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Catwalk skirts the mullahs

Times Staff Writer

FIRST, a text message arrived. The brief note invited recipients to call about the location of a secret meeting. A cryptic phone conversation followed. “Who referred you?” a woman asked. “Who do you know?”

A man drove up in a Korean hatchback and dropped off a coded slip of paper. The directions led to a bland apartment building in the north of this capital.

There, men and women draped in coats and head scarves entered the lobby, their faces sullen. A young man examined their documents for signs of forgery before allowing them to pass down the staircase to the basement and into a sea of bare skin and perfume.

Amid air kisses and gossip, techno and hip-hop music thumps. The guests slide out of dark overcoats to unsheathe daringly low-cut dresses and open-slit gowns, form-fitting sweaters and go-go boots, skin-tight T-shirts and acid-washed jeans. Skinny, long-legged models giggle as they slip into outfits of satin and silk. A red carpet serves as a runway.

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A clandestine Tehran fashion show glitters gloriously to life.

“Everyone is putting on a show,” declares Azita, a 46-year-old designer attending the show with her 20-year-old daughter, giddily taking in the swirl of lights, music, perfume and colored fabrics. “All the ladies have gotten into the fashion business. We love it so much because the clerics hate it.” She and others taking part and watching the show asked that their family names not be published for fear of retribution.

Economic troubles loom here as the United Nations tightens sanctions against Iran, trying to coerce it into suspending its nuclear program. The country seems on a collision course with the United States. Dissidents are tossed into jail and newspapers shuttered.

But this season in Tehran, despite a public crackdown on men and women showing too much flesh in public, fantasy and funky fabrics are in. For the mostly young crowd attending this show, politics are, like, so 10 years ago.

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“I’m aware of the nuclear issue, and I know what’s happening here in Iran,” says Sami, a lithe 23-year-old model appearing in the show. “Of course, I’m worried about it,” she says. “But I can’t do anything about it. So I live my life. I love Iran. I love my boyfriend. That’s why I live here.”

Since the beginning of the Islamic Republic 28 years ago, those who opposed Iran’s Islamic system have carved out sanctuaries from its restrictions. Those islands have become more and more elaborate. They include outlandish liquor- and drug-soaked parties, art exhibitions, showings of banned movies, hip-hop concerts.

Fashion shows of outfits that abide by Islamic dress codes are common. All-women shows of new designs that don’t are relatively rare. But fashion exhibitions featuring scantily clad models parading before mixed audiences of men and women almost never take place here. At least one major Internet service provider even forbids Google searches for the word “fashion.”

None of that deterred Sadaf, the 30-year-old designer behind this showcase. For dozens of days and sleepless nights, she planned and organized. She scoured the bazaars for exotic fabrics. She scribbled designs onto scraps of paper in a spare room of her parents’ flat in north Tehran, then hired a tailor to turn her concepts into clothing. She took the risky step of asking a friend to put up a website, www.sadaft.com. She signed six models, four of them from abroad, footing the bill for their airfare to Tehran. She could have used local models, she said, but their figures weren’t up to “international standards.”

She and her boyfriend combed the city and worked contacts for weeks in search of a venue that would agree to lend them a space for such a controversial event. Five days before the show, a friend of a friend agreed to rent them this basement for $1,000. They signed a document promising that all women would abide by Islamic dress codes.

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AS the mistress of ceremonies steps forward in a sequined sleeveless black gown to open the show, it is clear that this promise, at least, will be violated.

Maysam, a 23-year-old makeup artist, dabs the models’ cheeks as he sends them off onto the catwalk.

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“You’re very good,” he tells the first young woman. “You’re very pretty. The outfit looks great on you. Now, stand up straight! Stick your chest out!”

The deejay spins blaring house music. “Feeling hypnotized,” the song goes, “nowhere to run.”

Cameras flash, briefly blanching the faces of entranced viewers seated on folding chairs in the darkened room. The models walk, pause, twirl and pose. Their defiant pouts take on an elevated significance in Iran, where the men and women could be arrested, jailed or even whipped for being here.

Sadaf’s designs draw from a kaleidoscopic palette of colors and sensibilities. They include billowy trousers, exposed midriff tops, improbably short miniskirts and see-through blouses. All-white satin gowns highlighted by golden accessories suggest upscale wedding outfits. Silver-chain belts accentuate silk black evening gowns, the neckline swooping down to the navel. Plain but elegant form-fitting chocolate-brown and blue-gray suits elevate business attire to sensual haute couture. A tiny red belt and flower lapel highlight a turquoise skirt-and-jacket combination.

“I’m a little terrified to do this,” says Sami, a professional model. She spent six years posing for shoots and working catwalks in the United Arab Emirates city of Dubai across the Persian Gulf before moving back to Iran last year.

Working as a model in Tehran meant going underground.

“We talk about modeling on the phone,” Sami says.

“But we don’t talk about parties and shows on the phone. The designers call us when they need us. People are invited at the last minute. No one knows the address. Everything is like that here in Iran. Everything is private. No one works publicly.”

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Enthusiastic applause erupts at show’s end. Sadaf and the models emerge from the background to bask in the adulation.

Sadaf’s outfits range in price from $130 to $760, a fortune in a country where schoolteachers earn about $2,500 a year. She sells four outfits this night, enough to cover the rent.

Some of the musicians perform afterward. The models, guests and organizers mingle over tea, refreshments and live music, savoring a night of respite from the Islamic Republic’s dour fashions and rules.

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IRAN’S government seems to mind less and less about such transgressions, so long as they remain discreet. If anything, Tehran has become more libertine under the conservative presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Hundreds of thousands of illegal satellite dishes have sprouted from the tops of buildings. Police who once violently broke up late-night parties now politely ask hosts to keep the noise down.

Even as government censors attempt to tighten restrictions on movies and music, young Iranians now groove to their own tunes on iPods or Walkmans as they go down the street, a rare sight only five years ago. Women still comply with the requirement of keeping themselves covered, but the coverings have become tighter, more colorful and shorter, their mandatory scarves more flimsy and revealing.

Some worry that the retreat into superficial pleasures portends ill for Iran’s future.

“As a backlash against the ideology imposed by the state and a mutiny against what they were indoctrinated in the schools ... the youth are becoming more and more hedonistic,” said Ali Dehbashi, the publisher of a well-known literary quarterly magazine, Bokhara.

The young appear to be making a conscious decision. They learn how to model watching fashion channels that are only a few clicks of the remote control away from programs by Los Angeles exiles urging them to rise up against their government. They organize shows with the same passion and stealth that dissidents might use to plot against authorities.

They invest their ingenuity into pushing the boundaries of fashion instead of politics.

“I was shocked,” says Parastou, a 29-year-old spectator at the show who works part time as a translator. “This is the first time I am seeing such a thing in our country.”

“At first, I said, ‘Wow! I cannot believe it!’ ” he adds.

“But little by little I got used to watching my fellow countrywomen walking around ... I enjoyed it. And even though I was shocked, I know that next time I won’t be shocked.”

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daragahi@latimes.com

Daragahi was recently on assignment in the Middle East.


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