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Inside Iran’s Underground Fashion Industry

Tehran-based fashion designers Shirin and Shiva Vaqar joined Hoda Katebi, an Iranian-American activist who founded America’s first apparel manufacturing co-op run by refugee women. They discussed the fashion industry in Iran, a country that has long been isolated from the Western world.
Masoud Golsorkhi, Hoda Katebi, Shirin Vaqar and Shiva Vaqar speak during #BoFVOICES | Source: Getty Images for The Business of Fashion

OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — “The world is fucking on fire right now,” Iranian-American Activist Hoda Katebi said on the VOICES stage Thursday afternoon, on the fifth day of Iran’s government-imposed Internet blackout.

“How can we ever think that what we’re creating [in fashion] shouldn’t be engaging with that?” she added, implicating the fashion industry as part of the global economy that perpetuates oppressive systems. Western nations are “profiting off of the fact that [certain] countries aren’t growing after all,” she said.

In an impassioned and far-ranging impromptu speech, Katebi highlights the role of US and UK government sanctions as having a crippling effect on everyday Iranians and how brands like Nike undermine ongoing social revolutions in the world by touting its hijab athletic wear amid reports that the company allegedly sources some materials from Muslim Uighur internment camps in China.

Katebi, who founded the Blue Tin Production Co-Op — known as America's first apparel manufacturing co-op run by refugee women — calls this "revolution-washing," not unlike corporate "greenwashing." Large corporations guilty of revolution-washing market themselves as allies of marginalised groups without fully committing to the related ethos, she explained.

Why should we let the industry reduce our identity to just a hijab?

“You’re taking away the significance of being Muslim,” she said. “Why should we let the industry reduce our identity to just a hijab? Fashion should not be in the business of simplifying things."

Katebi was joined by Tehran-based designers Shirin and Shiva Vaqar, two sisters behind a namesake fashion line that can only operate “underground” in the face of Iran’s restrictive conditions.

“It’s very hard for us, not just as emerging designers but as Iranians,” said Shiva Vaqar. “We face lots of sanctions and restrictions. Sourcing fabrics, finding production houses, convincing them to make our pieces… We have problems sending products outside Iran, [we don’t have] FedEx, banking is on lock-down."

Still, she said, “We try to make it.” The sisters are able to find some workarounds like showcasing their designs on Instagram and figuring out creative ways to ship products to their fans across the world.

To learn more about VOICES, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details on our invitation-only global gathering.

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The State of Fashion: Technology