“I didn’t expect it to be so noticeable,” Max Mara’s creative director Ian Griffiths says, recalling the time last February when he sent the hijab-wearing model Halima Aden down the autumn/winter 2018 catwalk in a headscarf and one of the brand’s iconic camel coats, prompting a tidalwave of headlines heralding the inclusivity of this gesture towards modesty.
“It seemed so normal, I see women all the time wearing the Max Mara coat with a hijab on Bond Street; it didn’t seem strange. I thought it wouldn’t be noticed,” he shrugs, “But it was, and for the right reasons. I felt a big wave of love come from that, so now we’re sending something back.” Ian is talking to Bazaar ahead of the launch of a capsule collection he has designed, with input from Halima,
to celebrate the brand’s new store in The Dubai Mall’s fashion extension.
The seven pieces – a silk blouse, stretch pencil skirt, straight-leg trousers, camel-hair overcoat, silk headscarf, brooch and T-bar shoes – are a result of the pair’s discussions around Halima’s take on modest dressing. “I’ve learned so much from working with Halima,” Ian explains of the principles of modesty that govern many Muslim women’s approach to fashion. “I’ve learned it’s not some esoteric dress code, it’s about offering women the chance to wear clothes while covering their bodies, not shrouding them. At first you think you have to be so careful and respect the rules, but there aren’t any rules,” he laughs. “We’re not doing traditional dress, we’re looking at new ways of dressing.”
Hence, the skirt and trousers combination allows legs to be covered to high-fashion effect, while avoiding the stricture of tight trousers. “Then you have the overcoat – a man’s overcoat – that gives you a tough, powerful feeling,” Ian adds. It’s all topped off with the headscarf in coordinating monogrammed fabric. “It must be so frustrating to look for hijabs that coordinate with outfits, so we wanted to take care of that,” he smiles.
While the capsule collection is designed for the GCC specifically, Ian believes it has global appeal. “The things that sell there tend to sell everywhere. It’s not just in the Gulf States that most women want to cover their arms; it’s just about everywhere,” he says. “It’s about women preferring to feel comfortable and not wishing to expose themselves. I understand it, as a man.
As a man, you show your face and hands, you don’t expose different parts of your body just because it’s sunny or it’s after 7pm. A lot of women don’t feel comfortable with that. Quite rightly so.” With the Me Too movement prompting us to readdress gendered dressing and the impact of the male – or female – gaze, Ian believes that over his 31 years with Max Mara, women’s attitudes to how much skin they reveal has changed. “Since I started working I’ve noticed how much more covered up women want to be, and that is a consequence of what is happening on a political level,” he says. It’s a mindset that is embedded in the house’s DNA. Think Max Mara and you naturally think of its luxurious camel coats that certainly conceal more than they reveal. “Our best performing category is the coat, and the coat is an empowering thing that covers you up wherever you are,” he agrees.
NIRVANA ABDULRAHMAN ALI ALYOUSAF
Fashion blogger, 33, Yemeni
“I’ve been passionate about fashion for as long as I can remember. We deliver messages through fashion and you are able to express yourself, what you believe in, and relay who you are. It gives you a voice, you know.
I strongly believe fashion should be a personal choice, though I know, until now, that it hasn’t been happening and there are still some restrictions for some people. I hate that the way people choose to express themselves isn’t accepted by other people, because individuality in fashion is essential. For me, fashion is a way to show off my personality. It’s all about who you are, what you love, what you don’t like… Sometimes it’s political views, social views, or cultural views as to what is happening around us. That’s what inspires me, what I feed off. But it’s my culture that influences me the most. Our culture in Saudi is changing right now. It used to be crazy conservative and now it’s opening up slowly. Until now, we haven’t been able to express ourselves fully. There are so many things I have to think about before I put them on my Instagram feed, for example.
We come from a conservative country, which you have to pay attention to, and which naturally influences my style, but now we have our own voices and our own style without breaking the rules. Change is happening and we are all adopting it slowly. I love seeing how it’s empowering women and giving them a voice, allowing us to express ourselves more through fashion. And it’s crazy what’s happening with the abaya right now – the change in colours, the fabrics, the design. Fashion is really rising in Saudi and designers are rising with it. It’s becoming a beautiful industry here in Saudi and I love showing it to people.”
YARA IBRAHIM ALNAMLAH
Make-up artist & influencer, 19, Saudi
“Saudi culture is part of who I am. I’m a Saudi girl and therefore I like to be defined by my country’s style and to wear something that shows how proud I am of my culture. Fashion is a big part of our country, our region, and I like to wear abayas because they represent my country, and they are the identity of our culture. What I love is how amazing abayas are now – they’re more stylish, more colourful... I really love how Arabs think about fashion. The way they dress, it’s so elegant. My own style depends on my mentality and my personality and speaks about the way I think, how creative I am, and my lifestyle. I think every girl should have her own style, her own outfits. You can borrow from different trends but you should always have your own take on them. Fashion is art, and I love everything that represents art. I get truly motivated by seeing different colours around me, and they inspire so much of my world, from my clothes to my make-up. I’m studying architecture, so I also draw inspiration from buildings, as well as old and vintage elements of our culture, such as fabrics and materials. I like to utilise different traditional fabrics because it’s a way to represent my culture and show how proud I am to be Saudi.”
Yara wears: Trousers, Dhs2,070; skirt, Dhs2,070; blouse, Dhs2,950; coat, Dhs11,770; sweater (not part of capsule collection), Dhs1,390; shoes, Dhs2,510; scarf, Dhs1,640; brooch (worn as belt), Dhs1,710, all Max Mara.
For Ian, fashion is about empowering women and offering them clothes, “in which they can be powerful and respected.” He says, “Fashion designers force women into wearing things that are revealing and uncomfortable. I don’t want to do clothes that don’t enable you to feel like you deserve respect. I challenge fashion that makes people feel worse about themselves. There’s a lot of stuff that you covet and you think, ‘Am I thin enough, am I young enough, am I cool enough?’” He is conscious that, thanks to luxury’s segue into the lucrative athleisure market, women are paying sky-high prices for items designed precisely for the thin, young and hip. “Max Mara isn’t cheap, it’s not a charity, but we’re offering customers the chance to buy something that allows you to feel more comfortable with yourself. It improves your self-esteem.” Ian’s deep respect for his customer extends beyond securing commercial success, which goes some way to explaining Max Mara’s enduring appeal and devoted following. “I think of her as being a friend,” he says of the Max Mara woman, “I would never want to make her wear something that makes her feel ridiculous. Sometimes I’m being a little evangelical, but I do feel as though this was a mission, this desire to design something that improves people’s lives in some way.” The clearly considered capsule collection chimes with Ian’s very personal mantra; to wit, “It has some positive benefits for someone somewhere. The hijab is just another element to that.”
It also neatly comes full circle to Ian’s original vision of the Max Mara woman. “I’ve always had this trope of the off-duty movie star with her camel coat and headscarf. She walks into a room and everyone looks at her,” he explains. “She’s totally powerful and in control. That’s the power of Max Mara. It’s the power of camel, too. It’s that kind of discreet luxury and total glamour. But also with
a feeling of real control.”
While the brand has cast off its connotations of being your mother’s staple, it nonetheless retains a sense of womanliness that goes beyond chronological age. “She might be 25 or 70. My mother is 82 and she wears it all the time. The thing they have in common is that they define themselves as women rather than girls. There are probably girls of 65 or 70,
but those aren’t our customers.”
Just as the Max Mara hijab echoes the aesthetic of Ian’s imagined movie star in her headscarf, so the brand’s innate embrace of empowerment and glamour suits this region’s unabashed adoration of opulence. The luxury element is amped up in the capsule collection, with the coat crafted from camel hair and lined in pure silk. The all-camel palette is, according to Ian, “Like a new take on gold; camel is matte gold.”
As Maria Giulia Maramotti, the granddaughter of Max Mara founder Achille Maramotti, tells Bazaar, “Fashion should be about dressing every woman, regardless of the aesthetics that are dictated by the lifestyle they lead or the religion they follow.” Here, Bazaar profiles four women whose own femininity and sense of strength is amplified by this brand that firmly places women at its heart.
Yara and Rafal wear Max Mara’s capsule collection
RAFAL IBRAHIM HABIB
Student & influencer, 17, Saudi
“I wear the hijab, so my style is modest. However, I try as much as I can to have fun with fashion, and to stay on top of trends that suit my body and suit who I am. Fashion has given me a voice, because what you wear says so much about who you are. I’m a very outgoing person, I’m an extrovert, which you can see through the colours I wear and my accessories and how I dress my clothes up. I think fashion is a very personal choice – some people might choose a white abaya, some might choose a black abaya. And even these very small details say something about their personal choices. I come from an Egyptian mother and Saudi father, so that combination is really interesting. From my mother’s side I have this very historical Egyptian style, and then from my Saudi side you can see the very Arabic, Middle Eastern influence in how I dress. Both cultures are really developing and fashion plays a really big role. Since fashion is constantly changing with all these new trends, these trends actually affect the country, so it affects politics… whether it’s the abaya or how people think. I get inspired by what pushes our boundaries forward and what makes our world develop even further. I think the most important thing is to think out of the box, push your limits and step out of your comfort zone. I’m an individual who loves to express the vibe around me. Every country has these very specific cultural identities and I truly love to portray them in my fashion and style, depending on where I am in the world. It’s my own style, yet embodying the culture around me. In that way, fashion is an art form. It truly says so much about who you are.”
Influencer, 29, American/Lebanese
“Fashion is not just about the clothes you’re wearing, it’s about the message. So every time you see a picture that is about fashion, it’s not actually about the bag or shoes, it’s about a message that [the brand] is trying to portray. I like to influence people, and fashion has given me a voice to inspire people and raise certain matters, not only about fashion, but about women and culture too. I think fashion has also really helped me to find myself, because I’m not the same person I was five or 10 years ago. If I’m happy or sad, if I’m going through something, fashion is always there as a way of expressing things that I’m going through. I wouldn’t say I ‘use’ fashion, more that it’s become a part of my life – my lifestyle, my living, my raising my daughter. It’s something that’s become very natural that goes into everything I do, even cooking or setting a table. But it shouldn’t be like a book or dictionary, A, B, C... I think every woman, every man, should decide how they want to express themselves.
My country, Lebanon, is the heart of fashion for the Middle East, and you have this beautiful mixture of European and Arab influences. We are the country that can express itself the most in fashion. But fashion doesn’t play a role in my cultural identity; it never did. I was brought up in a very open-minded family, but I was sometimes criticised by people from other countries for wearing something or posting a picture in a crop top. But I like to dress that way, I always have, so why should I change? I would call my style androgynous, simple and, at times, romantic. I like to keep it simple as much as I can, because the more simple the outfit, the more you stand out.”
From the October 2018 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia
Photography by ZIGA MIHELCIC