Finding the door is half the journey. Tehran’s fashion salons, in private houses across the city, hide in plain sight. The door might lead you to a bright showroom dotted with colourful racks of clothing. At the centre of the room stands a live mannequin, a tall, commanding presence in a carefully curated look. As she strides around, through clusters of shoppers, her overdramatic poses coupled with her sheer boldness bring a sense of the uncanny to the showroom. Everyone’s attention is fixed on her and the clothes she wears always sell best, and fastest. The women in the salon are a range of ages – young women bring their mothers, who in turn come with grandmothers – but they are united by wealth. Women in ripped jeans and obscure hand-painted scarves, carrying Prada bags, swan about among the racks. The buzzer rings over and over again.
This is shopping in Tehran. Ershad, the governing body that decides what is appropriate for Iranian society, openly filters public activity by withholding city permits for shows. As a result there is little infrastructure for fashion in Tehran; boutiques and departments stores do not buy domestic designs. These salons are the closest Tehran comes to fashion shows.
Iran imposes a dress code on its citizens. Men cannot wear shorts or sleeveless shirts – limbs must be covered – and women are limited to scarves and overcoats. In spite of – or perhaps as a reaction to – this imposed prudishness, some people are increasingly daring in what they wear. Dressing is a form of public demonstration that places women at the forefront of social resistance and aesthetics.
As such, fashion publication is limited to personal Instagram accounts. Salons and pre-season viewings, exclusive by choice as much as necessity, are organized by text message and phone calls on the day of the event. The fashion scene has evolved by word of mouth, and by people watching: those in the know can spot certain designers’ work worn by people in the streets.
Naghmeh Kiumarsi is very enterprising: she designs everything in her collections and manages the procurement, production, distribution, and advertising. Her annual cycle has eight seasons. Her studio has a designated showroom, conceptually halfway between the gallery and the store. Her collection is primarily composed of accessories and overcoats. This is a sound economic choice, because the overcoat is enforced as the only option for public daywear and naturally dominates the market in Iran. She keeps her prices competitive by making some of her overcoats reversible.
Reza Nadimi: draping is the most noticeable element in his clothes. They could be described as pure blocks of black or white hung over and around the body in loose fabric. We looked at his spring collection in a pop-up situation on an empty ground floor of a quiet midrise, in gentle sunshine by an empty basketball court. His work shows a more personal connection with the city of Tehran.
Amir Hossein Mehdizadeh worked at Alexander McQueen before returning to Iran. He is not in the business of “telling a national story”. Despite being financially successful, he is not content with Tehran and is bewildered by the buying market: “Parties are abundant. And everyone requires a dress for them. You may not believe this but I make dresses for birthday parties for five-year-olds. It isn’t as if there are clubs or pubs. Daywear in Iran is petrified. There isn’t any space for a biker jacket or a trench coat.”
Sanaz Nataj’s practice is about romance, not business: there is no competition, no need to push boundaries, only a delicate sensitivity towards the folk traditions of a marginalized textile industry. She may not be able to revitalise a market for Baloch needlework, but she can reintroduce the craft into contemporary clothes. Her studio is reflective of her regionalism. Only a handful of these spaces remain in Shimran: a 50-year-old house with brick corbelling that makes it look much older.