Fashion Designer Puts a Spin on Tradition


Modest yet trendy designs are her forte. She makes conservative clothing colourful, fun and stylish. Sahar Deshmukh talks to Rabia Zargarpur about the creation of her world-renowned label, Rabia Z.

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Maintaining modesty with style can be a tricky business, but the designs of UAE-based fashion designer Rabia Zargarpur make staying fashionably modest a touch more glamorous.

Rabia donned the hijab while pursuing her studies in the US. This is when she realised the challenges faced by Muslim women in the post-9/11 era, when the hijab became perceived as a symbol of fear. Her response? To design creative outfits for the modern Muslim woman.

Her friends and other members of the Muslim community were so intrigued by Rabia’s style that they approached her to create outfits. This led her to explore the niche market and build on what would eventually become her label, Rabia Z.

‘I noticed that people were curious and I was more approachable, I guess,’ recalls Rabia. ‘So, it kind of became like a conversation piece and just like that I was able to give them this insight on hijab and Muslim women.’

Growing up in the UAE, Rabia designed clothes using her mother’s manufacturing unit. After completing a business degree, she studied fashion in New York. Years of researching and branding later, she created demand for her designs and finally launched her label online in 2007.

A pioneer in conservative-chic clothing, Rabia has collections that consist of colourful abayas and ready-to-wear outfits, including everything from casual to luxurious eveningwear. Her latest designs from the Mukhawara Collection are inspired by the traditional dress, the Mukhawara, influenced by her rich Afghan-Arab heritage.

Her models have walked the ramp of many international fashion shows, wearing the hijab in cities like New York, Miami, London and Milan. Despite receiving tremendous praise for her work, she has also taken the heat from conservative Muslims for being too fashionable.

‘I never called my fashion, “Islamic fashion”. It was the media that started calling it that. I promote modesty,’ explains Rabia. ‘The fact is that we have to live in this life, in this society and in these trying times. Our Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has said to choose moderation and that’s what I see.’

Rabia Z is a popular brand amongst women in Western countries, where modest fashion is still in its infancy. But perhaps surprisingly, shoppers in the Middle East also create plenty of demand for her creations – despite the region’s abundance of choices and labels.

Her garments are often referred to as ‘travel wear’ by Arab women, who while abroad tend to appreciate the blend of Western and Arab influences. Women can slip into a Rabia Z outfit, stay modest and fit in with the crowd.

Rabia is also famous for her duster abayas, which look nothing like the traditional black versions. These remain the top choice amongst women in the Gulf region, and are often ordered in black as a replacement for a regular abaya.

‘When we first launched our [duster] abaya, we were the first to introduce colour and get away from the sequence and crystal,’ Rabia explains. ‘We started to use draping at a time when people were still not doing draping. So we’ve done some innovative designs and concepts even with the abaya.’

She is currently working with fabrics that repel heat – a welcome feature for black abayas. An example is cotton jersey fabric, which will keep her clients cool even in the scorching heat of the Middle East.

Rabia now dreams of a day when her clothing and other similarly modest attire will be available in department stores everywhere. ‘That would just make life so much easier, to just go to your local mall and find a variety of modest clothing that’s fashionable and wearable – and at least make that aspect of their [women’s] lives easier.’


Images courtesy of Rabia Z

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