by Demi Rosseau

In the sphere of Philippine fashion industry, only 2% are females; who are considered to be actively designing. Whether it is the fashion schools, theaters, pageantry, runway events and wherever fashion is involved, the male designers seem to dominate and outnumber the females. This is no surprise. If we refer to the demographics of all artistic talents in the Philippines, the main participants are mostly males

For many female designers, the market is tough and competitive. This can be true elsewhere not only in the Philippines. The fact is that the global scale of female designers are only about 40.2 percent. Just think about names such as Valentino Garavani, Paul Poiret, Cristobal Balenciaga, Guccio Gucci, Tommy Hilfiger, Oscar dela Renta, Gianni Versace, Hubert de Givenchy, Emilio Pucci, Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Zuhair Murad, Elie Saab, Ziad Nakad, Louis Vuitton, Tom Ford, Ralph Lauren, Pierre Cardin, so on. You have to be a revolutionary like Coco Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin or Elsa Schiaparelli or as awesome as the likes of Miuccia Prada and Reem Accra or be a daughter of one of the Beatles like Stella McCartney, to be able to hop on the train. Even if there was Madamme Vionnet or Madamme Gres, but it was Charles Frederick Worth who revolutionize the fashion industry to be called the Father of haute couture.

But what if you are not only a female, but also a Muslim? What are the challenges for a female practicing Muslim designer in male- dominated industry in a non-Muslim country such as Philippines?

The situation might be easier for a non- practicing Muslim because she can go out and socialize with her fellows just like anybody else. But for someone who wears hijab, socializing with fellows from the industry will be a bit awkward. It would be improper for a hijabi to be sitting in a largely male entourage in an environment inconducive to her spiritual and moral needs. Let’s honestly talk about it.

Firstly, albeit Philippines being a champion of democracy, the majority of the population who identifies themselves as liberal, still views Islam and Muslims as exclusive members of their society and outsiders. We give credit to the recent President Rodrigo Duterte who integrated Filipino Muslims into the society and supported their plight since the day he took office . Secondly, non- Muslims see Islam as an institution who are defiant of their values- this alone can already create an atmosphere of antipathy. Considering that this industry demands connection and network. Imagine if someone walks in a clothing shop owned by a hijab-wearing Muslim for the first time, the first question that will pop out would be “Will she understand our fashion?”. Like in other westernized countries, the more skin, the better. This is why in the Philippines fashion industry, we have not heard of a Muslim yet who made it as a household name. Although a few years back, a hijab-wearing contestant made it to the Project Runway Season 3. That was perhaps the first time a fashion designer from among the Muslims came forward to an event like this.

Hers Laha abaya with inaul accents (Photo by Hers Laha)

It is not easy to pursue a fashion career especially if you are a Muslim in a non- Muslim country. But for famous brands like Hers Laha and Hilya Signorina which are owned by Muslim-born female designers in the Muslim dominated areas such as Davao and Zamboanga, the chances are good. But even for Hers Laha, being born and raised in a different country, coming back to Philippines to pursue her fashion career was a struggles at first. She felt alienated.

The market is ready and there are not many female designers out there. But of course, you have to be as good as them to be able to stand out in the crowd. Being a born- Muslim has its own advantage even if one is outside Mindanao, just like Monisa Modesty or Yuyu Clothing who are both based in Manila. Network and community connections plays a vital role in growing the number of consumers. Monisa is just one of those start-up brands who started selling scarves to a group of friends in 2015 until she gathered enough loyal customers to help her distribute products nationwide. Yuyu Clothing shares the same experience by selling to friends in the community initially until they reached every Muslim client in the country.

But do Muslim converts in a non- Muslim society share the same advantage as the above-mentioned? Probably not. For designers like the owner of Bridals by Iman- Iman Joean Montayre, for example, to be a designer from outside the Muslim nobility can be challenging even if she had been a designer for 10 years when she converted. Being a convert from Christianity to Islam, she instantly became an outsider to both communities the moment she starts wearing hijab.

“I lost my privilege the moment I started looking like a Muslim, but it didn’t last for long. The first year was hard because my clients and friends were still in the shocked state, and it’s understandable. But after a while, they accepted me for who I became. I think, I am blessed to have been surrounded by good friends who believes in me. .”

Iman thinks that her network of friends (pre- conversion), helped her pushed her brand’s success. Being the only Muslim designer in Cebu patronized by non-Muslims sounds fancy but there are conflicting ideas she have to deal with all the time, especially if its her religious principles and the business.

Iman Montayre wedding gown (photo courtesy of Bridals by Iman)

For years, she had been trying to shift to the modest market which was the original idea of her brand; which she started since 2007, which came to a halt in 2009 due to the global recession. The demand of modest fashion back then is not comparable to the market which is now.

Since its influence in the social media, modest fashion is no longer considered a niche market especially if fashion icons like Dolce and Gabbana, Dior, Oscar de la Renta, Tory Burch joins the bandwagon, who in the last two years includes covered women in their fashion shows.

For fashion designer like Iman, Hers Laha or Hilya Signorina, the future surely looks promising . There is much to see from female designers and we need more of them. Especially, from the muslims.

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