TEHRAN, Iran _Honey Badloo sashays through the streets of her beloved Tehran determined to find opportunity where Westerners see oppression.
True, the aspiring model and designer strolled the catwalk only once before Iranian authorities banned fashion shows. And, no, her first magazine cover never made it past government censors.
But Persian style stretches back thousands of years, Badloo says with pride, and not even the austere regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can separate Iranians from their Gucci.
"Our Mr. President doesn't like us to work on fashion," said Badloo, 21, pouting her carefully painted lips. "But anyone you put in a cage wants to know what it's like outside. Who's Paris Hilton? Who's Brad Pitt? What are the styles outside of Iran?"
These are rough times for Tehran's fashionistas, but style-conscious young Iranians are turning to satellite channels, clandestine trunk shows and smuggled copies of Vogue to keep up with haute couture outside the conservative Islamic republic.
Even as Ahmadinejad's hard-line government warns of a new crackdown on dress code violations—women must cover their heads, legs and arms—the capital's fashion mavens keep testing the limits with headscarves that inch back a little farther every season. This winter, Badloo seriously pondered whether knee-high vinyl boots counted as covering her legs.
"All the foreigners think we're stuck in chadors out in a desert, but we have everything here," Badloo said, referring to the traditional cloak worn by Muslim women. She flashed a pearly smile and added: "Even Christian Dior."
Fendi bags, Prada shoes and Chanel dresses flood into Iran from Dubai, the Persian Gulf's shopping paradise. Brightly patterned headscarves come from Turkey, sequined tunics from Syria.
To follow the West's changing hemlines, trend-obsessed Iranians tune their televisions to Fashion TV, the international channel devoted exclusively to style. Housewives have made small fortunes hauling back the latest styles from Europe and the United States. Unlicensed vendors send text messages via cell phones to alert loyal customers to coveted new cargo of Calvin Klein watches and Hermes scarves.
"When I go on a trip to Paris, Germany, Sweden, I always buy a lot of clothes to bring back to Iran," said Sara Aliabadi, 23, who was dressed one day in an elegant fitted coat that she asked a local tailor to sew based on a Chanel design. "Even in those places, you see girls wearing long skirts. It's the same thing here. You can maneuver around the restrictions."
Under Iran's previous reform-minded government, there was a small opening for a fashion industry. The acclaimed designer Mahla Zamani staged five runway shows, women's-only events that celebrated the colorful history of Iranian dress. She also started a magazine called Lotus, touted as the first Persian fashion journal, and published five issues, each government-approved before it went to press.
Badloo was one of her top models. Zamani and her models were invited to participate in a fashion show in Italy.
Then came Ahmadinejad's stunning upset in last year's elections, and rumors abounded that his new government would immediately restore the 1979 Islamic revolution era's strict dress code of billowing black chadors and somber colors.
The new government shut down Lotus magazine. Badloo said she was denied permission to attend the fashion show in Italy. The government renewed efforts to keep Western influences out. Google searches for "fashion" or "glamour" result in a red pop-up notice that reads: "Stop. Access to the page has been denied."
Still, there's been no dress code crackdown yet, and the stylish set soldiers on.
"We're definitely more restricted now, but it's hard to stop girls who want to dress up and show off," said Markiz Nekurouh, 17, clutching a gold lame hobo bag that she bought at a local mall after seeing similar metallic accessories on Internet fashion sites.
Now that spring is here, Badloo's government-mandated scarves are floral-print silk confections. She paid $180 for the gigantic Dior sunglasses that perch atop her highlighted hair. Her jeans are Dolce & Gabbana, or at least high-quality knockoffs.
Badloo's lithe body, high cheekbones and straight nose are all natural, she says. The only artificial thing about her is the Western variation of her traditional first name, which is actually Hanyeh, not Honey.
A few months ago, Badloo hired a professional photographer to take portraits for her ever-expanding portfolio. With a guilty giggle, she called them "my un-Islamic pictures." Some photos show her sprawled across a couch with a come-hither look. Others are sultry shots of her in skimpy outfits, her long hair exposed and fluttering in a breeze. Badloo examines them with the eye of a veteran fashion editor.
"I think the sepia tones really bring out the contrasts and texture," she mused.
Badloo knows she stands little chance of ever having the photos published in Iran, so she designs wallpaper, bathroom tiles, lampshades and other household decor while her modeling career is on hold. On the rare occasion she gets depressed over the state of Iran's fashion industry, Badloo drags out her colored pencils and sketchpads and designs colorful alternatives to the country's traditionally dowdy chadors.
She calls Angelina Jolie her fashion icon, but her first inspiration comes from home. The garments she designs jingle with antique coins from the Shah's era, shine with ancient Turkmen buckles and move like the skirts of whirling dervishes. An image of Cyrus the Great adorns one of her first batik patterns.
"If you look at these clothes, you see the geography of Iran," Badloo said, pointing to one of her Kurdish-inspired skirts. "Northern Iran is full of colors, and they use every single one in their designs. We are starting to change here in Tehran. We're going from the grays and browns to sharp colors. Happy colors."
Badloo's mother, Maryaa, who passed her almond-shaped eyes and clear skin to her oldest daughter, was convinced of Badloo's talent when she caught her drawing circles on her stomach with lipstick at age 3.
Badloo's parents invested in painting classes, textile design school and a private English tutor to prepare her for a career in international fashion. They are skeptical now that the Iranian government will ever appreciate their daughter's vibrant inventions and photogenic face.
Badloo knows her time will come.
"One day, I'll have a factory that produces all my own designs, and every single label is going to say `Honey Badloo,' not `Valentino,'" she said. "I'm going to show the world that we have fashion. In fact, we've been in style for 3,000 years."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAN-FASHION
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