08 December 2003

Hushi Mortezaie Explores American, Iranian Ideals of Glamour

Middle Eastern creativity comes to New York's fashion scene

By Samir Reddy
Washington File Special Corespondent

New York -- Best known for his over-the-top aesthetic, Iranian-American Hushidar Mortezaie and his partner Michael Sears, take advantage of freedom in America to create clothing that reflects their personal histories and passions. Hushi, as his friends know him, fled Iran with his family in 1975 to escape the Shah's regime. He arrived at the age of 3 in Marin County, a conservative section of Northern California, where, growing up, he said he had a "blissful Northern California suburban mall/bohemian life, filled with Mrs. Field's cookies juxtaposed with chelo kebab, Charlie's Angels juxtaposed with [Iranian Pop idol] Googoosh."

This intercultural mix allowed his imagination to soar beyond his immediate surroundings, laying the foundation for the fantastical fashions he creates today.

Hushi met Michael Sears, a native of Las Vegas, in 1990 while living in San Francisco. They became fast friends, designing outrageous outfits to wear to parties together; four years later they moved to New York. The designing duo first gained notice with their East Village boutique, Sears and Robot, which was, according to Hushi, "a pop pun on American commercial retail conglomerate Sears and Roebuck." The store sold an eclectic assortment of clothing and accessories, including tee-shirts printed with Iranian imagery, intricate jewelry and custom-made dresses, blouses and skirts.

After a few years, the duo became more focused on designing their own collection. They decided to change the store's name to Michael and Hushi, to reflect a new level of commitment to developing their own label. Their partnership functioned with an interesting dynamic; Michael interacted with Hushi's Middle Eastern inspirations "in a purely aesthetic way.' He says, "Opulence, excess, and ornamentation is what I appreciate in the Middle East. I sample it like a DJ, mixing genres and influences of his Iranian heritage with my American background for a purely visual effect. I am not political at all-I am a total visualist."

Mixing pop-cultural imagery with provocative Middle Eastern elements, they brought a much-needed creative jolt to New York's fashion scene with their first full-fledged runway show. "We combined romantic gypsies with revolutionary, Islamic glamazons," says Hushi, a look that translated into tailored evening dresses cut from traditional Palestinian fabric "showing the beauty of this culture's struggle."

Hushi's vision is not limited to his Middle Eastern roots. As his creative viewpoint continues to evolve, his designs become more complex, reflecting the ever-advancing effect of globalization. Recent collections have referenced Ronald McDonald, Parisian chic and bike messenger style, combining elements from each subgroup into a striking pop art pastiche. Like many other designers, Hushi avoids overtly political claims for his collections, preferring to let the clothing speak for itself. He holds a mirror up to the world he inhabits, reflecting aspects of the American and Arab ‘street' and then channeling them through a surreal prism.

His insistence on taking creative risks has been both a blessing and a curse for the company he and Michael are attempting to build. While they have attracted press coverage in some of the most prestigious magazines in the world and the support of influential magazine editors, like Alex White of W and Lori Goldstein of Italian Vogue, the burgeoning design team has not found a major investor or backer. And although their clothing is available in a selection of stores in countries such as Japan and the United States, they have yet to find any major commercial success.

"In the U.S. you starve if you want to make non-traditional sportswear. As a result, I'm broke," Hushi says.

But working in the United States also affords Hushi basic freedoms that offer him the opportunity to openly pursue his ambitions.

"I am free to publicly work with, and touch my models. In Iran, it would have to be behind closed doors as a result of the Islamic rule which I respect and honor," Hushi says.

In the end, Hushi's goal is to bridge the gap between Iranian and American cultures, drawing on the best and most beautiful of both worlds.

"I feel like I am teaching the [American] public about the beauty of Iranian civilization in a language that young people can handle and understand. I mix Middle-Eastern symbolism with Western presentation and popular culture. This allows Americans to accept the beauty of my culture while Iranian youth [in America] can find something modern to help them rediscover their roots with," he said.

Hushi's unwillingness to separate his identity from the creative process stands out in comparison to his fellow designers of Middle Eastern origin.

He says, "They are usually too greedy or scared to flaunt their roots...it's unfortunate." His abiding interest in and devotion to Persian culture doesn't mean, however, that he is willing to forgo all hope of financial success. Currently Michael and Hushi are actively seeking a backer who believes in their vision's potential, on both a financial and social level. Hushi is also contemplating re-opening a boutique in order to reach a larger audience.

Commercial obstacles aside, Michael and Hushi continue to forge ahead with their sometimes brazen, often brilliant, exploration of postmodern American and Middle Eastern ideals of glamour. As he moves forward, Hushi sees potential for further cultural cross-pollination.

"Fashion is in the future of Iran and the Iranian aesthetic will definitely impact world fashion in ways other than just the image of hejab. Iranian youth race into fashion, facing the challenge of achieving their desired look within the guidelines of an Islamic Republic. They gather around shopping malls, socializing and preening like beautiful birds of paradise in the latest sneakers and pant styles," Hushi said.

At a time when the Western world is deeply engaged with the Middle East, it seems inevitable that aesthetic influences will continue to seep across borders, bringing Iranians and Americans into closer contact than ever before. Hushi's clothing might not solve deep political differences, but perhaps it can be a tool for teaching tolerance and acceptance. With one foot planted firmly in his homeland, and the other striding boldly into a global future, Hushi is a true pioneer.

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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