Wednesday 24 March 2010

Muslim fashion label conquers streets of Europe

WITTEN, Germany — T-shirts and hoodies declare "Terrorism has no religion." A head-covering tunic bears the message: "Hijab. My right. My choice. My life."

A German fashion label is out to tell the world that Islam isn't just compatible with Western values of tolerance and free expression — it can be hip, too.

The project was born in 2006 as Muslim mobs rampaged across Europe against Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Designer Melih Kesmen became fed up with the anti-Muslim stereotypes that sprang up over the protests as well as the rioters' attempts to stifle free speech.

So Kesmen, a practicing Muslim born and raised in Germany to Turkish parents, decided to express his feelings through fashion.

"I first created a sweater just for myself with the slogan 'I love my Prophet' to take a stand as a peace-loving, tolerant Muslim," said the 34-year-old designer, sporting designer glasses and a black goatee.

The reaction was huge: People kept stopping him in the street to ask where he had found the top.

Kesmen quickly realized he'd found a market gap.

Together with his wife, Yeliz, he set out to create Style Islam, a brand of hip, casual clothing with Islamic-themed sayings as its focus.

More than three years on, Style Islam offers 35 different motifs that playfully merge Islam and pop culture. Besides clothing, their collection also features bags and posters.

"Women love buying rompers with the writing "Mini Muslim" across their chest,'" said Yeliz Kesmen, 30, who wears a brown hijab, or headscarf, and silver nose stud.

On its Web site, Style Islam's creators explain every motif they sell.

For hijabs they write: "In today's society, it is not easy for a woman to wear a headscarf. Often she is exposed to discrimination and prejudice ... even though from an Islamic point of view, the headscarf is a symbol for women's liberation from society's constraints."

Above all, the brand strives to spread a message of tolerance. One design reads: "Jesus & Muhammad/ Brothers in Faith."

Cotton T-shirts sell for just under euro20 ($27), laptop bags and hooded long-sleeve shirts go for around euro35 ($47). Style Islam also offers key chains featuring praying, covered-up Muslim girls.

Through the Internet, the company sells its clothes across western Europe, the U.S., Canada and Turkey. The next target market is the Middle East.

"We're ... getting a lot of requests from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates or Morocco," Kesmen said in his sleek white office in Witten, a town nestled in a western region known more for its steel mills than avant-garde fashion.

"They all want to buy our products, but we simply haven't built up the infrastructure yet to ship to the Arab world."

Currently the label sells thousands of items each month and has a team of seven designers, according to Kesmen.

Exact sales figures have not been released. But Kesmen says sales growth has prompted plans for a brick-and-mortar store in Berlin, with other locations likely.

Both Melih and Yeliz studied graphic design and worked in advertising before they founded Style Islam. Like her husband, Yeliz was born to Turkish immigrant parents who came to Germany in the 1960s as so-called guest workers.

Kesmen said he's approaching his work from a European point of view.

"First and foremost we're European Muslims. We were born here and we're at home here," said Kesmen. "When we go to Turkey, we're strangers. They call us the German Turks over there."

Kesmen says that Style Islam's key buyers are young Muslim immigrants, typically between 17 and 35 years-old. Their street wear is proving especially popular among university students.

"We want to give people food for thought with our clothes and signal that it's not a contradiction to be a practicing Muslim and to be modern, witty and critical at the same time," he said.

Not everyone agrees. The company gets mail decrying its use of Islamic-themed sayings and symbols, typically from devout Muslims who say the fashion label does not promote the seriousness of the faith.

Kesmen said they don't aim to offend. There are no T-shirts bearing images of Muhammad, for example, but the brand don't shy away from controversy, either. One shirt bears the legend "Gaza Stop the Killing Now" with a bloody palm print in red.

Abbas Schulz, a young imam from Berlin, has no problem with Style Islam's religious messages.

"Friends told me about it and I right away ordered a black 'I Love My Prophet' hoodie," Schulz told the AP. "I like the message and the oriental design looks really pretty."


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