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Beautifully modest

Designer creates fashion-forward clothes for tradition-conscious Arab Americans

A designe by Samaher Mohammad is pictured in Dearborn, Michigan in July.

A designe by Samaher Mohammad is pictured in Dearborn, Michigan in July.

In an 820-square-foot space in West Dearborn, Mich., amid a jeweler, a shoe repair and a spa, Samaher Mohammad walks among garments of silk and organza, chiffon and crinoline.
She touches the tulle of a kimono-inspired abaya, an everyday Islamic dress, and the embroidery of a thoub, a formal Islamic dress.
Over days and weeks and months, the 27-year-old designed these gowns, dresses of lace and beading and Swarovski crystals - Arab in their array of color, Islamic in their modesty and American in their silhouette.
They exude fun and creativity yet mesh with the conservative standards sought by many Arab-American Muslims like her. (She veers away, for instance, from hemlines that rise too high or necklines that plunge too far.)
Her repository consists of about 30 gowns, made with fabric from Jordan to Kashmir, which she used to launch the grand opening of her store in August.
With each stitch, Mohammad has woven in a part of herself. The magenta and turquoise and fuchsia reflect the colorful Mediterranean culture of her family's heritage. The embroidered patterns hint at distinct Arabic geometry and calligraphy.
"My culture," she says, "is embedded in my designs. I get inspired by who I am."
Zaynini, the store's name, means "make me beautiful" in Arabic, which is exactly how Mohammad wants women to feel when they slip on her gowns.
Mohammad knows that, given the state of the local economy, it's not the most auspicious time to launch a new business, but she speaks with a friendly, direct confidence.
"I really think there's a niche out there for what I have. I want to create something that's different, unique," she says. "Once it's open, it's going to get bigger, not smaller. There's no way I've done what I did for it to come to an end."
Tomboy to fashionista
Mohammad looks at the store she has carpeted with leopard patterns and painted a red that Ralph Lauren Home calls "Mai Tai," marveling that she is opening her own business.
She says she was an artsy kid but she was no fashion maven.
"I was chubby, so it was always jeans and T-shirts," she says. "Tommy Hilfiger and Nautica. I was a tomboy. I had the biggest overalls. They were at least XL. Men's."
Whatever thoubs she wore to formal occasions were passed down by her mother.
Mohammad's life changed in 2003 when she was accepted at the International Academy of Design and Technology in Troy after she showed the school her sketches and a few Detroit Pistons jerseys she had embroidered with rhinestones and embellished with basketball net-like material, transforming them into mini-dresses.
At IADT, she thrived, becoming a member of the president's advisory council. After graduating in 2006, she worked as a sales associate for well-known metro Detroit jeweler Donna D.
Still, she was looking for her own niche. There weren't a lot of Arabic fashion designers she could follow aside from Elie Saab and Reem Accra, both known for bridal gowns.
Mohammad's specific interest lay in designing trendy, comfortable dresses that young, female Arab-American Muslims would want to wear, staying away from anything too old-fashioned. She would sketch everything, acquire local and imported cloth, visit a tailor for about half her sewing and price casual summer dresses at US$30 to US$35 and evening gowns at US$200 to US$1,500.
But in order to hone the look she wanted, Mohammad needed to combine her American sensibilities with Arab inspiration, something she thought she would only get by being surrounded by a crush of abayas and thoubs overseas.
'The modern Muslim'
Born in Detroit and raised in Dearborn, Mich., by Palestinian immigrants, Mohammad and her passion for fashion deviated from everyone else in her family. Mohammad's father was a restaurateur, her mother a stay-at-home mom, her older sister an office manager and her older brother a warehouse manager.
"In the beginning, my parents called it 'facial,'" says Mohammad. "I'm like 'Mom, it's fashion!'"
Hoda Salameh, 19, of Dearborn Heights, who serves as Mohammad's volunteer assistant and refers to her as "Sue Sue," the nickname her mom gave her, says: "We're not always getting the greatest support. Now Sue Sue is making a good name for us, doing what she loves."
Mohammad cringes at the perception that Arab-American women "are supposed to live a sheltered life, the perception that we're never going to do anything."
In refute, she says with wide eyes: "We're going to be the first Arab girls to do it big!"
Mohammad's big vision started last year, when she decided to show off her designs at the Dearborn Arab International Festival.
At 26, she had never traveled overseas, but she wanted to go to "see my country" and to gather inspiration for her line.
Mohammad spent 47 days in Jordan last year, with side trips to Jerusalem - she wanted to pray at the Dome of the Rock - to Ramallah and to Beit Hanina, where her father grew up.
In the capital city of Amman, Jordan, Mohammad visited textile manufacturers, choosing fabric. She took her sketches to an atelier, asking people to cut and sew to match her design.
"My Arabic is horrible," she says. "I was this young American girl telling these guys what to do. It was a little weird."
But what she did worked. She came back with enough material and designs to finish 15 of the 18 gowns for her fashion show at last year's festival and a vision for clothing and accessorizing what she calls the "modern Muslim."
One of a kind
Mohammad sees the store as a natural progression from her collection, but it has not come without a lot of financial help.
A family member put up about half of the US$25,000 she needed to start Zaynini; the rest came from loans, as well as local and family business sponsorships she obtained to develop the line for the show. She also still has about US$50,000 in student loans to pay off.
It's scary, but it's also the start of a dream. It's a dream that involves a ready-to-wear line of hijabs, or headscarves, especially because she anticipates donning them in the future, "after I get married."
For now, she is focused on readying her handmade necklaces, hair combs, headpieces and other handmade jewelry (US$25-US$150), and of course, her gowns, for Zaynini's grand opening. She's also updating her website so that her customized dresses will be available to anyone with the Internet.
Despite the potential access difficulties, Jennifer Knott Giering, president of the Dearborn Chamber of Commerce, says word of mouth and the quality of Mohammad's products will attract customers.
"I don't think there's anything quite like her," says Giering. "We're in a vanilla society where we run to Target or Wal-Mart for everything. What she creates is unique, customized, one of a kind."
Standing in Zaynini, Giering glances at Mohammad and then at a garment of gold beaded lace and at a sea green gown embellished with a train of peacock feathers.
"It's astounding, it's regal, it's royal, it's phenomenal," she says. "This is going to be a destination. People are going to be coming to her because of what she creates."