Talking Cover Couture with Bulbulia Tasleem

The first time I came across the concept of ‘cover couture’ was in a scene from the second instalment of the ‘Sex and the City’ film, in which Carrie Bradshaw is admiring the intricately embroidered hijab of a stylish Arab woman. The two couture-clad women exchange glances of admiration for their shared flair for style, subtly implying a growing collision between the fashion worlds of the East and the West.

Little did I know that what I had seen in that film was just a glimpse of what Fortune magazine estimates to be a $266 billion market as of 2013, and one that could reach an even more staggering $484 billion by 2019.

‘Cover couture’, otherwise known as ‘modest wear’, is all the rage in the West and the Middle East. A fashion phenomenon that has ushered in the launch of Vogue Arabia, and the rise of Fashion Weeks in Dubai, Singapore, Indonesia and Istanbul. Large luxury fashion brands have also taken note, with the likes of Stella McCartney, Oscar de la Renta and Chanel, all catering to the Islamic market with exclusive capsule collections.

According to an article by The Atlantic, “Arab women [are] the biggest buyers of haute couture, and they continue to dominate a market that only serves an estimated 2,000 privileged clients worldwide.”

With Muslim women being the biggest spenders of luxury fashion, high-end brands are responding with haste.

Our very own, homegrown Muslim fashion designer – Tasleem Bulbulia – is tapping into what will soon be more than a niche market. Just a few weeks before Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Joburg, Tasleem shares some insight on ‘cover couture’ or ‘modest wear’ as she prefers to call it.

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Tasleem, tell us about your brand?

The Bulbulia Threads brand strives to make responsible, meaningful, apparel that shows cultural and religious lifestyles through an empowering lens and also enhance confidence while still providing a channel for expression.

Our mission is to connect with fashion conscious women in a Western world and stay true to an authentic and modest influence. Bulbulia Threads understands real woman in a society which doesn’t often understand us and we aim to make that transition as easy and fashionable as possible.

Bulbulia Threads aims to inspire modest wear in a society so heavily influenced by the Western world. To provide authentic, high quality, good value and original modest wear to women.  Always maintain respect for all we interact with throughout our journey.

Additionally, Bulbulia Threads aims to fulfil the needs of modest women in South Africa who are seeking fashion-forward apparel that follows the principles of cultural and religious requirements.

When did you know that you wanted to become a fashion designer?

As a child, I watched my mum cut and make the most beautiful garments and I’d be fascinated by the pieces of fabrics and trims, so I’d make dolls clothes with the off-cuts.

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I was lucky, that even as a child, I could sketch or describe to my mum what I wanted to wear and she would magically make it for me. I never wanted to have clothes from the stores and always wanted to be different and express my individuality through my clothing.

I felt I could embody the different personas with every outfit change.

So I guess I didn’t decide to become a designer, I always was one. I did study fashion after I matriculated and I spent all my time in this creative yet challenging industry.

IMG_20160620_214836You mentioned that your entry into fashion has been a long journey for you. Could you tell us more about your journey?

I studied fashion in the early 90’s and worked as an independent designer for private clients for about 13 years. These clients were predominantly Muslim women from my community and I designed what you would call ‘cover couture’ for them.

I wanted to get into retail and in 2002 I launched my first Afro-fusion label called Funeka and retailed it through the Space stores.

I relocated to Cape Town in 2003 to be closer to the manufacturing [industry], but also because Cape Town is such a beautiful city. I did some freelance work for Hip Hop Clothing which was an iconic Cape Town brand. I really enjoyed this period. I also continued with my Funeka brand and showcased it at Cape Town Fashion Week, Design Indaba and Vodacom July and even Magic in Las Vegas.

In 2007 I had the opportunity to supply Young Designers Emporium [YDE] and so I began my very [own] commercial brand Soulchild. I won the ‘Most Promising Ladieswear Label’ in 2007 and stayed with YDE for 5 years and resigned Soulchild in 2011.

In 2012 I started doing product design and development with another retailer, however, I felt I had lost my ‘creative’ self and decided to once again relocate.

This time, I came back home to Jozi and spent some time reassessing my goals.

At the same time, my husband and I had been doing a lot of research into ‘modest wear’ as I felt this was a market I knew very well and had serviced all my professional life.

Finally, the decision was made to focus my energies completely at making this commercially viable and Bulbulia Threads was born.

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Who is the Tasleem Bulbulia woman?

The Bulbulia Threads customer is sophisticated, appreciates design, fit and attention to detail. Someone who is comfortable in her own skin, not afraid to take risks and understands that style is yours to own, not a trend to follow. 

The concept of cover couture has been making the rounds in the fashion industry. What, in your opinion, is cover couture?

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To me, cover couture is just a catch phrase. I prefer modest wear as this refers to the type of clothing being less revealing, not less stylish.

How does your approach to ‘modest wear’ differ to what your contemporaries are doing?

I think my experience in the industry both as a Muslim woman and a mainstream designer gives me a unique insight into this market. I design clothing that anyone can wear and still be fashionable.

Dolce & Gabbana recently launched their own Muslim womenswear for their Spring/Summer 2016 collection, signalling the rise of inclusiveness in fashion. Why do you think the West is now embracing Muslim fashion?

I think the traditional markets in the West have been exhausted and international brands have had to think more globally. China and the Middle-East [are] the untapped markets to exploit.

Also, the rise of Muslim reverts in the West, as well as, all the Islamophobia ironically has put Muslim culture on the international stage.

The Internet and social media have also helped, with bloggers and influences from Indonesia, Malaysia, England, etc. are changing perceptions of the hijab.

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The Muslim market has long been a significant market for haute couture brands from the West since the mid-1970s. Do you think this newfound and long overdue inclusiveness among Western brands is also a result of the large and still rising Middle-Eastern market in luxury brand spending?

Yes, I would agree. But I think it is important to mention that Muslim women around the globe have been buying western brands and styling it to their needs forever. It’s just that social media has assisted Muslims around the world to share and exchange ideas and now the West has taken notice.

The global Muslim market is wide and culturally diverse; therefore, brands need to cater to each one individually rather than as a whole. So what do you think distinguishes the South African Muslim market?

I think the fact that we are South African is what distinguishes us. Our aesthetic is different. We have a very Western look, but our individual heritage, be it Indian, Malaysian, Arab, Turkish, etc. influences our choices and styling. South Africans are also very creative and experimental with fashion, I think.

Do you think Western brands will be able to understand and cater sensitively to the Muslim market, keeping in mind the important religious virtues that are imbued in Muslim wear?

I think that one must keep in mind that Islam is a global religion. Western brands have been catering to all markets for a long time. It is up to the individual to style themselves as they choose. However, it will take some research, time, effort and, most importantly, money for Western brands to truly understand this market.

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It is obviously easier for Muslim designers to cater to a Muslim market, however, consumerism is all-pervading and Muslim consumers also aspire to Western brands, making it harder for local Muslim designers.

How do you think Muslim fashion designers can best position themselves to compete with Western brands?

I think modest wear brands are in a better position than the Western brands locally because they understand the customer better and cater to their specific needs. I think the challenge for any independent designer is access to retail and having the business support to really position yourself globally.

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Considering the geopolitical issues taking place around the World, do you think the rise of cover couture or modest wear in the West can help to change some of the misconceptions about Islam as a religion and a culture?

I hope so. I think that modesty is not exclusive to Islam, other religions also adhere to it.

I hope that it allows people to appreciate and understand that wearing a hijab is the same as wearing a cross on a necklace or a red dot on your forehead or a doek [head scarf] on your head. These are all the freedoms [that] we as South Africans have fought for, freedom to express our individuality.

It always surprises me when people equate what I consider modest as aggressive. Islam does not encourage nor tolerate terrorism, Islam is peace! Don’t believe the hype, terrorist groups are just pawns created for political gain, I won’t get into that!

Being a fashionable Muslim woman in a diverse country like South Africa, how has your upbringing and surroundings influenced your brand?

I think it is this diversity that defines the Bulbulia Threads brand. I find the commonalities and use this thread to weave my collections.

Are there any specific cover couture brands that inspire you?

Life inspires me…

With the rise of new platforms exploring the beauty of cover couture and modest wear where do you hope to showcase your brand next?

Istanbul Modest Fashion Week 

What is your latest collection about?

My inspiration comes from the Arabic word Islam, meaning ‘peace’. The collection is a portrait of love and understanding in this very trying time. It’s a whimsical approach to the very serious crisis we as a global nation face with the rise of refugees.

Where can we find your collection after Fashion Week?

My range is available to buy from my Instagram @bulbulithreads and will also be available at Hse of Bespoke Emporium, 44 Stanley road.

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Tasleem will be showcasing her latest collection at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Joburg SS’16. Find out more about her work on Instagram (@bulbuliathreads), and Facebook (Bulbuliathreads).   

You may also email her on tasleemb@gmail.com.