IRVINE, Calif. —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, Calif., dressed in a long, flowing burgundy robe, her head wrapped in a charcoal chiffon hijab, trimmed decoratively with gold zippers.
After the group prayers, sermon and Koran recitation, a woman approached Atik, gesturing to the scarf. "OK, I want one," she said excitedly. "How can I get it?"
Atik has taken the scarf worn by Muslim women and turned it into a canvas for her fashion sensibilities, the ideas inspired by designs from Forever 21 and H&M as well as haute couture runways and the pages of Vogue and Elle. Showing it at a mosque was her way of gauging sentiment to scarves that go beyond the limited fashion realm they have thus far inhabited — floral and geometric prints or lace and beaded embellishment.
"I knew that I wanted to do a zipper scarf, because I knew that zippers were in style," Atik said later, her head wrapped this day in 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 from the Persian Gulf wear their hair 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 cotton 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 — meant as a symbol of modesty — are created with an eye toward being even 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 headscarf'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, Calif., 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, sheikhs 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 greater, ongoing debate among Muslims of what practices are too conservative and what is too liberal.
At a time when Muslims hear stories like that of two women who have sued Abercrombie & Fitch for refusing to hire them because of the hijab and the Orange County, Calif., woman who filed a federal complaint against Disneyland for not being allowed to wear her headscarf on the job, the message is re-enforced 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 not only an attempt to fill a void, but to make the scarves less foreign and more friendly to non-Muslims.
The religious parameters for how to wear the hijab — that the entire body must be covered except for the hands and face — 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 experimentation with the hijab as staid and lackluster. She wants to make the scarves even edgier — with fringe, 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's 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, visible 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 who inspired it. There is also a growing bridal scarf collection.
The scarves have a certain unfinished look to them — with frayed edges and visible stitching. Atik, whose parents are from Syria, sews many of them herself though she recently hired a seamstress to help fill orders placed through the Vela web site. The hijabs, which are not available in stores, range in price from $15 for basic designs to $60 for high fashion ones, pricier than many scarves 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 LA's fashion district.
Atik, who began wearing the headscarf in eighth grade, was the editor of her high school yearbook but found herself spending more time browsing fashion web sites than looking at photos of student clubs and activities. After school she would spend hours sitting in the aisle of Wal-Mart reading fashion magazines. Last summer when she and Diab decided to design hijabs, she took sewing classes, the youngest among a group of elderly women making patterned quilts.
In her makeshift work space before a photo shoot for her site earlier this year, Atik did last minute hemming and sewing 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 can come from wearing hijab in a non-traditional way. 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,'" said Ellaboudy. "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 last month, 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 she saw a leopard print but thought the look and feel of the silk fabric was not quite right.
"I wouldn't want this on my head, if only it was chiffon, I'd be all over it."