Abaya With Kicks: Diaspora Designer Explores Identity As She Combines Modest Fashion With Streetwear

Photos: @Sanahkphotos
Photos: @Sanahkphotos

London-based 23-year-old British-Bangladeshi Saeedah Haque was barely 20 years old when she started her fashion brand that remodels the traditional abaya worn by Muslim women into Streetwear that can be easily paired with one’s favourite kicks. Her designs are minimalistic and are prominently inspired by Japanese fine-work and her Bangladeshi heritage. Elements like side-pockets, zippers, high collars, clean cuts, variegated fitting sleeves, and buttons add mobility to the garment and make it suited for everyday use.

As Streetwear keeps expanding its dimensions, building on the experiences of the different people the street is made of, Homegrown speaks to Saeedah who takes it further by bringing fashion to her street as she combines modest fashion to streetwear and reclaims her space on the street and in the fashion world.

HG: Could you tell us a little about yourself? What is the story of your brand’s inception?

SH: I started my brand when I was 20, as soon as I got my first paying job. I didn’t study fashion at university but I’ve always been artistic. I guess it was the desi stereotype of studying a ‘proper’ degree, but I interned for a couple of fashion houses while I was studying. One internship was with a luxury bridal house and at their event, Sabyasachi Mukherjee had a pop-up. That was when I felt like I really fell in love with the artisanship of Bengali culture and the Indian fashion industry. Another one of the companies hosted the first London Modest Fashion Week at the Saatchi Gallery and I learnt a lot while interning there. I remember looking around and everyone was so glammed up and I was just there in my black Abaya and white NMDs. But nonetheless, I saw first-hand just how big the demand for modest clothing was. I was always conscious of what was missing but didn’t know how to do it, until one day I just got up and told myself I would learn. A couple of hundred hours of YouTube videos and an armful of wasted samples later, here it is!

Looking back now, I’m glad I didn’t study fashion because doing this on my own, I was able to find an authentic brand identity and create an original aesthetic.

HG: Growing up, how did you navigate your identity as a British-South Asian/ British-Muslim/ a brown girl in London? Has your work helped you navigate/discover your own identity?

SH: Films played a huge part in shaping my creative perspective. I started to become frustrated with the masala Bollywood movies and wondered why the industry wasn’t narrating more authentic, cultural stories. On the flipside, Hollywood movies were still casting Muslims as terrorists but then this started to noticeably shift and I realised how important media was in showcasing the perspective of different cultures and identities. I remember sitting in the theatre watching Black Panther and the vibe was insane. When the credits were rolling I sat there and deeped how important it was. How the people around me were feeling. We have to keep asking, how are X people represented in our stories? Films, Fashion, Music, it’s all narrative, and narrative has the potential to initiate change. As diaspora, we all have two sides. Our wardrobes, food, playlists, movies, the list goes on. I never embraced it because it felt too different, but as you grow up you realise, that difference brings so much originality and identity to everything you do. My work has helped me embrace my identity but also helped others to aswell. Representation is important. I grew up wondering if people that looked like me were allowed to exist in these spaces. Would I have ever been as confident to do this if Riz Ahmed wasn’t rapping about Niqab bans? Or if Halima Aden hadn’t walked for Yeezy? Probably not. I’m excited for us and for the future generation being lucky enough to have so ethnic pioneers in every industry. It’s a very exciting time and long overdue.

HG: Why Japanese-style intricate design and why minimalism?

SH: Islam teaches minimalism and I want to honour its timeless nature, especially in this generation when everything is so trend-driven and consumerist. We’re in a climate crisis and the fashion industry is a contributor to this, so I want my clothes to be an investment and not a throw-away piece that’s only in trend for a season. Clothing is an extension of your identity, not a mask. I want women to feel confident in their faith without feeling invisible.

I visited Japan last year and the girls in Harajuku would be owning their dark kimonos, long layers, ankle-length dresses and oversized fits. It was just really inspiring seeing conservative clothing being worn so creatively without compromising on modesty, as well as the importance in Japanese culture of respecting the environment.

HG: How do you bring your Bangladeshi heritage into your work?

SH: I try to incorporate my desi side with subtle hints. Deep colour palettes, smoked out kajal, the nath and jhumars are all homage to my roots and Mughal influences as well as a more political statement of reclaiming my culture in the face of appropriation and whitewashed beauty standards. All of my clothes are made to order, so there’s no wasted stock and I don’t outsource. Bangladesh continues to face the worst effects of fast fashion and the supply chain, so it’s very close to home and I want
my line to be as ethical as possible.

HG: What do you think about the beauty standards imposed on South Asian women? Do you think your work is also a mode of dissent for you?

SH: Not just South Asian women but all women, to be honest. We are constantly policed on what we look like. If we show too much skin we’re criticised, but if we’re covering too much we’re seen as a threat. You can’t win so I don’t care about the critics. In the modest clothing world, it’s institutionalised in a similar way and centred around one type of look: Florals, heels and frills. It’s a very traditional feminine standard and not all of us identify with that. I’ve always dressed more casually and leaned towards oversized gear and comfy trainers, and I didn’t want to compromise my modesty because of my style, so I chose not to. I used to get weird looks from aunties but then I saw Rhea Kapoor wear Nikes with her lehenga at Sonam’s wedding, so who cares.

My brand is political because it’s rooted in the subculture. I refuse to be apolitical because my existence is not. My clothes are said to be identified with violence, so yes, my clothes are a statement that we are not spoken for and we refuse to be erased. Underground culture in South Asia is not as established as it is in the West. Lakmé for example just had their first street-only show in 2019. Although it’s growing (thank you, Zoya Akhtar!) we don’t have the same pride of it that the black community does. It holds a lot of disparity, injustice and poverty but I also see it as somewhere that is rich in stories, culture, people and work ethic. Rap culture has evolved as a scream of protest against overcoming the odds and battles. Streetwear for me is not big brands and limited-edition drops, but owning the unfiltered rawness and the grind that comes with the streets, being yourself unapologetically. It’s a common story wherever you are, from London to Detroit to Dharavi. I’m proud of my people for immigrating to this country and creating a life post-partition, post 9-11, and it’s a fist bump to all the adversities we continue to face.

HG: How has the impact been so far and where do you see your work going? What changes do you want to impact through your work?

SH: It’s a big gap in the market and I’m glad that girls with this style resonate with the brand so much. I’ve had girls that don’t wear Hijab message me and tell me that this inspires them to wear it. I’ve had girls that aren’t Muslim tell me they’d wear my clothes. It’s open to anyone who can appreciate modesty and organic streetwear. I just want Muslim girls to be unapologetic in their modesty and their presence on the streets. We’ve been here, we just haven’t been seen.

HG: You also have a desk job. How do you work on your brand and how do you create/ship your products? Also, what’s next?

SH: London as a city is so diverse and so gritty. I find inspiration everywhere. I walk past so many Muslim girls and their whole look and confidence is just so dope, so they definitely inspire me too. I reply to e-mails on my phone whilst I’m on my commute. I use my lunch breaks, evenings and weekends to plan shoots, source fabric, sketch new designs and style looks together. My tailor brings my designs to life but I ship everything out and package orders from my bedroom, so it’s a bit of a mess with boxes everywhere all the time and a lot of late nights. You have to sacrifice going out, money and your sleep, but I love it and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Image credits- Sanah Khan

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