Middle East

05.04.139:15 PM ET

Turkey's Armine Makes Headscarves to Rival Hermès

An Istanbul-based firm caters to an overlooked fashion customer: the observant Muslim.

On one cold winter afternoon, the trim and impeccably dressed Mehmet Dursun—one of Turkey’s brightest entrepreneurial stars—rushed out of his shiny black BMW and into his sprawling manufacturing center in a gray industrial neighborhood of Istanbul.

“We are simply the best at what we do in Turkey,” he said, readjusting his chic glasses while checking in, floor after floor, on his bustling hive of male and female workers. “And soon, we’ll be the best in the whole world.”

The 43-year-old has made millions by uniquely positioning himself in one of the most polarizing and symbolic existential conflicts in Turkey: fashion for conservative Muslim women.

Turkey, a European Union hopeful, is consistently lauded as a modern model for its more raucous Muslim-majority neighbors in the Middle East. Over the past decade, the country’s main urban centers have transformed into dynamic hybrids of social conservatism and cosmopolitanism: a surfeit of mosques and religious schools juxtaposed against droves of Range-Rovers, edgy art galleries, five-star restaurants, bustling nightclubs, and plush Mediterranean beach towns.

Almost 20 years ago, Dursun observed—and belonged to—a bulging aspirational yet conservative middle class with money to spend on lifestyle products, but it had few options. Armine, a high-end clothing company for conservative Muslim women, is his brainchild, born out of the basic notion that conservative women want to look good, too—and don’t necessarily mind paying a relatively steep price to do it.

“My wife, my relatives … they didn’t have any fashionable options,” Dursun recalled, sitting in front of a dazzling display of colorful long skirts and handbags modeled after the legendary $10,000 Hermès Birkin bag (Armine’s sell for around $80). “Some of the women were starting to leave the house to work, but they didn’t see themselves in any fashion advertisements.”

Two decades later, billboards advertising Dursun’s “modest, beautiful Muslim women” look over most major arteries into the gleaming metropolis of Istanbul, but they showcase only delicately contoured Angelina Jolie doppelgänger faces—a sliver of neck impossible to detect. With a spate of Armine-like competitors now vying over advertisement space on the city’s trams and buses, Dursun’s iPhone-wielding team—made up mostly of women, both veiled and unveiled—is working to extend his empire to countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, and Iran.

At one of the company’s showrooms, Hilal Adib, Armine’s elegant rouge-lipped marketing manager from Morocco, is busy prepping a fashion exhibition in Paris this summer—the first international event for the company. “It’s time to go global. In 10 years, we’re aiming for 100 shops in the world … in New York City, in London, everywhere,” she said, swiping through photo albums on her iPad of potential store spaces across the Middle East. “The demand for fashionable conservative clothing is huge.”

While Dursun says he dislikes and refuses to talk politics, his fashions are inextricably wrapped up in it. The majority of Turkish and Arab women in the Middle East are veiled, yet for many seculars, the practice underscores fear of a reversal in modernization. While the scarf is compulsory in Muslim nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia, it’s a sartorial flashpoint in a protracted culture war in countries like Turkey and Egypt, where State TV lifted a ban in September on veiled female news anchors.

“His clothes are a balance of chic and modest. Turkey is a cosmopolitan society, but it’s still very observant,” said Nilgun Tuncer, one of Dursun’s right-hand women, noting that at least 60 percent of women in Turkey wear headscarves (that percentage is thought to be lower in Istanbul).

Punctuating a perennial struggle between Turkey’s religious majority and a secular elite rooted in the country’s military, Turkish government prohibited the wearing of headscarves in universities and other public buildings in the late 1980s. Some students traveled abroad for college so they could don their headscarves. Even Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told the media he sent his two daughters out of the country for university. His wife, Emine Erdogan, was reportedly prohibited from entering a military hospital in 2007 for refusing to remove her headscarf.

In 2010, almost all universities across Turkey lifted the official prohibition, and just last fall the country reversed a ban on female students wearing headscarves in schools offering religious education. A ban on veiled lawyers is still being contested, as well as regulations against veiled women in public positions. In the past several years, some veiled women have complained that upscale shops and establishments discriminate against them, refusing them employment and sometimes patronage. While the industry that Dursun spearheaded continues to proliferate, with a handful of glossy fashion and lifestyle magazines now catering to conservative Muslim women, the aesthetic is still one of the most visible manifestations of the country’s identity struggle.

In posh Istanbul neighborhoods like seaside Bebek, it’s hard to find many headscarves—or anything not fashioned off the pages of Vogue.

“It’s ridiculous …  they’re taking over,” said 23-year-old Zeynep (who refuses to use her full name because “it’s not safe expressing these views now”), smoking outside a swank bistro in a red leather bomber jacket draped with a black quilted Chanel handbag. “We miss the old days. These headscarves … this government doesn’t represent us. Ataturk [the staunchly secular founder of this country] used to look down on the veil!”

Despite the simmering tensions, the debate indicates a healthy diverse society, says Turkish television host Ceylan Özbudak. “In Turkey you see women wearing bikinis on the beach, going to a mosque nearby, then going back to the beach. You see a young man going to a night club and when it’s the prayer hour he will pray and come back,” she said. “We’re a modern Muslim society.”

But Dursun and competitors aren’t without detractors—even within the Muslim community—who worry that Islamic tenets are muddled in the process of making women chic.

Price is also an issue for many potential customers. In the conservative industrial city of Bursa in northwestern Turkey, women, like 31-year-old Rana Sinem, who shop for headscarves at local fabric stores, say the price of an Armine headscarf—$27 on the low end—is completely out of reach. “I’ve never heard of them before,” she said, picking out a basic beige scarf for around $2. “I don’t know anyone who can afford things like that.” (Dursun concedes not all Turkish women can afford his line and says he hopes to expand a low-cost alternative to his collection soon.)

To his critics, Dursun says he doesn’t aim for women to be “an object to be desired, just fashionable,” showing that “fashion can transcend culture and religion.” None of his models—all with light eyes rimmed in charcoal and plump glossy, lined lips—are actually Turkish; they're Brazilian or Eastern European—a characteristic that Dursun insists bolsters the potential “globalness” of the brand, but does seem strange for a company whose audience is primarily Turkish.

Still, Dursun says, poaching the buxom model Adriana Lima from Victoria’s Secret is on his wish list. “She could model Armine. Why not?” he laughed. “Armine sounds like Armani … and I think we’ll get there one day.”