World News

A Star of Islamic Fashion Falls

Posted May 31, 2018 7:32 p.m. EDT

BANGKOK — Anniesa Hasibuan, Indonesia’s most celebrated Islamic fashion designer, made her living at the intersection of faith and commerce. Her downfall came at the same crossroads.

On Wednesday, Hasibuan, who debuted at New York Fashion Week in 2016 with models wearing headscarves, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for defrauding tens of thousands of Indonesian pilgrims hoping to travel to Mecca. She was also convicted of money laundering.

With her husband, Andika Surachman, Hasibuan, 31, owned a travel agency dedicated to religious package tourism. Prosecutors said the agency, First Travel, swindled roughly $65 million from more than 63,000 people by promising to send them on holy tours to Saudi Arabia after each paid a cut-rate $1,000 fee up front. The trips never happened.

Surachman was sentenced to 20 years in prison at the same Depok District Court in West Java where Hasibuan was sentenced. She appeared in court in an austere black head scarf and baggy white blouse, a contrast from the opulent styles she designed. Her younger sister, Siti Nuraida Hasibuan, who served as the finance director of First Travel, was given a 15-year sentence this month.

Hasibuan was one of the leading lights in Islamic fashion, which has exploded in the Middle East and Asia, and is now expanding in the United States and Europe. Western designers have unveiled capsule collections timed for Ramadan, the holy fasting month that is now taking place.

Also known as modest fashion, Islamic fashion tends to rely on rich fabrics and fine detailing like sequins or beading. Hijabs, or Islamic headscarves, are matched with flowing gowns.

Hasibuan’s spring 2017 show during New York Fashion Week was the first in which every model on the catwalk wore a hijab. At a subsequent show in New York, she chose models who were either immigrants or children of immigrants.

“Her designs were edgy and luxurious,” said Teti Nurhayati, chief executive of Indonesia Fashion Gallery, the multibrand store in New York that helped to organize Hasibuan’s shows. “She had the creativity, the capacity, as well as the production capability to go global.”

After her first boutique opened in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, in 2015, Hasibuan quickly expanded internationally, with shops in Abu Dhabi and Istanbul.

On social media, where she had hundreds of thousands of followers, Hasibuan flaunted her extravagant lifestyle, as if to say that being a conservative Muslim woman did not preclude luxury. Her social media accounts have been taken offline.

A generation ago, many women in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, did not wear the veil or the loose robes popular in the Middle East. In both Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia, tightfitting chemises and sleek sarongs were considered the national dress for women.

But as Muslim women worldwide have embraced more conservative clothing, Indonesians have hewed to the trend. In a sign of the times, top singers of dangdut — a raunchy musical form complemented by gyrating dance moves — have famously given up their miniskirts for the hijab, or jilbab as it is known locally.

Today, some Indonesian fashion designers specialize in the niqab, the full black veil that leaves only the eyes uncovered. (The niqab is banned in public places in several European countries, and lawmakers in Denmark voted Thursday to adopt the restriction.)

Indonesia sends the largest number of travelers on the hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca each year. First Travel, Hasibuan’s company, was offering cheap umrah tours, which are lesser pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia outside the designated hajj period.

“Her failure was caused by her other business, not from the fashion world,” Nurhayati said. “I don’t think this verdict will have any impact on modest fashion in general.”