A young fashion label is trying to bridge the gap between modern lifestyle and the earnest practice of faith. Styleislam's products already enjoy cult status among young Muslims in Germany, as Heiner Kiesel reports
People from many different cultures are likely to agree that slippers are rather uncool. But in Styleislam's fashion design office, everyone walks around in them. Here, in the small German town of Witten in the heart of the industrial Ruhr region, chic clothes and accessories are designed for fashion-conscious but devout young Muslims. As soon as you set foot inside the company premises, it becomes clear that many things are different here.
Melih Kesmen, a stocky man with a ponytail and goatee, leads the way through a small stockroom with high metal shelving. "Here are a few examples of our designs, like one about the hijab - the headscarf," he said, pulling a black bag out of one of the lower shelves. "Hijab, My Right, My Choice, My Life," is written on the bag in big white letters.
"If a woman wants to wear a headscarf, then she should be allowed to," said Kesmen. The motto on the bag could provoke hours of discussion, and so could plenty of other motifs on the entrepreneur's shelves, such as baby bibs printed with the word "Minimuslim" or a call to prayer: "Salah, Always Get Connected." The idea behind the Styleislam label is to combine modern urban design with devout messages.
A different kind of response
The project began three years ago in response to the scandal over caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed printed in a Danish newspaper. At the time, Kesmen was living in London with his wife, Yeliz. "The publication of the drawings angered me, but I was also really annoyed by the reaction from our side, the Muslim side," said Kesmen. In many Muslim countries around the world, violent demonstrations were held and Danish flags were burned.
"So I thought, there must be a way to respond creatively and productively, in a peaceful way," added Kesmen. And he found one: He had a T-shirt printed with the slogan "I Love My Prophet."
So many people literally wanted to buy the shirt off of his back that Kesmen, a qualified graphic designer, recognized the untapped market for trendy clothes with a Muslim message.
Muslim office life
After moving back to his hometown, Witten, he took action. The young company's product line and profit have been growing ever since. "The label pays for itself now," said Kesmen, who advertises that one euro per shirt sold is donated to an orphanage in Africa.
Kesmen doesn't just encourage religious faithfulness among his customers, but also in the workplace. When hiring women, he prefers those who wear a headscarf. And regular prayer breaks are taken in the office – which is why everyone wears slippers instead of shoes.
Germany's most well-known Muslim rapper, Ammar 114, advertises for Styleislam, which has boosted the label's popularity among young believers.
One such a young believer is Salman Sagir of Berlin, whose parents are from India but who considers himself a "Berlin Boy" through and through. His shirt, with the slogan "Ummah – Be Part of It," fits tightly across his muscular shoulders. He doesn't seem bothered that curious passers-by examine his chest bearing the invitation to join the Ummah, the Muslim community. "Hopefully Styleislam will bring out larger sizes soon," says Sagir.
T-shirts to get people talking
Though many of Styleislam's slogans are designed to show the positive sides of Islam, they aren't necessarily accessible to non-Muslims, as some of the phrases include Islamic concepts or are written in Turkish.
"If someone doesn't understand, maybe it'll make them curious and it will spark a conversation about the phrase," said Kesmen. The company also has a detailed explanation of each slogan on its website, styleislam.com. Sometimes explanations are necessary – Styleislam's slogans can be ironic, cheeky or even downright provocative.
For example, many might ask themselves what the slogan "España islámica, 711–1492" is all about. A look at the relevant explanation on the Styleislam website reveals that it is about the influence of Muslim thinkers and translators on Western Christian philosophy in the Middle Ages.
Kesmen got threatening phone calls over the slogan "Jesus was a Muslim." He defends it, saying: "Jesus was one of the greatest prophets in Islam and his message wasn't actually any different than the Prophet Mohammed's."
While opinions may differ on the matter, Kesmen's aim is to give young Muslims a way to combine fashion with their faith and be confident about who they are. Maybe a little provocation is all part of this mix. Melih Kesmen certainly doesn't want his label to have anything to do with fighting and discrimination. "We're part of German society," he says. "We belong to it as German Muslims."
© Deutsche Welle 2009/ qantara.de 2009