ORLANDO, Florida—It wasn't a typical weekend scene at the Fashion Square Mall in central Florida. A DJ blasted loud belly dance music as fashionably dressed Muslim women in hijabs took red carpet selfies and got free makeovers to celebrate the grand opening of Verona, the first Islamic fashion store to open in a major U.S. shopping mall.
Verona has only been open for a couple of days, but it's already challenging Islamaphobia towards Muslim women who wear headcovers in western society.
“We have this stereotype that hijabis [women who wear the hijab] are oppressed, that they’re forced to wear it, and they’re uneducated. These things are everything that I am not and everything that my customers are not,” store owner Lisa Vogl told Fusion as she and her business partners cut the ribbon on the store.
Vogl is an American designer and fashion photographer who converted to Islam in 2011 and started her own modest clothing and hijab brand in 2013. “From a young age I would design things with my grandma, and she would sew them for me,” said Vogl, who's in her early thirties.
As a full-time fashion photographer, Vogl travelled around the Arab world and the United States working on projects featuring Islamic clothing brands. But traveling became a challenge after she had her first kid, so she shifted gears and started her own fashion brand, Verona Collection. “I decided to open up a fashion brand because it’s something I can be at one spot and do. It was just easier as a mom,” she says.
Vogl says she started designing her own clothing brand in response to the challenges she faced buying fashionable clothing as a Muslim woman. “I would go to the mall and try to find undershirts and slightly modest clothing and it became a difficult task,” she says.
I can relate. Shopping for long sleeve fashionable shirts and long dresses without thigh-high slits isn’t as easy as you would think! I've spent hours and hours digging through piles of crop tops to find long-sleeved modest tops that look fashionable and trendy. But most of long sleeve shirts I find are in the clearance section—the clothing that's been picked-over and discarded by other women my age.
Verona is trying to change all that.
“Muslim women love to shop, love to be fashionable and can be beautiful even while being modest and wearing hijab,” said Rayyan Sokkarie, 18-year-old Verona model and fashion blogger, who was surrounded by fans who took selfies and greeted her at the grand opening of the store.
Sokkarie told Fusion that just having a hijab store in a U.S. shopping mall is a way of showing that Islamic culture is already part of mainstream America.
“Being integrated into a major mall like this with people constantly being exposed to the true face of Muslim women, not the negativity they see in the news, helps narrow the gap between the Muslim community and others,” she said.
Vogl said she and her business partners started looking for a store location three months ago and found the Orlando mall was welcoming of the idea. “We did not have much trouble; it was perfect timing that we were able to get an open spot," Vogl said. "We had to tell them what we were selling but they didn’t give us a difficult time for anything."
She says the store is open to everyone, and notes that many of her customers are non-Muslim women who like the modest and affordable look.
“Our clothes fit everybody, we like to go with simple basic look that fits everybody's style and that is also affordable, comfortable and fashionable,” Vogl said.
But not everyone popping into Verona to welcome them to the neighborhood. Many non-Muslim women I tried to interview for this article declined to comment. Some stopped to watch from a safe distance, while others just walked by shaking their heads in disapproval.
Vogl is undeterred by the haters. She's already planning to opening additional stores in London and Paris. And she'll probably do just fine. The global market for Muslim clothing is projected to reach $488 billion by 2019, according to Thomson Reuters' State of the Global Islamic Economy Report.
Alaa Basatneh is a human-rights activist and a writer at Fusion focusing on the Arab world. She is the protagonist of the 2013 documentary "#ChicagoGirl."