater to the type of dress favored by the modest dressing Muslim community, what is your take on the current state of Muslim women's fashion in general?

In the past decade, modest fashion has become one of the most pervasive international fashion stories, with innumerable articles illustrating the diversity of modest fashion styles around the world. The world’s awakening to the size of Muslim spending power has triggered the interest of many major Western retailers, but it has also given prominence to the work of emerging and established Muslim international fashion designers, many of whom are featured in our exhibition. Contemporary Muslim Fashions aims to provide a snapshot of the current modest Muslim fashion moment; as this sector continues to rapidly grow and change, it will be exciting to see where it goes next.

How do you hope to shape or reshape views on modest fashion for both consumers and retailers?

We hope audiences will appreciate the breadth and diversity of Muslim modest fashions, as well as the artistry and creativity of the designers.

What do you feel the role of textile arts and fashion exhibits is today? How do they provide a cultural and historical window that goes beyond clothing?

We hope that the exhibition will serve as a reminder that fashion and dress have long been interpolators of religious and cultural affiliation, and that this tradition continues today as well.

Photos: de Young Museum