LONDON // Meeting Sarah Elenany is a striking experience. Not just because she is petite, friendly and brimming with life - although she is. Not because she dresses according to the Islamic rules - in Britain these days that it is unexceptional. What makes her stand out is the way she takes the dress code and turns it into something young, edgy and cool. Of course, the rules are obeyed: she is covered, apart from her hands and face, and nothing is fitted or revealing. But at the same time, she looks more modern than any girl in tight jeans and a cropped T-shirt.
That's because Elenany is a designer spearheading a bold new fashion: mixing the Islamic dress code with smart, urban streetwear. "I know it's a big statement, but my brand is the first of its kind. There isn't anything else like it out there at the moment," she says. Her recently launched line includes hoodie dresses with dramatic graphics based on Islam, chic baggy trousers and a stylish raincoat that comes with built-in protection for the traditional headscarf.
Although it is Islamic fashion, the aim is to create an edgy, young style for any woman. "In the back of my mind I always wanted to make it appeal to a non-Muslim market as well, for the sake of making it available to more people and also in terms of making it normal fashion." The idea is that Muslims will spot the cultural references, while non-Muslims will see fashions they want to wear. "My sales have proved that non-Muslims are buying the designs," she says. "So, it's a niche product but with a mainstream element."
At 25, she's no newcomer to clothes-making. "I started making my own from about the age of 16 because there was nothing I liked that covered me up properly and had street cred." She became increasingly frustrated with trying to be fashionable and stick to the Islamic code. "There have been so many times when I have gone out to buy something and I haven't been able to, because there was nothing that ticked all the boxes. I'd find a dress and think 'Oh, great!' and then put it on and discover it came in under the bust too tightly or the sleeves were only three-quarter length, which means I'd have to wear something underneath it."
She saw other young Muslim women having the same problem. So, after completing a bachelor's degree in engineering product design and embarking on a master's in enterprise, both at South London University, she decided the answer was to launch her own brand of street-cred Islamic clothes. Called Elenany (pronounced Ellen-arny), the company has a tiny office in the unfashionable Elephant and Castle area of London. It launched earlier this summer with nine items, all self-designed. However, Elenany says she is not a fashion designer but a product designer - creating items aimed at a gap in the market.
Before making the clothes she carefully researched her target audience. "We asked them what their style was - feminine, conservative, street or whatever. We asked what kind of things they actually wear. And what they would like to wear. "Half said they wore streetwear and half said they wore 'pretty' clothing. I knew I was happier designing streetwear, so I went with that. I also found out what colours they liked: 80 per cent said dark colours with a bit of brightness. Which was great because black and white is my favourite colour combination, so I used that."
At the heart of her brand are the graphics that appear on her logo, dresses and jacket linings. "I tried to think of the things that are relevant to me as a Muslim. So there is one design which is like this [she holds her hands out, palms facing upwards]. It's dua, and every Muslim knows that. I didn't want to use traditional Islamic art, which is really beautiful but doesn't speak to me. I wanted to use graphics to capture the spirit of being a young Muslim. And I wanted people to look at the clothes and get it. And Muslims do - they say 'Oh look, that's dua'."
Another design (and her logo) uses a hand with one finger raised, the sign of shahada, the Muslim declaration of the oneness of God. "But because it also looks like the number one, it is relevant to both markets." Elenany admits that when she was growing up, Islamic faith did not play a large part in her life. She is British, with a Palestinian mother and Egyptian father, and the family went to the mosque only for important occasions. Things changed when she was a teenager. "Life happens and you start thinking. First my brother started practising, then my parents followed and so did I. And I did Hajj when I was 19."
The family home is in Mitcham, Surrey, just south of London, which is where Elenany has her "design studio" in the garage. Although she is as British as they come, selling the idea of an Islamic brand in the UK has proved difficult. "I have a lot of negative feedback from buyers on the Islamic brand. They look at the designs and I start explaining the story and their faces just drop. In fact, one major High Street chain said it might offend people.
"But I have been told the products are great. So for my next collection I am thinking of keeping everything exactly the same - just not saying anything about Islam. So I am not alienating anyone. "Now, I have had feedback - like 'make it a bit more feminine'. So my next collection is still streetwear, but it is more feminine." It will be bigger, with 15 pieces for women and two for men. "I am naming future collections according to the theme of the graphics. The next one is called The Friday Collection. It includes a graphic called Brotherhood, which looks like lots of people praying next to each other. And there's one called Salaam, which is what people do at Friday prayers. And there's one with a minaret repeat pattern."
Although she has had orders from the US, Canada and France as well as the UK, Elenany accepts her clothes are not suitable for all markets - and may not appeal to women in the Gulf, where the full-length abaya is popular. "My brand is very British. I think they have a different style to Britain and the style might not be right for them. "I am just trying to provide a choice for people. If people want to wear traditional abaya, then that's cool. I have seen some of the girls wear it and they look stunning in their abaya. But if they want things that are a bit younger, then my clothes will cover them up so they feel comfortable and be something that's not traditional."
Even though, for her new collection, Elenany is listening to feedback, there's one thing she definitely isn't changing: her pride in being young and Muslim. "One design looks a bit like Glastonbury, but it also looks a bit like Muslims at a demo," she says. "And I know a demo is a bit controversial but I wanted to capture the spirit of Muslim youth. "I didn't want to apologise, because I think Muslims in Britain today feel they have to keep apologising because other Muslims do bad stuff. But I wanted it to be a celebration. To say, yes, we're angsty - but really it's all right."
* The National