A senior French politician today sparked outrage by comparing Muslim women who wear fashions designed for their own religion to ‘negroes who supported slavery’.
Laurence Rossignol, the families secretary in the Socialist government, was reacting to new lines by designers who increasingly cater for followers of Islam.
They include millions of women in countries such as Britain and France who are increasingly drawn to the clothes in a market said to be worth more than £200billion a year.
Dolce & Gabbana’s range includes 14 abayas, or ankle-length dresses matched with embroidered headscarves and hijabs.
Swedish giant H&M uses a veiled Muslim women in its advertising, while Japanese brand Uniqlo said it would sell hijabs in its London stores, along with Marks & Spencer which markets a full-body ‘burqini’ swimming costume online.
Ms Rossignol caused widespread anger on social media by saying Muslim fashion wearers were just like ‘negroes who supported slavery’.
Later, she insisted she had not intended to cause offence but was simply referencing the French philosopher Montesquieu’s work ‘On the Enslavement of Negroes’.
Ms Rosssignol, who is also responsible for women’s rights, admitted later to AFP that she had made ‘an error of language’ with her controversial comments.
However, she added: ‘But other than that… I don’t take back a word.’
Her supporters included fashion mogul Pierre Berge who agreed that designers were taking part in the ‘enslavement of women’.
The former partner of the late fashion legend Yves Saint Laurent, said: ‘I’m shocked. 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.’
Mr Berge said firms should ‘renounce the money and have some principles’, adding: ‘In life you have to choose the side of freedom’.
He insisted: ‘I am definitely not an Islamophobe. Women have a right to wear headscarves, but I do not see why we are going towards this religion, these practises and mores that are absolutely incompatible with our western freedoms.’
While France – home of Europe’s biggest Muslim population – bans face-covering veils, some of its big fashion houses were among the first to tentatively embrace Muslim-specific style.
DKNY, owned by French giant LVMH, pioneered the ‘modest clothing’ trend with a ‘capsule collection’ aimed at the Middle East for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan two years ago.
But designer de Castelbajac, who has dressed singer Lady Gaga, said he had grave misgivings about the trend. ‘Fashion is secular and universal, and should bring hope.’
Veteran feminist Agnes b had earlier vowed to ‘never do it’.
‘There is something obscene about offering clothes to rich women from countries where many are fleeing bombs trying to keep their veils on their heads,’ she told the Parisien daily.
‘We should not normalise clothing which is significant in the way women are seen.’
In January, Dolce & Gabbana became the first major western brand to directly aim at capturing a corner of the Islamic fashion market – estimated to be worth 230 billion euros – with its Abaya range.
Last summer Zara, Tommy Hilfiger, Oscar de la Renta and Mango all launched varyingly ‘modest’ collections to coincide with Ramadan.
But Berge, 85, who ran the Yves Saint Laurent fashion house for four decades, decried their ‘opportunism’.
‘These creators who are taking part in the enslavement of women should ask themselves some questions,’ he added.
‘It is not because women are forced by their husbands to dress in that way that we too have to encourage it,’ he insisted.
‘In one way they (the designers) are complicit, and all this to make money. Principles should come before money.
‘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.’
A spokesman for M&S, which has begun selling its burkini, in the UK, said it was popular with customers internationally.