Pierre Berge, who was Yves Saint Laurent’s business and life partner until his death in 2008, appeared on Europe 1 French radio Wednesday to lambaste Western designers for making hijab and abaya for their Muslim customers. “These creators who are taking part in the enslavement of women should ask themselves some questions,” he said, referring to designers ranging from Dolce & Gabbana to Zara who have recently begun creating “modest” lines.
It’s a loaded enough sentiment, but doubly so in France, where the act of wearing hijab is not just a personal but a political issue, part and parcel with the very values and cultural identity to which the country clings. In 2010, under the purview of President Sarkozy, French parliament banned the wearing of any headgear that covered the face—niqab, burqa—in addition to masks such as balaclava and masks. Historically, girls in French secondary and high schools were suspended for refusing to remove their hijab, which covers just the hair. In 2004, parliament and President Chirac outlawed all “ostentatious” outward showings of religion in French public schools, including hijab and yarmulkes. This was deeply controversial—while many French feminists saw it as a way to keep men from subjugating women, others saw it as an extension of a general anti-Muslim sentiment in France, which often was seen to coincide with anti-immigrant, anti-poor sentiment.
Berge, who lives in Morocco and insists he is not Islamophobic, seemed to conflate the Qur’an, a holy text, with “a dictatorship” (unclear which—Saudi Arabia? ISIS?). Via Agence France Presse:
“Creators should have nothing to do with Islamic fashion. Designers are there to make women more beautiful, to give them their freedom, not to collaborate with this dictatorship which imposes this abominable thing by which we hide women and make them live a hidden life.”
“Renounce the money and have some principles,” he declared, lashing the new fashion for “modest” Muslim-friendly lines.
His comments came as the French families minister, Laurence Rossignol, sparked outrage on social media as she compared women who followed this trend with “negroes who supported slavery”.
Her office later told AFP she had not intented to cause offence but was referring to an abolitionist tract by the French philosopher Montesquieu, “De l’esclavage des nègres” (“On the Enslavement of Negroes”).
What neither of these statements seem to invalidate in their supposedly feminist defense, ironically, is that hijab-wearing Muslim women are very well exerting agency in their dress.
Berge, who is 85, went on:
“In one way they are complicit, and all this to make make money. Principles should come before money,” Berge argued.
“In life you have to chose the side of freedom,” he said. Rather than covering women up, “we must teach (Muslim) women to revolt, to take their clothes off, to learn to live like most of the women in the rest of the world.
“It’s absolutely inadmissible. It is not tolerable,” he told the radio station.
While it’s certainly true that Dolce & Gabbana and other fashion lines and chains are motivated by money (in virtually every endeavor), the fact that they’re doing so isn’t inherently unjust. (Unless you consider the idea that their motivation is to “reinforce the idea that Western designers control global fashion,” as Ruqaiya Haris wrote at the Guardian, a valid concern across the board.) Besides, where were Berge and Laurence Rossignol when D&G dropped a collection that glorified racist “Mammy” imagery?
Anyway, the true conservative travesty here, as the Muslim fashion blogger Dina Torkia wrote, is how boring Dolce & Gabbana’s abaya line truly was from a style standpoint:
I’ve dreamed the day a major design house would officially recognise us, hijab clad muslim women and finally ‘cater’ to us. But my dream wasn’t resulting in a line of lacey, embroidered traditional abayas and matching scarves. Something I’ve grown up with and a look that every muslim woman is all too familiar with. Something that the local ‘abayas r us’ in Brummy might have. Or if you fancy something a little more luxury, ‘abaya gold’ in Dubai would suffice. I dreamed of being able to look at signature gowns on the runway and imagine myself in one, hijab and all. I dreamed of being included in the mainstream of haute couture & whilst D&G have managed to recognise us with this collection, they’ve also managed to exclude us.
Image via Getty