Monday, October 31, 2011

Our interview with Today's Zaman

We were recently feautured in Today's Zaman. The same interview was also published in Zaman Weekly US, if you're subscribed to that you probably already read it :-)

Fashion designer Elif Kavakçı: Nothing is more elegant or stylish than conservative clothes

27 October 2011, Thursday / LILIYA NIGMATULLINA,

Can a Muslim woman dress with a great sense of style and elegance, yet remain modest and comfortable in what she is wearing? Some people may think these qualities are difficult to combine into Islamic-style clothing, yet there are many people who prove the opposite. Fashion designer Elif Kavakçı is one of these people. With her unique taste and great sense of creativity, she designs clothing that offers modesty, class and comfort all at the same time.

First of all, let me tell you about her background. Elif Kavakçı was born in Ankara, was raised in Texas and currently lives in New York City. Elif comes from a family of Turkish professors who moved to the US from Turkey in 1988 due to the hijab ban. Inspired by a desire to show the true image of American Muslim women, she established her own fashion label, Kavakcı Couture, which features Islamic-style clothing. Elif is an inventor of Comfijab, a comfortable and stylish head cover for modern Muslim women. Elif is also a writer for several Turkish media outlets and the editor-in-chief of a popular blog at I spoke with Elif to learn more about her style, her work and her journey to become a fashion designer.

What motivated you to become a fashion designer?

My mom and my older sisters had great style. My mom, being one of the few hijabis of her time, dressed very chicly and modestly at the same time. I think I genetically inherited her sense of style. The day we moved to the US, I decided to start wearing hijab. Since I was the only Muslim girl at school and I stood out, I wanted to make sure that I looked very nice. I was also active in sports. I was on the volleyball and basketball teams. Therefore, I needed to find my own style that was both Islamic and practical. During this process I came up with unique looks that became my signature style. I first studied business administration in university. After completing my degree, I decided to take fashion design classes to pursue fashion.

How and when did you establish Kavakcı Couture?

Our Kavakcı Couture label emerged in 2007 as a result of a fashion show request. A nonprofit organization named Peacemakers Incorporated asked me if I would do a fashion show to fundraise for their organization. I gladly accepted and started working on a unique collection we named ‘Covered in Style.' This was a great opportunity for me to show the real face and image of American Muslim women from the community. Because the media always portrays such a negative image of hijabis, I felt that we have to do our best to fight that image and correct that perception. Our fashion show was unique in the sense that we chose Muslim women from all over the US to present our clothes. In the printed program we listed the names and occupations of the models. Our guests said that they loved the fact that these were actual people from the community and they could make a connection with them. It made the show more genuine and real.

What difficulties and challenges have you faced in your journey to become a fashion designer?

Each and every field in life has its own challenges. When you compare designing Islamic apparel to women's wear in general, it's a lot more time consuming and costly. For a designer to only buy fabric that barely covers their customer's body versus having to buy fabric to cover your customer from head to toe is twice the cost. Labor is also twice as expensive because the latter takes up more time. Designing couture also has its challenges. The fact that you are not buying the fabric wholesale and producing thousands of the same items makes production pricey.

Another personal challenge is the fact that the fabric and the designs are US-based and our clothes are made in Turkey. Our customers are in the US and in Turkey, so there is all this going back and forth versus having everything produced in the same city.

What is the style of Kavakcı Couture? Do you use ethnic Turkish or Ottoman motives in your designs?

I think the Kavakcı Couture woman is a confident hijabi who is often in the public eye, and as a full time PR for Islam, needs to look stylish, elegant and presentable at the same time.

As any Turkish-born designer, my designs are often Ottoman-influenced, yet are not limited to it. I think my designs are often a mirror image of my personal style and a vision of what hijab should look like in the present day and age.

Do you have any famous fashion designers whose works and styles particularly inspire you and affect your work?

There are many designers whose work I like, but none of them influence me or inspire me because they are not Islamic fashion designers.

Can you tell me about any fashion shows you have organized? What were people's reactions to and impressions of your work?

We presented the "Covered in Style" collection at three different shows in Dallas to three different audiences. The audiences were made up of mostly non-Muslims. We got great feedback. It was very touching to hear several of the guests say they loved our collection and could see themselves wearing it.

We were recently featured on BBC World's "American Muslim: Faith, Fear and Freedom." For the filming of the show, we did a photo shoot with two models wearing our designs at Columbus Circle in Manhattan. The photo shoot took place on a Saturday. There was a great crowd and almost everyone that walked by told us they loved our designs. We have just recently signed on with a popular website that will carry our Comfijabs, to be sold in Turkey.

What are your current and future projects and plans?

We are currently working on a collection for a designer store in Turkey. We are also working on a somewhat out-of-the-ordinary collection for hijabis. This particular collection was inspired by our childhood favorites and is called "Cupcakes & Tutus." I think this is going to be one of the most interesting mini collections that we have designed.

We are also planning on doing a photo shoot in Turkey with our spring/summer collection for a well-known magazine.

What is the Comfijab and what makes it different and special?

The Comfijab, which is short for ‘comfortable hijab,' was invented through a design process. As a young girl who started to wear hijab, I often had difficulty keeping a silk scarf still on my head. I would have to iron it each time I put it on, stabilize it with a safety pin and tie it to make sure it didn't move. I was active in sports and didn't want my scarf to keep moving around every time I jumped or ran.

With our first collection, we designed the first-ever Islamic equestrian outfit. As an equestrienne, I needed a hijab that would stay put on the back of a horse cantering at great speed and still not be affected by the wind blowing at a great speed. [Through] a long process, we tested the Comfijab in different sports to see if it stayed put and did not move an inch. We designed it so that putting hijab on is not time consuming. For example, the Comfijab doesn't require ironing. It is not made of slippery fabric and therefore does not require a headband or a bonnet to be worn inside. It does not need a safety pin. It can be put on in 10 seconds and looks extremely stylish. We chose a fabric that is washable and dryable. We basically minimized the time it takes for a hijabi to put her hijab on and walk out the door.

What do you think of today's Islamic fashion industry? Do you think it meets the desires and needs of modern Muslim women?

I think the Islamic fashion industry has come a long way from what it used to be. Back when my mother wore hijab, there weren't any stores she could walk into and purchase hijabs. She and the hijabis of the time had to buy fabric and make it themselves. Later on, a well-known, higher-end store saw that there was a great market for hijabs and took the opportunity and all the women wore their [the high-end store's] hijabs. Finally, a religious man who owned a textile company decided to start producing hijabs and they became the leader in the market. Now there are so many that I can't even remember all their names.

I think the current Islamic women's apparel stores provide a variety of Islamic clothing for women. However, it would be a wrong statement to say that they meet all the needs of the modern Muslim woman. There is still a lot of work to be done in this field.

What advice would you give to anyone who dreams of becoming a designer of Islamic-style clothing?

If someone is interested in becoming a designer, and they know they have … talent, I think they first need to get their degree. They need to be aware that having a talent for fashion is not enough. Fashion design is actually a very difficult field and is not as fun as it seems. It requires much more time than other fields. I can tell them from experience because I personally think getting a business administration degree was a piece of cake compared to design classes. It's physically very demanding.

After completing their degree, I think they need to gain some experience by interning or working with someone in the field.

What advice would you give to women who wish to dress modestly yet remain stylish, elegant and comfortable in what they wear?

I think there is nothing more elegant or stylish than wearing conservative clothes. It can take a woman from looking cheap to classy instantly. Picture a woman in a tank top, torn mini denim shorts and flip-flops. Put the same woman in a long, maxi black dress. I think it's the whole package of the clothes that one wears and how they carry themselves.

Some people think that women lose a part of their freedom when they are covered. What would you say about this?

I could write a book on the subject. I would say that it's absolutely the opposite. I think when a woman controls what she shows and shares with the public -- that is her freedom. When she chooses to act based on what society thinks is the norm, she is a slave of her culture and her surroundings and is no longer free. On the other hand, a hijabi is clear in her message. She is saying, "I have control over my body and it's my choice."

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