Iranian Fashion Thrives Underground

Models strutted down the catwalk in high heels to the blare of Persian pop, while chatty women gawked at wispy dresses showing off shoulders, legs, and arms—sometimes all at once. The fashion show, held in the ballroom of a Tehran apartment complex last month, would be pedestrian in the West. But by just attending the surreptitious event, the 275 women there were committing a crime.

While Iran's strict Islamic dress code requires women to wear the form—hiding manteau overcoat and a hijab that covers the hair, there is a quietly growing demand for homegrown haute couture. Despite an unprecedented security crackdown following the summer's disputed presidential election, a network of high-end underground fashion designers, photographers, and models continue their subversive work, sketching, cutting patterns, conducting fittings, and strutting the catwalk in secret locations. "In the post-election situation, everything has gotten worse," says Hassan Rezaian, a fashion photographer in his mid-20s. "I don't want to call [what we do] protesting, but we are standing our ground." (For security, names have been changed.)

The mere existence of this hidden world of fashion is a slap to the fundamentalist regime. During President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first term, the mullahs tried unsuccessfully to stamp out Western fashion influences by arresting hundreds of women for wearing manteaus deemed too short, showing too much hair, or even choosing overly colorful dresses. "Those who have indecent appearances are sent by the enemy," declared Ahmadinejad in 2007. Even so, knockoffs of high-end Western imports have been flooding the market, and the government appears increasingly aware that large swaths of the country's youth, raised on satellite TV and the (filtered) Internet, have rejected Islamic dress in favor of tight jeans, low-cut tops, and strapless dresses. Lacking the manpower to crack down on this barrage of Western clothing, authorities have zeroed in on local designers—especially female ones—whom they consider a greater threat to the values of the theocratic regime than racy imports like Victoria's Secret lingerie or Manolo Blahnik pumps.

So local fashionistas have headed underground, working out of private backroom studios and warehouse galleries. Their designs include evening gowns with plunging décolletage and slinky sleeveless blouses banned in public, as well as chic manteaus. "If the government knows an Iranian designer is designing [Westernized] clothes, the problems will start," says Roya Parsa, a designer in her late 20s who organized the ballroom fashion show last month.

She is one of perhaps a dozen top designers in the country, many of whom were trained in the West but ultimately returned to Iran. Her dresses, including classic dresses and wedding gowns, as well as more experimental designs fusing Western and Persian elements, fetch between $2,000 and $6,000, a princely sum only the country's elite can afford. Unlike their counterparts who stayed in the West—most notably menswear titan Bijan Pakzad, as well as upstarts like Nima Behnoud, Behnaz Kanani, and Masih Zad—these Tehran designers operate within exclusive circles of friends and friends-of-friends who commission one-of-a-kind creations, order from catalogs censored for security reasons, or select their dresses during secretive seasonal shows. Indeed, their very safety depends on their obscurity.

Parsa, who returned from graduate school in Europe last year to help inject an Iranian spirit into high fashion, says she finds inspiration from everyday life, however difficult. One of her new designs, for instance, is a tattered blouse with detachable sleeves and shoulder straps—a reference to the common practice of going to a private party and removing one's restrictive outerwear to expose something more revealing.

Her show last month had been postponed since June by the post--election violence. Like most progressive 20-somethings, she took to the streets, demonstrating several times a week even after "Bloody Saturday," when dozens of protesters were gunned down following a threatening speech by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Although she speaks of democracy, she cites the "hijab problem"—meaning the strict dress code—as perhaps the largest stumbling block to change. "You have to work on the culture first," she says. And while most designers would much rather talk fabric patterns than politics, they see their counterculture fashion styles as a form of attack on the hardline regime. "We don't want a revolution," says Zarina Afshar, a 45-year-old designer. "People here want step-by-step reform. If we get social freedoms, then political freedoms will happen."

Afshar designs mostly outerwear, spending her days trying to evade the scrutiny of the fashion police. One of her recent manteaus failed to sell because it was semitransparent and too yellow—infractions that could land its wearer in court. Afraid of the same fate, she omits names, descriptions, contact info, and often faces in her catalogs. "Always you are at a risk," she says.

Still, there is a sense among local designers that their time is coming. Authorities grudgingly tolerate un-Islamic dress in neighborhoods far away from the regime's conservative strongholds. Fashions have changed even in Qum, the power base of the ruling clerics and Iran's most conservative city. Today, vendors hawk revealing blouses in a rainbow of gaudy colors to worshipers leaving the city's holy shrine. Frustrated designers would do well to remember that just a few years ago, selling a simple white T shirt was illegal.