BY ZAHRA AHMED
At Cut Fabric Inc. in the Garment District, fashion designer Nailah Lymus weaves her way through a slew of fabric rolls – emerald, fuchsia, turquoise and kaleidoscopic patterns of vibrant colors, animal prints and geometric shapes – piled on top of each other, crammed into shelves that nearly reach the store’s ceiling.
Lymus is designing a long, loose dress called a kaftan for her friend and current client Merazh Roberts. Roberts, who finds a collection of several bold fabric swatches at one end of a shelf, flips through them and finds what she’s looking for. It’s stretchy, mottled with neon colors and definitely eye-catching.
“This is so me,” said Roberts, who likes mixing vibrant colors into her outfits.
“That’s you all the way,” Lymus said, walking towards Roberts’ find, the winner in a sea of multicolor. “Nobody would have that.”
Lymus approaches style as she does friendship – she likes it personal and one-of-a-kind. At the moment, she’s wearing a black dress fringed at the bottom, flared black pants, a houndstooth trench coat cinched at the waist with a thick black belt and a rhinestone-bejeweled nose ring that drapes and connects to her ear. She wears a hijab, too.
The 30-year-old Muslim Brooklynite was born to African American parents who converted to Islam before she was born. When she was growing up, she found ways to express her personal style within the boundaries of Islam’s modest dress code.
Since New York Fashion Week in 2012, Lymus has found an avenue to feed other women’s desire to be devoted to their faith and to also dress well. In addition to being a single mother and teacher, Lymus has her own modeling agency called UNDERWRAPS and a clothing line open to women who are Muslim or prefer to dress modestly. She said it’s the first of its kind in the U.S. The only other Muslim female modeling agency is in the U.K.
To others, being a devout Muslim woman and having an expressive, confident and fun fashion sense are mutually exclusive concepts. Fueled by Iran’s strictures on female clothing, the most common stereotype that follows a modest Muslim woman is the image of a woman clad in black, exposing only her face, hands and feet. She’s perceived as docile, submissive and plain.
Lymus is everything but. Her vibrant style, genial personality and warm smile was in stark contrast to the oak desk and pale walls that make up her teaching office in Brooklyn’s Stuyvesant Heights, where historic brownstones and mosques exist within blocks of each other.
Her office is a separate building down the street from Clara Muhammad School of Masjid Khalifa, where she teaches first grade. When she arrives just after school, she’s wearing minimal makeup – a teacher-appropriate look. But Lymus likes bright colors and bold makeup: jet-black winged eyeliner and an orchid purple lip color she paints on completes the look.
Lymus has been covering her hair since she was four years old. Back then she used to leave her bangs out or clip them back with a beret to add a little flair.
“I’ve always been into fashion,” she said. “I would show just a little bit of hair so I could get into gradually wanting to wear [a hijab].”
Though the way she ties her headscarf now exposes only her face, Lymus – who said hijabs are versatile and not as fussy or time-consuming as styling hair – continues to merge her fashion sense with her faith.
“There are jewels on this!” she said, excitedly pointing to her head, her brown almond-shaped eyes widening. “You can’t do this with hair!”
Lymus’ agency signs female models of all faiths, including hijabis – Muslim women who obey modest Islamic dress code by wearing a headscarf. For those who choose to dress modestly, it’s difficult to find a place in the fashion industry that may require models to wear skin-revealing or body-hugging apparel.
Head wraps and turbans have become a trend outside of the Muslim female community in the last couple of years, but these only partially cover hair and aren’t necessarily tied to religious or cultural tradition. Still, Lymus said that it helps hijabs make a “large jump towards becoming fashionable” for Muslim women who wear them. Established fashion designers, such as Armani Privé, Derek Lam and Moschino, featured models wearing turbans or head wraps for their Spring 2014 shows.
One would be hard-pressed to find a modestly dressed model walking those runways, but UNDERWRAPS gives aspiring Muslim models the opportunity to bring their fashion sense to the catwalk while preserving their faith. The agency currently has eight models, Muslim and non-Muslim.
“I met other Muslim women who would want to model but because of religious guidelines, it was kind of like a dream deferred,” said Lymus. “You have to have someone who’s going to advocate for you.”
Model Hana Malik, 16, joined UNDERWRAPS because she doesn’t have to sacrifice her beliefs while trying to fulfill her aspirations. For UNDERWRAPS’ modest models like Malik, choosing to cover themselves isn’t just a religious-inspired choice; it gives them a sense of empowerment.
“It’s about conveying a certain message,” said Malik, who doesn’t wear a hijab, but covers her arms and legs as a modest model. “I’m covering myself for the sake of valuing things other than my physical beauty.”
Hijabi Mu’minah Qadar, 30, said she started “consciously and consistently covering” up when she was 18 to distinguish herself from everyone else in West Harlem, where she grew up.
“It was about identifying myself as a woman of faith,” she said.
For her, dressing modestly was also an issue of safety. Before she began wearing a hijab, she received a lot of unwanted and inappropriate attention from men, having a man once trap her in an aisle at a grocery store before her father was able to run him off. Now, things are different.
“When I started wearing hijab, people were more respectful,” Qadar said. “Men would feel like they had to protect you. A lot of African Americans have respect for the lifestyle they perceive black Muslims to have.”
UNDERWRAPS models Hana Malik, left, and Mu'minah Qadar, right, are Muslim. Malik models Lymus' modest wear while Qadar models Muslim wear.
Qadar said wearing a hijab makes her feel stronger and more ladylike.
“There’s an appreciation for womanhood, and modest clothing is beautiful way of expressing elegance and femininity.”
Lymus’ gets her inspiration from 1920s to 1950s American elegance, when women wore fascinators, gloves and fuller skirts and dresses that nipped at the waist.
“It was modest and still stylish and feminine,” Lymus said of the era. “Everything about the way they dressed and carried themselves had me sold.”
She likes the idea of loose-fitting, flowy clothes that are still ladylike – a preference she shares with Roberts.
“You can wear the dress with a belt and it will shows some of your shape, but doesn’t expose too much,” said Roberts, who is Christian and also likes to dress modestly. “I love to celebrate your unique self and [Nailah] does the same thing.”
Roberts said she clicked with Lymus as soon as they met. “I love her designs and what she does, so I had to get her to make a piece for me.”
Cut Fabric Inc. in the Garment District offers a variety of textures, prints and colors.
Lymus is a drapery designer, pinning fabrics onto a mannequin to design a garment. Once she has laid out the fabric how she wants, she takes it off the mannequin and sews the first one herself before sending it off to another seamstress to make more.
“I’ve always been very creative and into the arts,” said Lymus, a self-taught seamstress, said. “Anything I can manipulate with my hands, I just love it.”
When she was seven, Lymus handmade jewelry and collectively named it Amirah Creations. But she realized she wanted to become a fashion designer at her high school fashion show, where she participated as a student designer. After she showcased her clothes – revamps of more revealing garments – women young and old asked if they could put in orders.
While Lymus’ style may have evolved since then, the name Amirah (Arabic for “inner beauty”) stuck and it now represents her transitional fashion line made for women of all faiths. The line includes conventional sleeveless and short dresses, but women have the option to layer more skin-revealing pieces with Lymus’ other garments to meet, or transition into, a modest dress code.
The way Muslim women tie their hijabs ranges from loosely wrapping it around their head to tying it up into a turban. To show how adaptable hijabs can be with various outfits, Lymus said she never duplicates hijab styles among her Muslim models. She showed for New York Fashion Week last September. It was the first time she mixed regular, modest and Muslim models.
Lymus said she would someday like to go international with her agency, which currently has eight American models. Though she doesn’t have the funds to do so, she said there has been a lot of interest from international models wanting to work in the U.S., particularly women in Indonesia who tend to “put Americans to shame” with their hijab fashion.
Within the international hijabi community, modest fashion has gained popularity. In Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, the hijab has become another outfit-enhancing accessory.
Since last September, Detroit-based fashion photographer Langston Hues has been photographing Muslim women – hijabi and not – around the world.
“I’m capturing this [fashion] genre known as modest street fashion and they all happen to be female,” said Hues. “These women are finding ways to express themselves with things they like.”
Hues uses Instagram, the popular smartphone app that allows users to share pictures with anyone on social media. A quick scroll through his posted pictures shows many Muslim women veer far from traditional black. Instead, women sport rich colors like sapphire and oxblood or pastels like raspberry, coral and chartreuse.
Modest Street Fashion
Photographer Langston Hues' book, "Modest Street Fashion," which showcases Muslim style around the world, is slated to come out by the end of this year.
Hues plans to launch his photography book, “Modest Street Fashion,” by the end of this year. He said he hopes the book will make his photographs, which are only online and on social media right now, be “tangible and timeless.” He’s currently working on adding photographs of Muslim women from Los Angeles, Montreal and South Africa.
For Lymus, familiarizing people with hijab style helps women embrace their identity through fashion. She uses her design skills and agency to help women own their unique sense of style, whether that means bearing some skin, completely covering up or somewhere in between.
Lymus hopes the concept of women covering their hair will be perceived positively, ultimately hoping to breakdown the stereotype of the Muslim woman who always wears the plain black headscarf.
“I hope to establish a stationary niche,” said Lymus. “I want to bring a new concept to the fashion industry, but it has to be executed in a creative way. I don’t want to let it just be this whimsical thing, but let it be a staple.”