Sultry looks and silk robes reveal glamour of Baghdad

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

June 15, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Five months after the Persian Gulf war bombs stopped pummeling Baghdad, the government of Iraq wanted to show the city was back on its feet.

So it sponsored a fashion show.

Swirling skirts, lush fabrics, glamorous gowns on tall, sultry models strutting down the runway. . . . This was not the image that usually comes to mind when one thinks of grim and oppressive Iraq.

But that is the point, said Feryal al-Kilidar, director of the Iraqi House of Fashion. She said she began putting on Iraqi fashion shows all over the world because Iraq never got proper credit.

"I would see fashions in London or Rome, and I would see many ideas from our area. But they never said it was from Iraq. They always said it was from China, or India, or Egypt," she complained. "The world never wants to say good things about Iraq."

The shows, sponsored by the government, began 22 years ago. Before the gulf war, she took her models all over the world. In the postwar embargo, there has been a dearth of invitations, and the show currently appears only in Iraq. But her designers continue making gowns, and Mrs. Kilidar optimistically expects to return to the international circuit soon.

The shows are as much for cultural exhibition as modern fashion. None of the gowns, painstakingly designed and handmade, is for sale, although Mrs. Kilidar said she did not mind having commercial designers copy her ideas -- if they gave Iraq some credit.

"I see the designers in the audience all the time," she said. "They bring their cameras. Sometimes they even bring video cameras and say it's for television. But I know they take the video back to their offices and look at our designs."

After one trip to Rome, her fashions turned up as the hottest design in Italian commercial fashion houses the following season, she said.

Many of the 120-odd gowns typically displayed in her show are stunning. They are flowing robes of silk and chiffon and other expensive textiles. The hand embroidery is rich and intricate; the costumes often include silver and jewels, bangles and beads. And all have historical meaning.

"What we do is speak about our history through fashion," she said. "We take the real look of the old and adopt it in a modern way."

For example, one gown will be stitched with an elaborate scene taken from the carving of a Babylonian tablet; another will be fashioned from the shape of a Sumerian relic.

Some dresses are alight with literature -- the swooping script of Arabic calligraphy is sewn into the design with gold thread. Or religion, borrowing from the decor of a mosque's minaret.

Beautiful as they are, the dresses come alive on stage. The show is as much theater as fashion. She uses special lighting, a rapid slide presentation, dramatic soundtrack, choreography. And 10 beautiful women as models.

The women come to her House of Fashion as young as 16 asking to be models, she said. It is a glamorous life in a country with little glamour. They might get to travel abroad. They have their own gymnasium, hairdresser and indoor pool. They get a government salary -- not much money in inflation-wracked Iraq, but steady income even between shows.

Do these women dream of greater stardom, perhaps a chance on the fashion runways of Paris or New York? Mrs. Kilidar scoffs at the proposition.

"They cannot be a success outside," she pronounces. "We work in a different way. Here, it is a work of culture. The women must look like the queens of history. Outside, they look for models for a look of money."

She does her women injustice. Several who have been in her show could grace any fashion magazine cover; on the runway, they are riveting to watch. But indeed, none has deserted to the West.

Mrs. Kilidar also has her eye on everyday fashions. The pink-striped building at the House of Fashion has an extra wing ready to accommodate commercial design and additional space to begin a fashion magazine for Iraq. But "everything stopped for the war," she laments.

The imposition of the economic sanctions on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait Aug. 2, 1990, abruptly curtailed her exhibitions. Since then, the Iraqi show has been invited to only one other country -- Jordan.

But she keeps her staff busy designing and making gowns, in preparation for the end of the embargo.

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