Thanks to London College of Fashion graduates Nelly Rose and Odette Steele, the hijab — the head-covering garment worn by some Muslim women and sometimes the subject of controversy — has been given a new lease on life. Though many associate the hijab as symbol of oppression, these designers are making the argument that it is a modern, fashion-forward accessory for the millions of women who choose to wear one. At London Fashion Week in February, the Steele duo, in partnership with Indonesian designer Dian Pelangi (through an initiative with the British Council and LCF), redesigned the hijab, creating pieces that were sensual, high-end, and eclectic. The resulting collection was such a hit that its hijabs landed on the cover of Fashion Utopias, a magazine distributed throughout the capital for the event. And while so many of the articles on display in London were both otherworldly and eye-catching — think high-heeled shoes with platforms made of pencils from Austria and embroidered Ukrainian dresses — these designs went one step further, attempting to turn conventional wisdom on its head and, in a way, question the limitations of this religious and political symbol of modesty.
Following an outing at Jakarta Fashion Week with Pelangi, the London-based duo spent the last two months of 2015 creating the pieces for the exhibition. In total, 24 hijabs were presented between the two cities, all of which made the hijab fashion-forward — so much so that they'd be appealing to women who'd want to wear them for non-religious reasons. They were also, as Steele said, aiming "to challenge global perceptions of modest wear. Regardless of its spiritual significance, this project should also be understood in terms of lifestyle, cultural identity, personal preference, aesthetics, and art." Call it the liberation of the hijab, if you will. “The concept behind the collection was inspired by the coming together of the three of us designers,” Steele tells Refinery29. “I am Zambian, Dian is Indonesian, and Nelly is British. Titled COIDENTITY, we were motivated to focus on the cultural diversities that we individually identify with and to bring them together in order to create a collection that is relatable to every woman in the world. With these cultural, racial, and religious differences, I believe that the result is representative of all three of us — it is beautiful and inclusive of all women." Rose added: “With the concept of this collection, we set out to make the garments relatable to all women. By combining our individual experiences, upbringing, cultures, diversities, and design styles it will, we hope, become identifiable to all or many women around the world.”
By combining their three different cultural and religious backgrounds; Pelangi, for example, wears a hijab for religious purposes, while Steele says she considers a "head wrap [to be] a style essential," as well as something that "[combines] African and British influences and styles." The notion that these pieces are designed with both Muslim and non-Muslim input aims to prove to women that there can actually be a hijab for anyone who is looking to embrace it, not just for devout purposes. Or as Steele puts it, they are simply designers "who are looking at modest wear with new eyes.” Months after their London showing (and rave reviews regarding their progressive vision), Steele and Rose are working to build upon these colorful pieces with an ongoing modest-wear line that includes hijabs for everyone. And given the current fashion climate (with companies like Dolce & Gabbana, H&M, and Uniqlo all catering to Muslim consumers), the timing couldn't be better. But with continued debate over the hijab (why it's worn, should it be allowed in Western countries, and whether it actually helps or hurts oppression when non-Muslims wear one), it may take more than one progressive clothing line to destigmatize the item and make it feel more universal. With this collection and political movements like France's Hijab Day, it's no secret this evolution's momentum has already taken off.