It’s not often that a fashion show stops you in your tracks, taking you away to an altogether more emotional and reflective place. That’s what Zahra ‘Sooty’ Hosseini’s fashion performance, which opened the Royal College of Art MA show 2017, did.
Before attending the show I received an email warning me to arrive early due to extra bag checks in the wake of the recent London terrorist attack. After delays and a very late start to the show as a result, Sooty’s fashion performance was an even more poignant opener, for it presented her adaptable modern ‘dress’ for muslim women via the medium of prayer, complete with the call to prayer, facing towards Mecca.
Rewinding a little, Sooty’s MA at the RCA has taken her on a two year journey of exploring her relationship with her culture (she hails from Manchester but her parents are Iranian), religion and faith. Having grown up in an liberal environment, Sooty’s relationship with her faith has evolved naturally, without any pressure to pray or conform. She explored clothing as an expression of her own individuality and a tendency to wrap jumpers into a headscarf or layer garments in geometric ways led Sooty to re-evaluate her sense of purpose as a designer. Her journey is so personal as to involve direct input from young Muslim girls approaching her in the street to talk about her style, taking on ideas of interpreting dress to express personality, rather than simply having the function of covering the body. Sooty is adding a layer of design to what has been led for so long by practicality and function, and has been devoid of innovation. She recalls uninspiring shopping trips in her teenage years, when the limited offering of clothing instilled no individuality or opportunity for self-expression, except through customisation. I sense that her style of dressing is an empowerment and declaration of ownership of her faith – even a celebration of it, which she explains can be so much more difficult if Islam has been adopted by obligation and not freely. She feels this obligation is a breeding ground for rejection of the religion and culture, which she finds a great shame.
Inspired heavily by science-fiction and Islamic architecture and art, her aesthetic leans towards geometric pattern cutting and surface details, with widespread use of black with accents of green. The inclusion of green came about on a recent trip to Iran, supported by the RCA, where Sooty had the opportunity to explore her culture and dig deeper into some research she had already begun involving Dr. Leonard Horowitz’s work on sound frequencies in the range of 440 to 528 Hz. The temporary loss of her hearing in one ear last year prompted a deep exploration of sound and frequency and a ‘conscious meditation’ on the links between form, sound and emotion. She shows me some research images of iron filings and magnets and Mecca during Hajj and draws interesting parallels in the formations within them. She also mentions the formation of birds and the communication between animals at certain frequencies, then the sound of the union of prayer, which is repeated in unison and draws people together at the same time – creating a global frequency, if you like, that she interprets as having a power and effect that is not measurable by science, but is experienced physically and spiritually.
When we met at the RCA to conduct this interview and dig deeper into her motivation and vision for her collection, Sooty told me that she is driven by human connection and making people feel something in response to her work – bringing about emotion. Her show certainly did that. Suzy Menkes took to Instagram to commend Sooty for making a statement, Vogue featured images of the show, taking it somewhat into the mainstream, for which Sooty is visibly moved.
Instagram clip: Techstyler
All images: Zahra ‘Sooty’ Hosseini, except the three images immediately above, by Techstyler
I asked how the performance came about and Sooty explained that she had a vision for presenting an honest representation of Islam. With the current media vilification of Islam and the misrepresentation of the faith (including demonising of the call to prayer by its use in police training scenarios of terrorist incidents in Manchester, for example), Sooty wanted to present the truth. It is clear that the last two years have seen her explore her faith and carry out an open dialogue with Zowie Broach (MA course Leader) and she says it was the support of both Zowie and Tristan Webber that urged her to carry out what she sees as her role to present Islam in the light it deserves and give young Muslim girls an alternative to simple, uninspiring clothing. Her entire collection of pieces is adaptable and made from squares – again drawing from geometry, and slashing and inserting zips to allow the wearer to change the styling and coverage, including openings at the hem to cover the feet during prayer. She also created a dress which can be worn with its corners hooked in at the waist, or laid out as a prayer mat. With this, Sooty is bringing design and even luxury, with her anatomically-placed quilted velvet for the hands, feet and knees when in the prayer position. Her garments are fully adaptable to be worn on the street, or during prayer.
Images: Zahra ‘Sooty’ Hosseini
When discussing the performance in more detail, Sooty explained that the casting was crucial. She wanted to cast ‘hijabi girls who were short”. A gorgeous outcome of the collection is that its proportions work best on girls of average height – or even better, those on the short side. It’s a refreshing antidote to the typical western ideal of stretching everything and using ultra tall, thin models to create an ‘aspirational ideal’. By using normal hijabi girls and transforming modest clothing through design and sci-fi inspiration, she has created another kind of aspiration. The kind that is meaningful and enriching and that will make a contribution to the world. “We don’t need more shit”, Sooty says, “the world is full of it”. She is absolute in her mission to create designs and garments that have a real purpose.
The next step for Sooty is an exciting journey into business with her brother and sister, who export luxury goods from London to sell to the Iranian market. They now plan to design a womenswear fashion range that is modern and aimed squarely at the market there and in the Middle East. It’s not straightforward though, as she explains that it’s big, recognisable brand names that sell well to clients in the Middle East, not emerging ones. She is pragmatic in the knowledge that some ‘western endorsement’ of her designs will be necessary at first, which is a point of frustration.
We wrap up our interview with a discussion about Sooty’s passion for sharing a positive message to young Muslim women and talk about her desire to engage in interviews, and perhaps even an ambassadorial role. It’s hard to imagine a more inspiring and enlightening person for such a role – and she has that charming Mancunian accent on her side, too.
Watch Sooty’s edit of her final collection performance at the MA RCA fashion show here
Header image: Celine Antal