Middle East & North Africa

Inside the Nuclear Deal: Iranian Fashion Revolution

Tehran joined the ranks of London, Paris, and Milan in February 2015, when the city hosted its first ever Fashion Week. Seven designers—the majority of whom were women—participated in the luxury event, which emphasized just how much the rules governing what types of clothing can and cannot be worn on the streets have disintegrated since the revolution in 1979. Women, and men, are wearing brighter, tighter clothing, and one designer remarked to Al Monitor that she tries “to follow European and American design,” as fashion in Iran “is extremely up to date and constantly changing.” Sartorial evolution was not the only topic of discussion during this week, however: the Iranian nuclear agreement also loomed large, with one designer remarking that he hoped a deal would be reached in order to pave the way for increased trade and cultural exchange between Iran and the rest of the world. Reduced sanctions could have a large economic benefit on this community, which would suddenly have access to the global marketplace and talent pool.

Courtesy of Vakil Bazaar, © 2012

Courtesy of Vakil Bazaar, © 2012

Iranian fashion designers are not the only ones concerned with the commercial impact of the nuclear agreement. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi headed to Tehran in April 2016, just a few months after sanctions were lifted, as part of a bid to convince luxury goods manufacturers and high fashion designers to take advantage of this relatively new market. Roberto Cavalli’s fashion house has already set up shop in Tehran, making them one of the first major western retailers to formally enter this market of over 80 million potential consumers. This decision makes strong economic sense: Iran’s oil and gas revenues were expected to top $250 million by 2015 (and since sanctions were lifted oil production surged and exports tripled); the population is highly educated; and there is a long tradition of black-market Western consumer goods entering Iran through Dubai. It’s no wonder multinational high-end brands are looking to enter this market, which appears poised to embrace luxury goods and participate in global art and fashion movements.

The future of this market does not seem certain, however, for buyers who want access to these once-forbidden goods, or for sellers, who want access to a global customer base. Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran, commented during a UN meeting in September that he felt the United States was not fulfilling their obligations to give Iran access to the international financial system. Another senior Iranian official made a similar remark, suggesting that European financing agencies have not been supportive of businesses looking to enter Iran, largely because the United States has kept some sanctions in place—making banks skittish of facilitating work with the country. Sentiment towards Iran in the US remains frosty, further discouraging both banks and companies from embracing this market. Fortunately for Iran, though, the EU does appear to be moving in a more supportive direction, having recently introduced a draft resolution calling for an increase in diplomatic efforts and dialogue between the two.

If progress towards normalizing relations continues at a snail’s pace, it is not the high-end luxury goods manufacturers that will suffer, nor is it the segment of the population in Iran that can afford to purchase designer handbags and perfumed lotions: malls and shopping centers are popping up across the country, brand-name items are frequently sold through third-party importers, and, even when sanctions were in place, it was never illegal for the major fashion houses to sell goods in Iran. It is the fledgling group of Iranian fashion designers, models, and artists who struggle under the burden of sanctions and cumbersome regulations. Iran does not have any fashion schools or major labels of their own (yet), but several small brands have sprung up and have been selling their goods in-country, and fashion shows allow these small designers to work with some, not all, of the larger, global brands. Exposure to the international market could lead to huge economic benefit for everyone involved in the supply chain of the fashion industry.

When discussing the Iranian nuclear agreement, it’s easy to focus on the “macro” trends, like human rights and international security, while “micro” effects, like the economic impact on the local fashion community, are often lost. I, for one, am waiting to see what art and design trends may emerge, once Iranian industry has full access to the global marketplace.

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