Vahdat Hall, originally called Roudaki Hall and built for artistic performances, was a prominent venue for major concerts and plays over the years. This year, however, on the occasion of spring and Nowruz, the Iranian new year, it became the site for a different type of event: the Fajr Fashion Festival.
For quite some time, clothing items have been presented at an annual, year-end exhibition to make purchasing them easier for middle- and lower-class families in anticipation of the new year. People would, at times, have near-death experiences from pushing and being pushed, to grab the last of the dresses, manteaus and scarves. This year, such exhibitions were more expansive, held in 400 venues throughout the country, with 35,000 manufacturers selling their products, including clothing items and Nowruz goods, such as nuts and delicate cookies traditionally served during spring visits to people's homes.
With this year's events, the clothing industry in Iran has turned over a new leaf, presenting a hipper style. Most middle-class Iranians could afford to buy clothes from the exhibition held in Vahdat Hall this year, although it was tough for some families’ budgets. Festival fans say they were able to purchase clothes below wholesale prices.
Some critics argue that Vahdat Hall should stay true to its origins and continue to be reserved for cultural events, while other critics contend that a fashion festival should solely focus on clothing rather than including jewelry and kids’ toys and books on the side. This year, a sideshow of the fashion fair attracted visitors through the appearance of several popular actors and singers, who posed for pictures with visitors and signed autographs and their new albums.
The private sector, adopting a fashion-forward approach, has become active in presenting clothing, mostly for women, at fashion shows. Some even include catwalks and other elements copied from Western fashion weeks, but still observing the dress code implemented by the administration. In addition, a number of younger designers have emerged on the fashion scene over the past two years. They usually start small and sometimes succeed in breaking through to the mass market, targeting young middle-class women in search of affordable casual clothes for everyday attire.
One young designer group, Anargol, was started last year. Its members have been quite successful, primarily through word of mouth. In a telephone interview, their representative told Al-Monitor that their brand also owes a large part of its success to social media, in particular Facebook. When asked about business rivals in the clothing industry, he said, “We have no rival. We’ve managed to find our consumers, and they have stuck with us over the years. We’ve grown incredibly and expanded our business beyond our expectations. We own seven of our own stores in different cities. We offer very affordable prices, including for custom-made clothes, for which we accept orders.”
Anargol manufactures manteaus, skirts and shawls (widely worn these days in lieu of headscarves), which are sewn by its eight seamstresses from fabric purchased in Tehran’s Bazaar. The fabric is imported, made in China, Thailand or India. Designers and manufacturers like Anargol typically do not participate in government-supported clothing fairs. Many of them claim to be better and more chic than mainstream manufacturers.
Some fashion shows are held in private homes. Business owners get the word out, bringing in customers themselves or through people with whom they do business. They also purchase and bring clothes according to their regular customers’ orders. A number of businesses have designers and seamstresses on the payroll and typically hold semi-annual or seasonal shows, during which they take orders as well. The businesses occasionally feature catwalks, which have become increasingly popular in Iran.
Some such establishments are called or considered “boutiques,” but are mostly identified as “maisons,” the name widely used in Iran for decades. “Maison” is generally used in reference to upscale boutiques carrying tailor-made or imported clothes and shoes for women. These are run out of homes, while boutiques are high-end stores carrying pricier-than-mainstream imported clothing and footwear for both women and men, usually in upscale neighborhoods, often in bigger cities. They are not underground. Some financially comfortable women prefer foreign-made clothes, which are mostly made in Turkey and imported through the black market or brought to Iran in smaller quantities by frequent travelers.
Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and blogs are the most popular and widely used methods for safely getting the word out ahead of a show. Seasonal shows, particularly before spring and the Iranian new year, usually run for at least a week or two.
Iranian women have proven their creativity in ways in which they work around the administration time and time again and make their appearance more appealing, hipper and elegant, against all odds. They do not appear to be falling behind Western styles and looks when it comes to fashion.