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Parisian entrepreneur Moojan Asghari noticed something unusual about the Tehran startup weekend she contributed to in December 2016: the prevalence of stylish hijabs and lipstick. Unlike the high-tech events she goes to in Europe and the United States, women were well-represented in the competing Iranian teams. “Most of the projects we had were related to e-commerce,” Asghari says. “Fashion tech is one of the trendiest topics in Iran.” These days, badass Persian women are quietly reshaping online shopping models from the ground up.
Years of political sanctions isolated Iran’s economy, limiting imports and curbing Iranians’ ability to use international currencies like the US dollar. The global fashion industry was no exception. So innovative Iranians developed their own fashion ecosystem. “The fashion scene in Iran (especially the underground fashion scene) really took off after economic sanctions were imposed against Iran,” Iranian-American fashion blogger Hoda Katebi tells Racked. “I don’t want to publicize any names of underground fashion designers for worry that their accounts might be shut down. So I’ll just say that there is a lot to be excited about.”
Persian women, in particular, became the queens of both online shopping and slaying the style game on Instagram. Iranian marketing expert Niki Aghaei wrote on LinkedIn that 7.5 million Iranians between the ages of 16 and 35 are active on Instagram. The digital Persian marketplace is full of original, avant-garde designs and photoshoots that shop owners would never dare display in the real Islamic Republic. “We create freedom for ourselves,” Ashgari said.
Now online shopping completely dominates Iranian fashion markets. A national survey in 2016 revealed 39 percent of Iranians shop online at least once a month, according to TechCrunch, with around 11 percent shopping online every week. And clothing purchases make up the fastest-growing sector of Iranian e-commerce. For comparison, a study by the Pew Research Center estimated 15 percent of Americans purchase something online every week. However, the American e-commerce market doesn’t have widespread government censorship or global politics to contend with. Iranian startups are still considered off-limits by Silicon Valley. Yet despite economic sanctions, Iranian internet users are quickly catching up.
“The growth of online purchasing is picking up at rates unseen in any other markets,” Hossein Entekhabi of the startup Bamilo, the second-largest e-commerce company in Iran, told TechCrunch. The Persian nation is home to many lucrative e-commerce startups, including Modiseh and Digikala, the latter of which is worth over $150 million, according to the Guardian. Alexa ranks Digikala as the third most popular website in all of Iran.
“It has grown so fast,” Ashgari marvels at the thriving scene in her hometown of Tehran. She left in 2012, and now lives in Paris as the COO and cofounder of Startup Sesame. Like many expats, she regularly travels back to her homeland and maintains business connections across borders. Almost 100 participants contributed to the fashion-tech competition Ashgari helped organize during the 2016 Tehran startup weekend. “A lot of women were developers,” Asghari says, estimating that they made up around half of the techies at the event. “Which is very different from when I do these in France.”
In Iran, the lines between the digital fashion economy and the black market are often blurred. Facebook is officially blocked in Iran. However, Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, is quickly becoming a prominent platform for Iranian women to launch their own startups, from under-the-table luxury imports and retail to original fashion designs.
“This then, of course, makes marketing infinitely more difficult for designers — there is a tension between public and private, advertisement and secrecy,” Katebi says. She is also the author of the book Tehran Streetstyle, which is full of regular Iranian women breaking the legal dress code with stylish ensembles. In general, there is a vast divide in Iran between official rules and unofficial social norms. “Twitter is forbidden in Iran. It is censored,” Asghari says. “Yet our president tweets every day.”
The only Iranian fashion designer who agreed to speak on the record wanted anonymity, because he feared exposure would put his team and their families at risk of retaliation from the regime. “[Instagram] helps the young girls that are presenting their collections in their apartment and showrooms to sell their creations more easily,” says Muhammad* from Tehran. “It helps them to make a really good income for themselves each season, which I think is something to be proud of.”
Today, many of Iran’s most popular style influencers are rejecting Eurocentric standards. "Middle Easterners, before they were a bit shy of Middle Eastern aesthetics, desperately wanted to dress European and Western, but the talent of young local designers has changed the scenario," Muhammad says.
Traditional motifs like Persian poetry, ceramics, and architecture are inspiring some of the most popular prints and designs by local entrepreneurs. For example, Zahra Shiri, founder of Tehran-based Lakota Designs, is best known for shoes that depict Persian paintings and literary figures.
From shoes and clutches to scarves, new Iranian designers are celebrating their unique cultural aesthetic from head to toe. But outerwear still reigns supreme as the most popular fashion product. Iranian women are obligated by Islamic law to wear modest outerwear that covers their hair and obscures the curves of their figure. This is most often done with either with the loose-fitting black chador, which literally means “tent” in Farsi, or with scarves and long overcoats called roopoosh or mantos. As such, Iranian designers are adept at turning coats into wearable art.
“In the underground fashion scene in Iran, many designers are pushing the limits on expressions of gender and cultural identity through fashion design,” Katebi says. However, if the models show “too much” skin or get caught bending those gender norms, online marketing comes with inherent risks.
People can be arrested for selling and wearing styles deemed too sexy by religious authorities. Iranian swimwear designer Tala Raassi was reportedly given 40 lashes for wearing a miniskirt in 1998. Today’s digital style influencers are wading into dangerous waters.
The BBC reported in 2016 that 170 suspects were investigated and warned, eight of whom were arrested, for “un-Islamic” Instagram modeling. The alleged criminals included models, fashion designers, stylists, photographers, and makeup artists. But these cases are rare among the millions of Iranians participating in the digital scene. The court's prosecutor, Javad Babaei, said on Iranian TV that around 20 percent of Instagram posts from Iran are related to modeling. “The government has this problem with virality,” Ashgari says. “If you do your thing in your corner, nothing happens.”
The risks of attracting the wrong kind of attention increase when entrepreneurs move from Instagram and online shops to tech startups that need to raise money and promote new platforms. Yet that hasn’t deterred Iranian women from flocking to the digital market.
Tehran-based fashion industry veteran Mahboobeh Shokoohifar believes foreign political sanctions can be even more challenging than local religious police, called the Gasht-e Arshad. She is part of the founding trio behind the styling app Fit&Fine, which won first place at Asghari’s fashion-tech competition in 2016. Shokoohifar hopes to represent her company at an international high-tech conference in New York this year, but she worries about getting a visa.
“Because of [Trump’s] recent visa ban, I think the most important problems are visas and financial transactions,” Shokoohifar says over Skype. “ [Customers] can't use international credit cards because of banking sanctions.”
Shokoohifar has a masters degree in fashion from the University of Tehran and years of experience in Iran’s traditional fashion industry, working in retail, designing leather products, and writing for the Iranian fashion magazine Manamode. Now she is one of the many entrepreneurs creating new apps and social networks in Tehran’s thriving startup scene.
Fit&Fine, which is still in development, aims to match Iranian users with local stylists as they shop and try creative combinations with clothes they already have. She’s proud to be a part of an industry dominated by independent businesswomen. “Women have the most important role in the field of fashion, both producing and using,” Shokoohifar says. All the people Racked spoke to have their own definitions of what “Iranian fashion” means to them.
While some fashionistas do push the boundaries with sex appeal and political fashion, not all Iranian women use fashion to resist Islamic law. It’s common for luxury consumers in Iran to buy clothes from Western designers and then use local tailors to make the apparel more modest. “Religion and culture is important to any person or company that decides to work here,” Shokoohifar says.
Western media often fetishizes Iranian fashion and imagines political motives where sometimes there aren’t any. “They write that colorful hijabs are a statement against the government. That’s absolutely not true,” Muhammad says. His mother is a conservative woman who chooses to cover her hair. When she prefers a vibrant hijab over a black chador, there is no subversive message behind her outfit. “It’s not a statement against the government,” he says. “It’s the better choice to look more pretty. That’s it.”
Iran’s growing fashion revolution isn’t just about sexual liberation or innovative shopping networks. It’s about Persians claiming fashion as an expression of their own identities and values, not as products of either local religious authorities or foreign ideals. Stylish Middle Eastern women no longer need to look to Paris or New York for couture inspiration. Economic isolation has only increased Iranians’ penchant for unorthodox fashion experiments. “The more something is taken away from you,” Muhammad says, “the more you become obsessed with it.”