Iran's fashion revolution: how Islamic edict gave life to designers and models
After more than three decades of resistance and struggling underground, fashion is finally gaining a foothold in Iran, with catwalk models in high demand
In northern Tehran's Oxygen Royal health and fitness centre, a group of 20 young men have gathered, each wearing identical black T-shirts inscribed with "DFW" in big white fonts, the abbreviation for Darab Fashion Week.
The centre is located in the affluent and historical district of Gheytarieh in the foothills of the Alborz mountains, which tower over Iran's capital. With its VIP members and advanced exercise machinery, you could be in Beverly Hills. Instead, the centre is the venue for Iran's male models to practise strutting the catwalk under the aegis of a professional trainer, who will also prepare them for the castings that will follow.
After a day of hard work, the results are promising. All the men have been offered contracts for Darab's forthcoming event in September, scheduled to take place at the Esteghlal hotel.
After more than three decades of resistance and struggling underground, fashion is finally gaining a foothold in the Islamic Republic. As fashion weeks mushroom across Iran, the need for more models has significantly increased.
Most models at Oxygen Royal are hired by Behpooshi, a modelling agency that last year became one of the first to obtain official permission to operate. The agency has 50 male and 30 female models, linking them with event managers such as Darab.
"If I say that fashion in Iran has gone through a revolution in the past year, I haven't exaggerated," says Sharif Razavi, Behpooshi's director. "In the 30 years since the revolution, we saw around 10 to 15 catwalks in the country, but in the last year alone, we've seen more than a hundred."
Behpooshi began seven years ago, but like many others involved in the fashion industry in Iran, the agency operated underground. Then, 2½ years ago, Razavi wrote to the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and asked for a religious edict to find if Islam forbade fashion and modelling. To his delight, it didn't.
He pursued the matter with the authorities at the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance, and this effort opened doors.
"Before this if I were to mention to the authorities that I wanted to open a modelling agency nobody would listen to me," Razavi says. "But things changed."
Rayan Baghdadi, with more than 10,000 followers on Instagram, was among the 20 men practising at Oxygen Royal. "Modelling is now my job and I'm taking it very seriously," says the 23-year-old. "When you are a model, you can't do many of the things other people do, like drinking or eating fast food, you are always conscious about what you do and what you eat."
Baghdadi recently performed at Tehran fashion week, which was held at the Sam Centre complex on the city's most expensive street, Fereshteh. He says significant improvements have been made in the past couple of years.
"The authorities now issue licences to each model and those who want to participate in public events and catwalks should apply for a licence and ID card. Underground fashion is fading."
He also has international experience, doing catwalks in Dubai to promote the works of designer Rahil Hesan, who is half-Iranian.
Mahan Farokhmehr, Darab's chief executive, echoes Baghdadi.
"In the past two years, the atmosphere has changed positively," he says. "The ministry has set up a working group to bring order to fashion and clothing, which regulates fashion in Iran and grants permission for holding events. What took place underground a few years ago is now happening in public."
Despite this, red lines persist. Darab Fashion Week, Farokhmehr says, will over two days feature the works of young Iranian designers, including Mohsen Asgari and Neda Sadeghi. But while women can go and watch the men's catwalk shows, men are not allowed to attend the women's shows.
And not all Iranian models have applied for a licence. Dana Mashalahpoor, 28, has been particularly successful, but his route to fashion has been entirely different to that of Baghdadi. Although he has worked with big companies, including foreign brands, he has never been invited to walk a catwalk at home.
"Fashion is becoming more serious in Iran and that's a good thing," he says.
"You'll see plenty of people interested in fashion today in the country compared to a few years ago. There's a wave, a strong wave, but we'll have to be careful and do it right."
Mashalahpoor is now the face of Dorsa, which sells popular leather products. He has been featured on large billboards on Tehran streets at least eight times, has appeared for Swiss brand Davidoff in Dubai and has modelled for Italian menswear label Pal Zileri in Iran.
"There has been progress but big challenges remain," he says. "Some people still have negative views about fashion in Iran. But Iran has huge potential. Models are very ambitious and want to work across the globe."
The fashion boom has given hope to independent designers such as Salar Bil and Farnaz Abdoli. Abdoli's firm, Pooshema, specialises in women's clothing such as manteaux, which Iranian women wear in public instead of the traditional, body-covering chador. Many Iranian women push the boundaries and wear manteaux that are short, colourful and modern.
Pooshema also participated in Tehran Fashion Week two months ago and has been recently approached by Vancouver Fashion Week. Long before the authorities allowed fashion operations, Pooshema became popular online. "At those times, the authorities were very sensitive, and there were only a few people involved in holding fashion weeks," Abdoli says. "Fortunately, things changed for better. Now you can't count the number of people involved in fashion in Iran, with many companies holding training for modelling and designing and even offering certificates."
Abdoli says she has been overwhelmed by the number of emails she has received from abroad about her work.
"When people see our work, they are shocked," she says. "They expect women in Iran to wear veils and niqabs, but then they see our models and designs and they can't believe what they see."