By and  on June 24, 2009

PARIS — The possibility of a burka ban by the French government met mixed reactions Tuesday from fashion players.

Some — including Marigay McKee, fashion and beauty director at Harrods, owned by Mohamed Al Fayed (who also owns the Ritz hotel in Paris) — believe banning the garment could have a detrimental effect on French business. That could especially be the case for top-end hotels, many of which are owned or frequented by Arabs, and for bastions of the luxury trade.

A large proportion of Harrods’ customers wear burkas. “And we sell a lot of clothes to customers to wear under their burkas. We even make special lightweight clothes for them,” said McKee, who is all for freedom of expression. “At Harrods, we believe people should have freedom of a choice. It’s a religious garment that for a lot of people is sacred…and it’s quite dangerous to become involved in the political angle of it.”

French President Nicholas Sarkozy on Monday said the burka, the traditional Islamic garment worn by women that covers the face entirely, is unwelcome in France. The country’s National Assembly on Tuesday said it has created a commission of 32 deputies to investigate whether women should be allowed to wear burkas. Their report, expected within six months, could ultimately lead to it being banned in public. Under its tradition of laicité (meaning complete separation of religion and the state), France forbade religious symbols, such as headscarves, in schools in 2004.

Decrying the burka as a symbol of subservience, Sarkozy was unequivocal in his support of a ban. “The burka will not be welcome in the territory of the Republic of France,” he declared to the National Assembly. “We cannot accept to have in our country women imprisoned behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity. That is not the idea that the French Republic has of women’s dignity.”

His declaration differs from that of President Obama, however, who during a joint press conference with Sarkozy earlier this month said the basic U.S. attitude is “we’re not going to tell people what to wear.”

Lebanese designer Elie Saab is of the same mind. “One should respect the religion and ways of being of others,” he said. “For me, individuals have the right to total liberty as long as it doesn’t interfere with others.”

Similarly, Zayan Ghandour, co-owner, head buyer and creative director of S*Uce, a four-store fashion chain with locations in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, agreed the burka should be respected as a cultural tradition. “At a time when specific traditions are being lost to globalization, it seems unnecessary to ban it,” she said.

“France has accepted people from different countries and backgrounds; they should also be allowed to practice what they believe in,” continued Dubai-born handbag and shoe designer Zufi Alexander. “If a sheikh or a princess comes to France and wants to wear her burka and wants to go to spend 100,000 euros [or $140,850 at current exchange] in, say, Louis Vuitton, would Paris like to stop her? I don’t think so. It’s like being told you won’t be allowed to wear jeans. It’s their daily wear. There’s no legitimate reason why women would not be allowed to wear burkas.”

Banning the burka, Alexander cautioned, “Would start a riot. You can’t control what people wear. It’s their fundamental right. There are no reasons why someone should be stopped from wearing what they want to wear. That can be easily misconstrued. And where does it end? Today it’s the burka. Tomorrow, a scarf?”

But others believe the move is long overdue.

“All governments should agree, without hesitation, [to ban the burka],” said Armand Hadida, owner of the retailer L’Eclaireur in Paris. “We abolished slavery more than two centuries ago. I don’t understand why we are still speaking today about the burka, which diminishes a woman by making her absent, behind the burka. We want a world that’s open, not closed, which invites an exchange of knowledge and culture. A burka is a wall; it’s worse than a prison. It’s a closing off of oneself.”

Meanwhile, a fashion show lined up at Paris’ Hotel George V Thursday night, organized by Saks Fifth Avenue’s Riyadh and Jeddah locations in Saudi Arabia, will throw the spotlight on another traditional Islamic garment, the abaya. It’s a cloaklike piece of clothing designed to cover the whole body except the face. Having spotted a trend among local ladies for customizing their abayas, Dania Tarhini, general manager of Saks Fifth Avenue in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, challenged 22 international designers to come up with a haute couture take on the garment as well as a commercial collection inspired by their fall line that will be sold in the store starting in September.

The resulting designs, including an embroidered abaya shawl by John Galliano, will be unveiled at the event before being dispatched to members of Saudi Arabia’s royal family, as well as various VIPs from the Gulf region.

Magnifier sans révéler (“glorify without revealing”) was the brief assigned to the designers and brands that have participated in the project, including Jil Sander, Lois Azzaro, Bill Blass, Alberta Ferretti, Martine Sitbon, Bruno Frisoni and Zufi Alexander.

“It was a little difficult to convince them in the beginning…but they have so many clients from the Arab world and [they liked the idea] of creating something these women could wear over their dresses in the evening,” said Tarhini. “The abaya is also something that’s worn daily, so it’s the best way of promoting a brand,” she continued, adding she believes the event, which is to be repeated in January 2010, will revolutionize the way abayas are worn. “Most of our clients wear designer brands and don’t feel comfortable in a black abaya….It’s a way of bridging the culture with fashion,” she said.

Of Lebanese nationality, Tarhini, who is all too familiar with the frustration imposed dress codes can have on a person, having once been arrested in Saudi Arabia for wearing a denim abaya, is for freedom of choice, saying. “In the same way as I’m against Saudi Arabia imposing burkas, I’m against the idea of [France] banning them.”

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