The Haute Seeker

Fashion, Politics, Ethics: A Candid Conversation With Hoda Katebi

While some fashion bloggers hype up major labels through influencer partnerships, Hoda Katebi provides a different type of endorsement to these well-known brands. She includes them in a boycott list. The boycott list not only makes a bold statement but I a strong desire to learn more. The boycott list is an eye-catcher but it’s not all the self-proclaimed “sarcastic and angry” blogger shares on her website Joo Joo Azad. 

Hoda is Muslim-Iranian and author of Tehran Street Style, a recently published book that presents some of the best-dressed Iranian fashion in the country’s capital. She has made it her mission to build a platform that challenges the realm of politics, Western culture, and the fashion industry as a whole, from production to consumption. Her radical platform seeks to integrate ethical fashion practices and political activism while challenging the world’s mainstream standards of beauty.

Image courtesy of Hoda Katebi


THS: How did you make your way from Oklahoma to the University of Chicago and ultimately, starting this blog? 

HK:  It has been a process. I think my experience in Oklahoma was transformative and informative. In a way, about my identity with respects to the greater local culture that I was in, and feelings of always being isolated intentionally. When I first started wearing the hijab in 6th grade, I was physically assaulted. I was called terrorist almost daily. If there was any moment in time that I thought I could feel American someone would remind me that I am not. So I grew up like, okay f*ck you I’m not. I’m Iranian. I’m Muslim. This is what I am. I was Democratic than, for some God knows why some reason, and even having that Leftist politics in Oklahoma was almost challenged. The more and more I was pushed into these narrow boxes of having to define and represent everything in the Middle East and Oriental culture, I had to read, learn, and grow more. Through that process, I came to learn more about myself, identity, and politics. But at the same time, parallel to that, I learned about the power of fashion. Wearing something on my head, like a scarf, for example, completely transforming the way I was reacted towards and completely transforming the experience of living in Oklahoma. If I had worn the scarf on my neck, I would not have been assaulted. I am fairly sure.

THS: So your family moved to that area? And you are originally from Iran correct?

HK: Yes, both of my parents are immigrants. They hopped around a few states and ended up in Oklahoma, and I was born here.

THS: Do you think, at this time, being a person of color or rather our cultures are a trend? Why do you think that is? Is that such a bad thing seeing is that is a step towards inclusion where people of color on very rare occasion unless they adapted to a certain look, was excluded?

HK: Definitely. I think it’s a complicated question for sure. Of course, I am sure young, teenage, Hoda in Oklahoma would have loved to see hijab-wearing women in advertisements, on T.V., in fashion. At the same time, knowing these companies are only doing it to tap into our market, to exploit and to commodify an identity. In yet, they are wanting to profess ‘supporting’ Muslims in yet they are doing nothing about their sweatshops abroad. For me, it’s just a capitalistic inclusion. Inclusion for me does not mean continued exploitation of other people who look like me abroad. I would rather not be included in these images, it’s going to be the continued segregation and exploitation of Muslim and people of color abroad whose voices are always systematically silenced.

“For me, it’s just a capitalistic inclusion. Inclusion for me does not mean continued exploitation of other people who look like me abroad.”


THS: You feature a boycott list on your website. How often is the boycott list updated? Because Nike recently made a hijab collection for female athletes wouldn’t that remove them from your boycott list or is it simply in the production of the product as to why they are there in the first place?

HK: Adding a hijab on a model doesn’t erase their human rights violations. I also am not a huge fan of the Nike Pro Hijab — I wrote a piece about that here: Beyond that, the boycott list is updated whenever new information comes in.

THS: Have you had conversations with these brands or made contact for them to consider their practices?

HK: No, they know what they are doing — it is intentional. A few from the list though have reached out to me to collaborate in the past and I turned them down, of course, with a long explanation of why. One time, a few months after I detailed exactly why I was refusing to collaborate, one of their PR reps (the one I was in contact with) resigned.

THS: What are some of the other types of conversations that you have had with people about your clothing whether it was the hijab or anything else like the piggy police officer t-shirt that you brought up on one of your blog posts and what does that conversation kind of lead to?

HK: My latest post, Making Racist Uncomfortable alludes to this question. I think it depends on who is asking and what their intentions are and of course the context. Often I am asked about my political clothing and my more provocative clothing and why I wear that. The answer wasn’t entirely clear to me until fairly recently when I was asked by a large-scale publication about it. I thought, maybe I will stop shrugging it off like it’s not a big deal and actually sit and think about why I do this. I realized that it helps to reclaim my agency and my space. It plays in a public setting where I am often times on the receiving end of sort of nonconsensual transactions, so being glared or looked at or called names. It’s very much like I am absorbing it like a sponge as I walk down the street. I know other people of color know what its like to be in this same position. It feels like we aren’t able to take up space, we are only receiving what white people want to place on to us. For me, wearing provocative clothing and making people feel bad for their own damn, sh***y politics is really powerful for me. I am able to actually have agency and demand space and demand being looked at. So I am not being looked at because I don’t want to or because they want to. They are forced to look at me because I am forcing them to. It helps me to get really get agency. I think its funny. Wearing the pig with a police hat and having people of color walk down the streets and give me high-fives, then white people looking down and walk out of my way. It’s fun! I often just enjoy it.

THS: What can brands do to appropriate culture less, because, let’s be honest. Appropriation happens because the research or process of the end result is not shared with the public, therefore it seems like the outcome came into existence out of thin air and we know that’s not the case. Do you think that if the process was shared that it would be helpful?

HK: I think it would be a good first step but I don’t think it would solve the problem. I think the issue places into larger trends of imperialism and power. Even if American white or British white company comes in says, hey these designs are taken from sarees that are taken from India. That’s where it came from. This is the history. Cool. But the UK has long been an imperial conquest of India. There is a power dynamic when it comes to selling your history. For example, if an Israeli designer  said their designs came from a Palestinian pattern, which they never would because that would challenge their propaganda that Palestinians are not real and have no culture, it still would not erase the fact that they are still making money from a resistance and struggle as the occupying force. There is a lot of imperialism and colonialism that still plays a part as to why one country wants to sell and even exoticize, remake these designs. Like Marc Jacobs, had dreadlocks on his model on the runway. Even if he says where it came from it still doesn’t make it okay. 

THS: For me, if I were to buy a dashiki that may have been produced in China rather it being produced in Ghana or someplace where that pattern or item is traditional. It would feel like appropriating the culture because I have no idea the history behind? Once I understand the meaning, I feel like I can better embrace. 

HK: I hear you. It’s not my place to comment obviously. But I have also heard of a lot of people who would agree with you.  I think that is a little different from a Western company exploiting almost a culture for profit. A culture that has literally been exploited in the past, a group of people who a genuinely try to reconnect with a distant culture that they feel connected. White people wearing a dashiki can still be wrong. 

THS: I agree, and I get really confused because it starts to become trendy.

THS: Last year you published your book Tehran Street Style focusing on Iranian men and women are their other forms of street style that you feel need a global presence that has yet to be captured? Or was this just a particular culture and style that just needed to be shared?

HK: I would love to go back to Iran and continue to document because I just documented one city. Every city in Iran is different and diverse and has its own flair and fashion. I would love to go back to Iran and visit different cities. I have always loved Korean fashion. I think they just know how to dress. I think there is overall a lot throughout South Asia and even in South America that doesn’t get documented regarding fashion but is just ‘cute artisanal wear’ that westerns will come and exploit, and culturally appropriate. Being able to document societies that have traditions of fashion would be really, really amazing.

Tehran Street Style book cover| Image courtesy of Hoda Katebi

THS: Who are your favorite designers?

HK: Oh I have so many. Anyone who I have collaborated with, for sure. Hushidar Mortezaie of Silk Road Rising, Jamie Hayes of Production Mode, and Ammar Belal of Ammar Belal Studios are the few designers who I love and trust deeply. Their work is always pushing further what it means to be a fashion designer in terms of aesthetic but also sustainable, ethical, and radical production of clothing.

THS: What does it mean when something is ‘ethically produced?’

HK: That’s a hard question.

THS: You use it a lot in your writing.

HK: That’s true, I brought this question upon myself. I think there are different ways that we can define ethical fashion. Bottom line is that it is a deep commitment to being conscious about where, how, why, and from who your clothes are coming from. Knowing, you shouldn’t be buying Iranian designs from Dior, because their latest collection just ripped off so many of Iranian designs without them giving any credit to it. We shouldn’t be buying any Palestinian keffiyeh(the traditional pattern that is now the used as the Palestinian symbol of resistance) from an Australian fashion designer who is literally working to promote cultural genocide intent with Israel occupation and apartheid. We know who we shouldn’t be buying particular fabrics and patterns from, that even of itself is an ethical decision. Knowing and valuing an uplifting process that goes into the labor of fashion is very ethical and can help you make an ethical decision on how you buy clothing. Knowing it was made in L.A. does not make it necessarily ethical. Doing the research, and not letting yourself be swooped up in this oh, it’s too hard to find out where my clothes are made, or not caring or not thinking about it at all. It’s all intentional. These factories are far away because they are supposed to be. They don’t highlight any of their works because they don’t want to. It is very intentional the way garment workers are hidden. Being able to do research and figure out where your clothes are coming from, I think is a step to making ethical and informed decision about your clothes. As well as making an environmental impact. 

THS: Where do you see the growth of fast fashion vs. slow fashion. I see you did a collaboration with The Slow Factory do you see that as a trend towards slow fashion? Where do you see luxury as a part of that conversation?

HK: That’s a good question. I have done a lot of research on the underground fashion scene in Iran. That for me I would hope, could be the future of fashion, as I would like to see it. It works on the slow-fashion model. The designers produce very small collections that are tailored to their audience. They have all of their customer’s phone numbers, and its a very personal relationship that you build with your designer. There are not 52 trillion seasons like there is here in the West. It’s whenever their collection is ready and finished, and then they start on the next one. However long that might take. It’s a process. Its concept based. Each collection comes out of idea or hope that they have to change societies views. Gender, for example, or Western imperialism and influence. Heavy political issues or even light-hearted aesthetics values and use that as a mode of communicating these ideas with the broader society. A lot of it is local productions it’s not made in mass factories, and usually made with a small team of sewers. It really is a  beautiful space to be to occupy. The only problem is we need to be having conversations about the accessibility of clothing like this. That goes into your question of luxury too. If everything realistically, from the people harvesting the silk or picking the cotton or any part of fabric product. To the garment workers and transportation, if everyone was paid a living wage, not like the exploitative ones that countries have made with the U.S. has made deals with other countries to set, but an actual living wage that they could live and thrive off of, there is no way in living hell you are going to buy a five dollar t-shirt. That’s impossible! If we are to look at fashion sustainable and look at the slow model of producing it, everything would be falling into that luxury spectrum. I think what the shift needs to be is less in terms of trying to make things more expensive and ethical, but realistically limiting our spending when it comes to clothing. Treat it the way we invest in a phone or musical instrument or a laptop. These are things that many of us have and have multiple of them. But we don’t expect to buy them all the time. If we treat our wardrobes like an art gallery, something that we can sit and curate and say, this represents me, I don’t need to wear a different outfit every single day. Than these clothes are made to last if they are made sustainably.  Fast fashion is made to fall apart, so you are supposed to buy more, some people may see the overall amount of money that they spend is the same, they just have fewer pieces that last them a lot longer.

THS: So its more so redefining luxury, and participating in a minimalist lifestyle when it comes to fashion.

HK: Yes. I am a huge proponent of a minimal wardrobe, of course not in terms of color or whatever. For me, I use fashion as the balancing point for how we should live our lives. Overall we should all be living a more minimalist lifestyle. We should not be attaching our emotional well-being to the consumption of goods. We shouldn’t be buying things as a matter of self-care. I think it’s just a product of a Western capitalistic society that we want to attach everything to commodification.

THS: I feel most clothing is kinda safe. Especially here in the Midwest. If you think of the ‘Dandy Era’ of apparel or the 60’s there were a lot of pieces that were conversation starters. 

HK: I totally agree. I think that is the purpose of fashion. I think fashion is an art form and just this excess to capitalization and consumption, the sort of industry that we have turned it into today, has stripped its political and aesthetic values and vision. I think fashion is one of the more political forms of art. We have just seen this as something we were buying on sale, just because it’s on sale. We have no idea what all goes into making that garment. The work, thought, and hands that went into it. But not a lot of thought can go into fast fashion to meet the demand. So it is very mechanical and robotic and very little actual conceptual or artistic and inspiring work is coming out. It’s the way the fashion industry had devolved. I think fashion exist to make people think and make people talk.

Hoda continues to build her base here in Chicago. She would eventually like to make her way back to Iran to collaborate with artists and creative there as well continue her street style documentation of Iran. She is very involved in the creative network here in Chicago and loves all the organizing that is happening on the ground in the city. Hoda is also working on her own fashion label as well as passionately charged and frequently written post on her blog. Check out what she has been writing lately by following the link here.



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