For Zainy Esau, fashion in New Zealand doesn’t quite fit. “It’s the short shorts, it’s the very tight bodycon dresses and even if it’s covered in the front it will be totally backless. It doesn’t really cater for people who want to look good without being revealing.”
The 26-year-old Aucklander has taken matters into her own hands, creating a clothing line she describes as “modern, modest fashion”.
Zainy, the youngest of five siblings, moved from South Africa to New Zealand with her family when she was thirteen. About 1.5 per cent of South Africans practice Islam and for Zainy, being Muslim is an integral part of her life in New Zealand.
Modesty is crucial and Zainy says it’s an intricate concept primarily about “protecting your own haya”, an Arabic word meaning dignity or self-respect.
“I know it might sound backward to some but if you think of something that’s really valuable to you, you’re not going to throw it around or mistreat it.”
READ: What's it like being young, muslim, and Kiwi: Mava Moayyed investigates.
Covering up is important, but Zainy’s not about to go out wearing a burlap sack. She loves fashion but says it can be tricky to find clothes that work with her values.
“A lot of Muslim ladies have this battle with finding clothes that cover up but actually look like we fit in. We usually have to wear lots and lots of layers,” she says.
Zainy didn’t grow up with a heart set on a fashion career but knew she wanted to “make a difference” in people’s lives. “I didn’t know what my calling was, I just knew my goal was to help people and felt the health field was the best way to achieve that.”
For the past few years, the budding designer worked as an occupational therapist at hospitals in Auckland but felt “a void” in her life and realised her job was wearing her down.
“I thought that since I was helping people, I would feel like I was making a difference but I just didn’t,” she says. “I was getting depression and anxiety and I thought ‘wait, it’s isn’t right. I’m trying to help people but I’m not helping myself.’ I knew I had to leave the job.”
When the show aired, my title was “proud wife”. I was like, are you serious? I felt like one of those housewives, sitting at home and cooking food for her husband.
Zainy has always made clothes, selling her pieces on Trademe and markets in the city, but during the months out of work she picked up the pace as more people approached her for her designs.
“I realised that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I would spend hours on the machine sewing and time would just fly by, I wasn’t even tired.”
In September last year, a few months after quitting her job at the hospital, Zainy decided to make things official.
“The reaction was just really, really positive. Everyone was so excited and I get people all over the world messaging me about the products.” She says it’s not only Muslims, but Christian women who buy her clothes.
Working out of a small storage unit in Auckland, Zainy comes up with a garment idea and gets to work making prototypes. She then posts photos online and waits for orders to roll in.
Her mother bought her a sewing machine when she was young but Zainy’s had no formal training, getting all the help she needs online. “I just YouTube it,” she laughs.
She might have some sweet sewing skills, but the young designer is wary of being put into a box, especially after being called a “proud wife” on national television earlier this year.
As a recently married couple, Zainy and her husband Ali Tahir appeared on a TVNZ current affairs show to talk about sending troops to Iraq.
“When the show aired, my title was “proud wife”. I was like, are you serious? I felt like one of those housewives, sitting at home and cooking food for her husband. It was like they were saying I was proud because I don’t have a brain to think about anything else.”
Instead she’ll use her brains to grow her business, saying this is “just the beginning”.