NEW YORK—Designers love to push boundaries in the search for that sexy catwalk look, but Nzinga Knight, an American Muslim, takes an even more daring tack: covering her models up.
At New York Fashion Week, which starts Thursday, impossibly tall, slinky creatures will sashay down the runways at Lincoln Center in clothes that can leave little to the imagination.
But when it’s Knight’s turn, forget about flashes of breast or thigh-high split skirts. There will be long sleeves, long hems—and they’ll be sure to get attention.
“Definitely in my work people look at it and say that it’s really different and fashion’s really about being different,” she told AFP at a studio in the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where she was embroidering a romantic but decidedly modest black and cream dress.
Knight, 31, is a devout Muslim, praying five times a day. But the up-and-coming designer is more fashionista than preacher.
“The look of my work is sensual, mysterious, innovative,” she said, describing her target as “a woman who’s happy to be a woman.”
The difference lies in how she creates that sensuality.
When she launched her line in 2008, she found designers were fixated by clothes that “show cleavage and back.”
“I felt a lot of women were wearing things because that’s what the magazines told them,” she said. “It seemed each designer had the same point of view.”
So Knight set out to combine Islam’s strict moral codes with her native New Yorker’s sense of style and quickly found she had what any enterprising young designers would crave: a niche.
“My aesthetic was something really missing in the market,” she said. “It’s very distinct and can give me an edge.”
Her upcoming collection will feature 10 evening dresses and several blouses.
Various shades of off-white, black, pink and matte gold dominate, with beads hand-sewn in India added to the trim. One full length dress in black and oyster shell white features a ruffled lower hem, but only at the back, so that it comes as a surprise, like a mermaid’s tail.
It is modest clothing, but hardly fit for a shrinking violet.
Whoever wears them “definitely has places to go,” she said.
Caribbean Muslim New Yorker with a fresh eye
Knight’s original outlook makes her almost unique on planet fashion, where black designers are rare and black Muslims rarer. “There are basically none,” she says.
But with her exotic background she’s always comfortable navigating her own path.
Her father emigrated from Trinidad, her mother from Guyana, both of them converting to Islam after reaching New York, where they raised six daughters.
“The fact I’m in New York, a native New Yorker, and New York is very much about style, what’s fresh, what’s hot, and the fact that I come from a Caribbean culture that’s very vibrant and then the fact that I’m Muslim…” Knight had to pause to catch her breath.
“I embody a lot of things,” she said.
In some Muslim countries, head-to-toe black robes, or abayas, are obligatory for women in the street, something that horrifies many Westerners.
But Knight says her experiences make her sympathetic. On a trip last year to Dubai, where one of her sisters lives, she recalls discovering the apparently uniform black fabric contains a multitude of subtle, individual differences.
“No two women were the same,” she said.
She also realized that at home, women take off their robes to reveal the latest in high fashion they’d been wearing underneath.
“They are vibrant and wear amazing colors. Only their special friends get to see them though,” Knight said. “I think it’s sexy for a woman to have secrets, good secrets.”
In Western society, she argues, women are not as liberated as they may think they are.
Knight gave the example of pop stars, saying men are judged largely on their singing talent, while female performers have to go an extra step.
“I think that women in this society aren’t allowed just to stand on their own merit,” she said. “For most of the women who really make it, you know, they have to take their clothes off. That’s the game they have to play.”
In her own work, she’s looking to shift the rules of the game.
“I’m telling a story that people aren’t telling,” Knight said.