By Kayla Wheeler, Ph.D.
Salt Lake City-based modest fashion designer, Ayana Ife, made history this year as the first Muslim female contestant on Project Runway to make it to New York Fashion Week, where she placed second. Although Ayana is the first Muslim woman finalist, two other women helped pave the way: Nzinga Knight competed for a spot on Season 13 of Project Runway, but was eliminated during the final audition and Hawwaa Ibrahim was a contestant on Project Runway Junior Season 2 that aired over the summer of 2017. Ayana’s presence on the sixteenth season of Project Runway introduced many non-Muslim U.S. Americans to the diversity of Muslim women’s personal style and definitions of modesty. In the season finale, she debuted her collection, entitled “Evolution.” Her designs were youthful, sporty while feminine, and very Black. From her clothes’ silhouettes, her layering techniques, to the styling of her models’ khimars—leaving the earlobes and neck exposed—she was clearly tapping into a Black U.S. American Muslim aesthetic that has been developed in several Muslim communities including the Moorish Science Temple of America, the Nation of Islam, the community of Imam W.D. Muhammad and other Black Sunni Muslim communities. Her designs highlight Black Muslim women’s creativity and improvisation skills.
Her designs were youthful, sporty while feminine, and very Black.
The judges were surprised by the way she was able to make modest clothes look “modern” and as Zac Posen put it, they exuded “empowered sexiness.” Clearly, none of the Project Runway judges had ever been to a runway show hosted by a Black masjid or checked out #BlackOutEid on social media, created by Amina Mohamed. Their comments speak to a large issue within the United States: the erasure of Black Muslims in conversations of Islam in the United States.
Clearly, none of the Project Runway judges had ever been to a runway show hosted by a Black masjid or checked out #BlackOutEid on social media…
Except for Black models, Halima Aden, the first covered woman to be signed to IMG Models, and Mariah Idrissi, who made history as the first visibly Muslim woman to be featured in an H&M advertisement, the mainstream U.S. American and Western European fashion industries have imagined Muslim fashion as a “Brown woman’s pursuit.” Several clothing and cosmetics advertisements including Gap, Covergirl, L’Oréal, and Nike have featured all featured Brown Muslim women as the representatives for all Muslims. This has been mirrored by the creation of “Ramadan Collections” or more general collections made with the Muslim consumer in mind by several popular European and U.S. American brands. For instance, in 2016 Tommy Hilfiger, MANGO, and Dolce and Gabbana all released collections for Muslim women. These collections either had a very narrow definition of “Islamic”; for instance, the Dolce & Gabbana collection only featured abayas and MANGO and Tommy Hilfiger only marketed their clothes to women in the Middle East. Although the mainstream media and fashion industries are only recently paying attention to Muslims, which they imagine to be Brown, as potential consumers, Black U.S. American Muslim women have a long relationship with fashion.
…it was Black Muslim women who made it cool to cover in the United States.
Ayana is following in the footsteps of Black Muslim fashion trailblazers including: Lubna Muhammad, the founder of Lubna Originals, whose designs were featured in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival; Yasmine Yasmine, a stylist, fashion editor and entrepreneur who has styled models at New York Fashion Week; and Nailah Lymus, founder of Underwraps, an agency for Muslim and modest models. Their work and that of other Black Muslim women designers, stylists, and tastemakers have largely been ignored in recent conversations around Islamic fashion and modest fashion in the media. This is what makes Ayana Ife’s presence on Project Runway so important. She reminds U.S. Americans, both Muslim and non-Muslim, that it was Black Muslim women who made it cool to cover in the United States.
Kayla Wheeler earned her Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Iowa. Her dissertation examined Muslim women’s fashion YouTube tutorials. She is a Visiting Scholar in the African American Studies Program at Boston University where she is writing her book on Black U.S. American Muslim Fashion. She is the curator of the Black Islam Syllabus.