June 30, 2014 By Emma Tarlo

‘Fashion Is the Biggest Oxymoron in My Life’

Zina nur

Zinah Nur Sharif is a fashion blogger, designer and cover girl. An outspoken critic of the fashion industry as it was normally understood, Zinah uses the platform of blog to take to people her innovative and revolutionary ideas of clothing and fashion. In conversation with Emma Tarlo,  she explains the crucial ideas prevalent in the genre of Islamic fashion. This is an excerpt, reproduced with permission, of  Tarlo’s Islamic Fashion and Anti -Fashion, whose cover girl Zinah was.

DR Emma Tarlo

DR Emma Tarlo

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I was born in Somalia, but my family originated from Yemen. I was brought up in three different countries (Yemen, Switzerland and the UK) and currently live in London with my family. I come from a large family of six sisters and four brothers, most of them older. I recently graduated from the University of Westminster with a degree in graphic design, and I’m now in pursuit of a career in fashion.

What attracted you to blogging about fashion?

I started blogging on the 24th of July 2010. It wasn’t initially a fashion blog but more of a creative lifestyle blog. Strangely enough, I was not inspired by other blogs. In fact, I did not have any idea about the blogging world until I watched the film Julie & Julia.It has nothing to do with fashion, but I was really inspired by seeing how the main character started a blog to share her true passion for cooking and journalism. She was doing it as a hobby at first, but then it all picked up and turned into the professional job of blogging and writing cookbooks. That’s where I got the idea of starting a blog—to share my own creative ideas with the rest of the world. I had just completed my first year of graphic design and was regretting not having studied fashion academically. I had a GCSE in art and design and A levels in photography, fine art, fashion design and media studies and felt I didn’t want to throw it all away. After a year of blogging, I discovered my true obsession with fashion and started blogging more and more. I see the blog as a platform to show my talent in fashion, photography and creativity and as a ladder for slowly climbing up in the fashion industry as a designer.


Was there anything in your background that made you particularly interested in fashion and clothes?

Creativity runs in my family. I’ve been doing art for as long as I can remember and was encouraged by my siblings and teachers in Yemen. They convinced me I had talent! This made me look into other creative fields, and I was introduced to knitting and tailoring in year four in Switzerland. This grew into a love of not only making clothes but also wearing, designing and styling them. I hardly had any access to mass media such as magazines, Internet, TV or any kind of medium that promoted fashion. In the village where I lived, no one could care less about fashion and style; that always made me wonder and think about fashion even more. Fashion certainly was not mainstream or popular there and then, and what’s not mainstream naturally captures my interest and sparks my curiosity.

Do you follow other fashion blogs?

Yes. Nowadays I follow several blogs that inspire me and resemble my style or the style I would like to reach. My absolute favourite is From Me to You, but I also like Trendland, Gary Pepper Vintage, The Cherry Blossom Girl, HijabScarf, Hijabs & Co and many others.

Can you tell us how your style has evolved since you became a hijab-wearer?

I have been wearing the hijab since I was eleven, in year four in Swiss school. It was more of a turban style than the hijab style I wear today. I wore the same clothes as other teenagers—jeans and tops, even short-sleeved tops—and only covered my hair, not the neck. I knew little about the true meaning of hijab at the time and believed modesty was only about covering the hair. Also, I was the only one in my class and entire school wearing the hijab, which meant I did not see how it should be worn. I was worried about the questions, teasing and bullying from other kids. There were some boys and girls who would pull my hijab off or laugh at me or just make horrible racist jokes about it. It was already difficult being the only coloured person in the entire school and being teased for that, but the hijab on top just made things more difficult. I was upset and kept myself to myself most of the time. But once I got to year five, I stopped caring what anyone thought and let them accept me for who I was. I simply ignored all the horrible words and even the kids who were bullies. They started to realise I wasn’t reacting to their words and actions and so finally gave up on it. With or without the hijab, I stood out back then, being of a different race and colour, so I felt that wearing the hijab did not make that much difference. I only developed a style consciousness when I started secondary school in Switzerland. I began experimenting with different types of clothes, but I carried on wearing the hijab in the same turban style.

My fashion and style consciousness grew stronger when I moved to London. I saw so many fashion-conscious people, hijabis and non-hijabis alike. This is when I started experimenting with layering, wearing the hijab differently and just trying to be more fashionable. Each year, my style would change; it was eclectic. I started looking at clothes and fashion differently, tried to find ways of wearing regular clothes, from regular high street stores, and turning them modest. I never bought or even considered buying clothes from Islamic stores, as I do not consider them stylish or suitable to my personal style. I was more enthusiastic about turning regular clothes, or Western clothes as some may call them, into modest outfits. Each year I would learn and discover so many ways of wearing one specific item of clothing—what to pair it with, which textures and colours to combine, what cuts, et cetera. I started to consider myself a style guru, and friends would start asking for tips and tricks, which is another reason why I post fashion outfits on the blog. Also, I really enjoyed it all and still do.


Would you say you find fashion inspiring?

Not entirely; no. Most of the time, fashion is inspiring solely for doing stuff that relates to fashion or that just is fashion. I don’t think I have ever looked at fashion and then suddenly thought, Oh how inspiring; I want to help the orphans now! Fashion only inspires me to do more fashion design, styling and making clothes. Other stuff such as photography and graphic design inspires me to do other things as well as fashion-related things.

Do you ever find fashion oppressive?

Yes, I think so. I think the fashion world is exclusive to certain types of people in terms of class, race, location and appearance. Although many people believe that fashion is open to everyone, actually, it is not. Creatively speaking, yes, it’s open to everyone everywhere. However, career-wise and as far as being in the fashion industry itself is concerned, it’s limited, restrictive and to some extent it even seems controlled. I don’t think Karl Lagerfeld will ever welcome people of a bigger size with open arms, and I don’t think a man can be a successful designer or in the fashion industry without being either camp or gay: Christian Dior, Prabal Gurung, Jason Wu, Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Zac Posen, Yves Saint Laurent, et cetera. I believe that the fashion industry puts a burden on men to be more feminine. I mean, why do we have to know anyone’s sexuality? Why does the media give out the message that if you’re a man, best be gay or camp to fit into this fabulous feminine fashion world?

Another obvious thing is that the size of women matters. If you’re slim, you’ll be welcomed and embraced. If not, best work extra hard and prove that you fit in. The same thing goes for religion. I don’t think the fashion industry gives much respect to any faith; at least that’s the impression I always get. I also believe that people with hijab aren’t too welcomed in the larger fashion industry. Yes, there are many Muslim and hijabi fashion designers, but they are successful amongst themselves and mainly known in the community of fellow hijabis—and yes, of course, a few non-hijabis. When I went to London Fashion Week this September, I was rather shocked to see that I was the only hijabi there. I was there three to four hours each day for three days, and no one except me wore the hijab. It’s 2012, but it didn’t feel like it. I don’t think Vogue would print a page with hijabi models. Marie Claire did that for their December 2006 issue, and there were some online debates about it. How ridiculous it is that people can’t accept each other.

Wealth and class is another thing, but that’s what fashion is known for, right? I think everyone who does not fit into the typical fashion categories—that do not exist as concrete rules but are mentally there—needs to work extra hard and really prove that they have what it needs to get into the industry.

Do you ever feel under pressure to be in fashion?

Yes, I do. I don’t think that I particularly fit into the fashion industry as a person. My work does, yes, but I don’t. People will naturally connect my work to me. At times it’s an unconscious thing they do. During my A levels, I was the only hijabi in my fashion class—yes, even in London—and people gave me a surprised look at the beginning, a sort of, ‘Are you sure you want to pursue a career in this shallow and ignorant fashion world?’ look. I sometimes feel the pressure to change things about myself, so people will perceive me differently and accept me, but then I always remind myself that regardless of what I do, there will always be someone to pressure me or judge me. I can’t please everyone, and I need to stand my ground concerning what I believe—not only about faith but also lifestyle.

I once had an interview at Vivienne Westwood, and a friend of my sister gave me the advice to wear my hijab as a turban and to show a bit of hair at the front, so it would look like I was rocking the turban style rather than being a hijabi. She then later added that once I got the job, I could wear my hijab as I normally do. I was disgusted by the idea of altering my hijab—and therefore showing lack of respect towards my faith—just to get a position in a fashion house! Not only would that have been cheating myself but also showing lack of self-esteem, weakness, and would have been just plain wrong.

I could try to create more distance between myself and my work, but that of course is impossible. Regardless of what kind of clothes I make or design, I will always be seen as the hijabi designer. It’s not just pressure from the fashion industry but also pressure coming from fellow hijabis. Now, most of my readers or anyone who is familiar with my work will automatically assume and expect me to design modest clothes. If not, then the criticisms will storm in, and I of course may be seen as a bad influence for younger hijabis. To be frank, at times I couldn’t care less what people want me to be or make. I see it like this: Do you like my work? Great! Or, You don’t like my work? Move on!


zinah sheriff

Do you find other people understand your interest in fashion and your style, or do you feel you need to explain or justify it?

I don’t have to justify myself most of the time, but when I have to, it’s to friends who aren’t hijabis or Muslim. It’s not my style but my interest in fashion that I have to justify. My university friends always wondered why I would want to go into an industry that wasn’t always accepting. When I told a fellow graphic designer I worked with that I no longer wanted to work as a freelance graphic designer as I want to pursue a career in fashion and needed to be able to work to tight deadlines, he responded, ‘So you’re running away from clients from hell to run into hell itself?!’

But I want to be able to do what I enjoy and love in the hope that my love for it will lead to some good. London has also given me a world of possibilities and of course the hijabi community is much larger here than in the rest of Europe, so people nowadays understand that fashion doesn’t necessarily mean working with people like Anna Wintour, but that there are other fashion communities. Smaller, yes, but still present.

How would you describe your personal style?

I would describe my style as simple, comfortable, elegant and sophisticated. I love clothes that have texture rather than patterns. I love wearing natural fabrics rather than synthetics. I love loose and comfortable clothes and don’t like clothes that hug my figure. I try not to over-layer my clothes and keep them simple yet modest.

What have been key inspirations to you concerning your style?

I’d like to think that the online world of pretty things may have inspired me with my current style. Websites such as Tumblr and Pinterest, where people not only post about fashion but also great graphic and interior design, amazing photography and food and much more. Also, as I learned from my graphic design course, simplicity is the key to great design. I enjoy things that are designed simply yet show elegance and sophistication, even when it comes to serving food on a plate. It all looks effortless, but I know a great deal of mind-mapping and work has gone behind those great designs. So I try to let that influence my style in clothes as well. Not to mention, I have built an obsession with Erdem and Prabal Gurung’s collections, the way they dress women and highlight femininity with such elegance.

Why do you think style matters?

I think it matters to a certain extent. Without appearing shallow, I think style defines who you are. What you wear is what you are. I think style is different from fashion. Fashion is what you get; style is what you make of it. There are occasions where it’s acceptable to be stylish, overdressed and make an effort, and there are occasions where it just makes you look bad and shallow. Imagine turning up with a dress, high heels and a perfectly done manicure to play golf like Mariah Carey did? Now that is when you have crossed the line and being stylish has become your primary motivation and way of life. Style should be a secondary concern and should not take over your life.

Where are your favourite places to shop?

Zara, H&M, occasionally Mango and Primark, but 95 per cent of the time, Zara. I think that Zara perfectly designs my style and the style I am aiming for.

Do you feel that modesty and fashion are always compatible?

Yes, I’d like to think so; perhaps not always, but most of the time. Personally, I didn’t experience much restriction in being stylish and modest at the same time. Clothes can be worn and altered to appear modest; they can be paired with other clothes, and there really aren’t any limitations besides avoiding the obvious clothes such as miniskirts and shorts. If by fashion you mean the fashion industry itself, then no. I don’t think modesty and fashion are always compatible for all the obvious reasons stated above and because fashion exploits women’s bodies.

How do you understand or interpret modesty?

To cover your body except your face, hands and feet, to not wear figure-hugging clothes, to avoid clothes that are too loud in colour and pattern and to avoid attracting the eyes of others intentionally. Even if covered from head to toe, don’t dress like Lady Gaga, metaphorically speaking! That is not modest in my opinion. That’s my personal understanding.

Do you ever experience tension between your religious beliefs and values and your love of fashion?

At times, yes, mainly regarding the fact that I should not be wearing figure-hugging clothes, and I sometimes wear skinny jeans. That’s only one small thing, considering that I can wear everything else and just simply change whenever I feel guilty. The other things are more about moral issues, such as doing things for the sake of helping others. In my religion and belief, it is highly encouraged to work to not only help yourself but also others. For example, professions in the medical field help the ill or are researching the next cure for a disease; a teacher or lecturer provides knowledge for the next generation; even drivers help people by taking them from one place to the other; or cleaners, by keeping everything clean and hygienic. Psychologists help people with mental distress; journalists provide information to the mass population—even though some may be biased. I don’t see what help fashion offers people. Yes, making clothes is useful, but does fashion help people? It helps fulfil their creative needs, makes people feel good and special—but that’s it really. Much as I love it, it does not give me the satisfaction of knowing I have helped someone. Yet I try to convince myself that maybe someone out there feels inspired by my blog or the things I do.

Do you feel fashion is a good way of communicating? If so, what do you hope to communicate?

I’m still not too sure what I hope to communicate through the use of fashion. I think I just want to show that there is diversity in the fashion world; it may not have reached the mainstream yet, but that day may come if people work hard. I hope to build awareness through the use of fashion, but at the moment my blog is simply inspiring those who want be stylish, which isn’t doing much, to be honest. I’m hoping to work in fashion as a designer, not to start creating and selling my own fashion label but to simply work as part of a company and perhaps one day have the power to bring a more diverse image into the fashion world. For now, all I know is that this world doesn’t need any more designers to spend billions of pounds of money on creating more clothes that we don’t need. We focus way too much on buying things we don’t need, to please people we don’t even like—a vicious cycle that needs to be broken.

How much time do you spend blogging?

I used to spend much more time on blogging during the first year. It was live blogging, which meant writing and posting things up on the same day—quantity over quality. However, after the first six months, I started to focus much more on quality and the content of the blog rather than how many times I blogged. I created a pattern of scheduling blog posts one to two months prior to the posting days on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. I now spend much more time picking the content of my blog, making sure it’s all high- and good-quality material, as it is no longer just a hobby but also about building a good online portfolio with solid content. I leave all the raw and low-quality material to my Instagram and Twitter accounts.

Who are your main followers/readers?

I’m sure that over 90 per cent of my followers/readers are young girls, aged seventeen to twenty-five, mainly hijabis and Muslims, but I also have some non-hijabis and non-Muslims.

According to my Google stats, 27.4 per cent from South East Asia—Malaysia,Indonesia and Singapore—21.8 per cent from the UK and 10.3 per cent from the USA. Two countries that surprised me areAustralia [9.1 per cent] and France [6.8 per cent]. With France, I thought that with their ludicrous law banning the hijab, I wouldn’t have readers from there, but clearly that’s not the case.

If you could change something in the fashion industry, what would it be?

Well, in my wildest dreams, I would very much love to build fair trade into fashion. Yes, some companies say they already do, but I don’t believe that; I don’t think Mango or Zara are paying Indian workers a minimum of £2 an hour. It’s more likely to be £2 or less for an entire day! They’re selling a dress for £100, knowing that it only costs them £6 to make. Zara even lowers the price of a garment from £100 to £10, knowing that at the end of the day, they’re not making any loss. Why not just sell it for £50 from the beginning? I can’t only point my fingers at high street stores when designers are charging a monstrous £10,000 for a piece of fabric! I understand that it’s all about brand, buying the name, et cetera, et cetera, but I’m sure these greedy and hungry people in the fashion industry could help solve world problems such as world hunger, poverty and other serious matters. I watched The September Issue, and when Anne Wintour asked the art director to reshoot a fashion editorial that had cost $15,000, I asked, ‘For what?!’ So they were going to spend another $15,000 on something that was perfectly fine in the first place!?

I would hope to close the income gap, starting with fashion. As I said, this is only in my wildest dreams. I have a love/hate thing for fashion; it’s the biggest oxymoron in my life. I enjoy it, yet feel guilty about it but hope to do it for a good cause rather than selfish and obnoxious reasons. I enjoy graphic design for the reason that during my degree course, we focussed on building and creating visual awareness of global crises through graphic design, whether it was the negative effects of compulsive consumerism, global warming, poverty or serious diseases such as cancer. So I would like and hope to do the same thing through fashion. Even though I have seen some bad aspects of the fashion industry, I still hold on to the good and still love fashion because people like Dame Vivienne Westwood and Prabal Gurung inspire me to believe that you can still have morals and use fashion for good, that you can have a vivid personality and still fit in to the shallow world of fashion.

muslim fashion


Edited version of an interview conducted over email by Emma Tarlo in October 2012.


Conversation with Zinah Nur, from Islamic Fashion and Anti-Fashion: New Perspectives from Europe and North America,

© Emma Tarlo and Annelies Moors, 2013, published by Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

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Posted in: Person in Focus