On one of the holiest nights of Ramadan, Marwa Atik chose a crowded Southern California mosque to debut her latest creation.
It was just after midnight when the 20-year-old walked into the Islamic Center of Irvine, dressed in a long, flowing burgundy robe, her head wrapped in a charcoal-colored chiffon hijab, trimmed with decorative gold zippers.
After the group prayers, sermon and Koran recitation, a woman approached Atik, gesturing at the scarf. "OK, I want one," she said excitedly. "How can I get it?"
Atik has taken the Muslim head scarf, often known as hijab, and turned it into a canvas for her fashion sensibilities, with ideas inspired by designs from Forever 21 and H&M as well as haute couture runways and the pages of Vogue and Elle. Showing her latest design at a mosque was her way of gauging sentiment on scarves that go beyond the limited fashion realm they have thus far inhabited, such as floral and geometric prints or lace and beaded embellishments.
"I knew that I wanted to do a zipper scarf, because I knew that zippers were in style," Atik said, her head covered this day with a sea-foam hijab, echoing the color of her light green eyes.
The hijab has long been a palette of sorts for changing styles and designs, and shops across the Middle East are replete with colors and shapes that can vary from region to region. Some women in the Persian Gulf region wear their hair up in a bouffant with the scarf wrapped around it like a crown. Syrians are known for cotton pull-on scarves, the hijab equivalent of a T-shirt. And in Egypt veiled brides visit hijab stylists who create intricate designs and bouquets of color atop the bride's head.
But Atik's experiments with the hijab, which is meant as a symbol of modesty, are created with an eye toward being more adventuresome and risky.
To some, the trend heralds the emergence of Westernized Muslim women, who embrace both their religion and a bit of rebellion.
But to others in the Muslim community, what Atik is doing flies in the face of the head scarf's purpose. When the scarf is as on-trend as a couture gown, some wonder whether it has lost its sense of the demure.
Eiman Sidky, who teaches religious classes at King Fahd mosque in Culver City, is among those who say attempts to beautify the scarf have gone too far. In countries like Egypt, where Sidky spends part of the year, religious scholars complain that women walk down the street adorned as if they were peacocks.
"In the end they do so much with hijab, I don't think this is the hijab the way God wants it; the turquoise with the yellow with the green," she said.
The conflict is part of a larger debate among Muslims on which practices are too conservative and which too liberal.
And at a time when Muslims hear stories about women filing lawsuits after not getting hired or being barred from wearing head scarves at work — most recently at two Abercrombie & Fitch stores and Disneyland — the message is reinforced that the hijab is still regarded with suspicion.
For women like Atik, an Orange Coast College student who works part time at Urban Outfitters, fashion-forward hijabs are an attempt not only to fill a void, but to make the scarves less foreign and more friendly to non-Muslims.
The Islamic religious parameters for hijab — that the entire body must be covered except for the face and hands — are broad enough to include those who wear black, flowing abayas to those who pair a head scarf with skinny jeans.
"We've gotten maybe just a few people saying, 'Oh, this is defeating the purpose,'" said Tasneem Sabri, Atik's older sister and business partner. "It really comes down to interpretation."
The criticism means little to Atik, a petite young woman who favors skinny jeans, embellished cardigans and knee-high boots.
Atik sees the fashion industry's treatment of the hijab as staid and lackluster. She wants to make the scarves edgier, with fringes, pleats, peacock feathers, animal prints.
"We want to treat the hijab like it's a piece of clothing, because that's what it is, it's not just an accessory," said Nora Diab, a friend of Atik who began the venture with her but bowed out to focus on college. "We can still dress according to what's 'in' while dressing modest."
Scarves from Atik's recent collections are sold under the label Vela, Latin for veil. In addition to the exaggerated zippers, there are Victorian pleats, military buttons and even a black and white scarf with gold clasps named simply Michael (as in Michael Jackson). A recent design features a plain scarf with a large sewn-on bow, called "Blair," after the "Gossip Girl" character. There is also a growing bridal scarf collection.
The scarves have a certain unfinished look to them, with frayed edges and visible stitching. Atik sews many of them herself, though she recently hired a seamstress to help fill orders placed through the Vela website. The scarves, which are not available in stores, range in price from $15 for basic designs to $60 for high-fashion styles, pricier than many on the market.
When not in class or at work, Atik spends most of her time researching trends, designing new scarves or filling orders. She makes frequent trips to Los Angeles for fabric.
Atik said she is inspired by risk-takers such as Alexander McQueen, the late avant-garde designer with an eye for shock value.
"I feel he says it's really OK to be different," Atik said while taking a coffee break in Los Angeles' Fashion District.
Atik, whose parents are from Syria, began wearing the head scarf in eighth grade. She was the editor of her high school yearbook but found herself spending more time browsing fashion websites than looking at photos of student clubs and activities. After school she would spend hours at Wal-Mart reading fashion magazines. In the summer of 2009 when she and Diab decided to design hijabs, she took sewing classes, the youngest among a group of elderly women making patterned quilts.
Before a photo shoot for her website this year, Atik did last-minute hemming and sewing at her makeshift work space in the kitchen of her Huntington Beach home. The kitchen table was covered with half-completed designs. Bags of satin and chiffon fabric sat on chairs and lacy and beaded scarves spilled out onto the fruit bowls.
Atik fingered a beige and pink chiffon scarf.
"I think we're going to try a couple on you," she told her friend Marwa Biltagi, who had arrived wearing a loosely wrapped black and gold scarf. "Because either way you can work it."
In the backyard, Biltagi and others posed beside palm trees, heads cocked to the side, backs arched. Someone commented that it looked very French Vogue.
"One, two, move, yeah exactly like that.... OK, I'm going to be taking like a lot so just keep switching it up.... Yeah, I like how you had your hand up on the wall," Atik said as she clicked the camera. "I feel like we need music."
Her mother watched from the kitchen.
"There are people who say that it's not a hijab. As long as it covers the hair, I noticed these young people, they like these things," Safa Atik said. "Why I encouraged her is because ... she's making something that looks nice."
Alaa Ellaboudy, who runs the blog Hijabulous ("A hijabi's guide to staying fabulous"), is familiar with the scolding that non-traditional scarves can prompt. The Rancho Cucamonga resident wears her scarf tied behind her neck and has a penchant for dramatic eye makeup and bright clothes.
"Everyone has their opinion, 'Oh no that's haram [forbidden], you can't do that,'" Ellaboudy said. "But for me, it's always about finding that balance and still looking good."
On her blog, she defines "hijabulous" as being "exceptionally stylish yet conforming to the Islamic dress code."
When the over-sized September issue of Vogue arrived, Atik flipped through the pages for inspiration.
A few weeks later, stocking up on fabrics and an ostrich feather in the Fashion District, she went from store to store with the same request: "Do you have a leopard-print chiffon?"
At her third store she saw a leopard print but thought the look and feel of the silk fabric were not quite right.
"I wouldn't want this on my head. If only it was chiffon, I'd be all over it."