Weaving Together “Contemporary Muslim Fashions”

Contemporary Muslim Fashions is the first major museum exhibition to explore the complex, diverse nature of Muslim dress codes worldwide, spotlighting places, garments, and styles to consider how Muslims define themselves—and are defined—by their dress. True to this pioneering nature, the exhibition has offered organizers across the de Young many exciting opportunities to collaborate on a series of innovative “firsts.”

Exploring this global perspective took exhibition curator Jill D’Alessandro (curator in charge of costume and textile arts) on a fashion journey to the Middle East and southeast Asia. In Saudi Arabia, D’Alessandro spoke to designers who, informed by their transcontinental lifestyles and educations, are making contemporary updates to traditional garments such as the abaya. In Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, D’Alessandro explored how modern-day designers are engaging with their cultures’ rich textile and costume traditions. In Malaysia, she researched high-demand designers making bespoke garments for the Muslim elite. Her geographically ranging research culminates in this inspiring exhibition, the first to showcase a diverse chorus of creative voices responding to a desire for modest fashion.

The relationships D’Alessandro forged with dozens of Muslim designers, influencers, and artists proved invaluable to the work of other departments at the de Young. Back in San Francisco, the promotion of Contemporary Muslim Fashions was on the minds of the marketing team, who wanted to celebrate the exhibition in high style. To give Contemporary Muslim Fashions the respect and glamour it deserved, Linda Butler (director of marketing, communications, and visitor experience) commissioned the museum’s first high-end-fashion photo and video shoot. Butler engaged independent creative director Ben Segal to develop a distinct creative marketing campaign and gather a team of the fashion industry’s top talents to make the shoot a reality.

Halima Aden on the set of the shoot
Halima Aden on the set of the shoot

Working in consultation with the exhibition’s curators, the marketing team selected a list of participating designers and invited them to take part in the shoot. Established and emerging designers from around the globe sent stunning garments—representing high-end fashion, streetwear, sportswear, and couture—to New York, where they were shot by fashion photographer Sebastian Kim. Top model Halima Aden, the face of the campaign, not only brought the garments to life with her magnetic energy but also generously shared personal stories of being raised in a refugee camp and becoming one of the first hijab-wearing models to walk a runway. Aden also discussed her experiences of wearing a hijab and navigating the nuances of both regional and generational variations on the garment. (Interview videos coming soon!)

Butler interviews Aden on set
Butler interviews Aden on set

While the marketing team was exploring high fashion in New York, the exhibition curators and the de Young’s education department were continuing to learn about Muslim fashions in the Bay Area. More than a year prior to the exhibition’s opening, they had initiated a community advisory group, which was serving as a resource for many departments in the museum. Made up of members of Bay Area Muslim organizations, the group helped to finalize the exhibition’s title, consulted on special events and programs, and recruited local Muslim youths to serve as collaborators on a teen-led podcast (another museum first!). Emily Jennings (associate director of education), working with her team and the museum’s Teen Advisory Board, developed this podcast series to explore topics in the exhibition and serve as another platform for Muslim voices. The teens brainstormed themes and strategized episodes, which they recorded at the San Francisco Public Library. Be sure to stop by the library’s main branch on Saturday, September 22, when the Teen Advisory Board will host a listening party; additional episodes will be published on the de Young’s website soon.

Teens recording their podcast
Teens recording their podcast

These stories are just some of the firsts undertaken by the de Young in weaving together this groundbreaking exhibition. We hope you find time to visit the exhibition and see the amazing global fashions on view. In the meantime, be on the lookout for photos of Halima wearing gorgeous modest-fashion garments in ads and signage across the Bay Area!