Tenacity. This lady is about her business. I can only listen and learn, as this Queen Mother answers my questions. Her story is as expansive, as it is intimate. Carmen Muhammad has traveled the world, has had Royals give her gifts, and has watched her designs sweep the fashion world from Milan to Paris to China. And, yet, when we spoke, it was as if I was speaking with my favorite aunty. Her voice, energy, and spirit come through the phone. Carmen has lived a rich and rewarding life. I believe that life sprouted right out of her heart like fireworks, with that extra special spark: the tenacity of an artist. As she fulfills her purpose in creating the modest high fashion that we’ve all been waiting for, Carmen has a lot to say about her current place in life, and her story is an amazing testament to her own #BlackMuslimGirlFly.
Team BMGFly: #BlackMuslimGirlFly is defined as that “it” factor Black Muslim Girls & Women have that makes them amazing, dope, & fresh-to-death awesome. How would you describe your #BlackMuslimGirlFly?
Carmen Muhammad: For me, I would say that my #BlackMuslimGirlFly is definitely, first of all, my oneness with the Creator, my oneness with Allah. The desire to be humble and through humility, have confidence and understand the nature in which I have been created as a woman. I am the second self of God, and knowing that the development of the human family is with the woman because we are the teachers of life. We aren’t the first teachers of life, but we are co-creators and authors of life because we carry that child in our womb. So, those are the things that are defining for me. That’s how I would describe my #BlackMuslimGirlFly, knowing all of those things, knowing the importance of them, and to be able to put them in their proper perspective, so that I’m representing who I really am as a woman of God.
Team BMGFly: How did you grow into your Muslim identity? And, how does being a Black girl impact that? (Or, if you’re bi-racial, or of multi-ethnic heritage, how does that impact your Muslim identity?)
Carmen: I converted to Islam at 16 years of age. My mother was not a Muslim, yet she was a very religious woman. Born and raised in the south, she migrated to California when I was 2 years old. My mom and her family roots were in Alabama. I was born there but ended up in Long Beach, California at 2 years of age. That was where I grew up. So, being from a home where your parents were raised in southern traditions, you still have a lot of that in your upbringing. Even though we weren’t living in the south, my mom had this rich experience growing up in the south, and she instilled all of the principles that you sometimes find in the southern states; with tradition to family, tradition of family reunions, and things like that. She incorporated that in our lives at a very early age. So, we never really felt a disconnect from not being raised in the south and not actually living there. Again, I converted at 16 years of age. (I’m the youngest of 5 siblings; I have 3 brothers and 1 sister.) My oldest sister accepted Islam, and my mom was a single parent, so my sister was pretty much responsible for taking care of me while my mom was at work. She was an operating room nurse. So, when my sister was processing to become a member of the Nation of Islam, I was always with her attending those meetings. Naturally, I became a student just like her and decided that I wanted to accept Islam as my faith. I always say that even though my mom never converted to Islam, she was a supporter of the faith because she always felt like it didn’t really matter what your faith was. What matters is what your standards are, and your principles. She always said that your religion is your way of life. She instilled in me her belief system, and how she raised us reflected that we were raised in a home that was a Christian home. But, the similarities in how we were raised, that I witnessed, began to grow and convert to Islam. It very much matched the faith that I believed in. So, I feel like she was the foundation for everything that I became later on in life, which is a strong Muslim Woman. My mom’s mom was a Native American, and her mom, my grandmother’s mother, was a mixture of Native American and Caucasian. I do not know which tribe, but that is something we talked about earlier this year. Someone was supposed to do a real investigation for our next family reunion so that we can try to trace it back to what tribe she possibly belonged to, and where her family originated from.
Team BMGFly: How do you maneuver your industry as a Black Muslim Woman?
Carmen: I mean, for me, it’s been a really great experience because, what I believe that has always worked throughout my life, is that I use my foundation and my belief system as my standard for how I operate and my dealings with other people. In Islam, everything is so transparent. Just our principles being committed to the truth, committed to integrity, having great character, respecting and honoring people, (and just as human beings and not being caught up in personality and titles and things like that) guide us. We don’t worship anyone besides Allah, we don’t elevate anyone with Allah. So, dealing with people in that way opens up the emotional side, and the connections you can have with a human being. It breaks down all of the barriers, and people are allowed to get to know you as that individual, that person, in that profession. So, often times before they even meet Carmen Muhammad, they witness my designs and fall in love with what they see and then the dialog comes after that. This allows me to maneuver myself in the industry that is a male dominant industry. It’s an industry that has been controlled by a certain group of people, and Black people are not really the movers and shakers in this industry so, often times I deal with all of that. But, when I deal with people, just based off of those principles we are taught as Muslims, it allows me to be able to navigate through what could be a ‘not-so-comfortable’ environment.
Team BMGFly: What made you decide to take that leap of faith and pursue being a fashion designer?
Carmen: Like I said, with my mother’s upbringing and her being very active in my grandparents home to the degree of taking the Arts, piano lessons, etc. My grandmother would often take my mom to Harlem so that she could visually understand what black folks in Harlem looked like in terms of dress, style, and wear. My mom was a beautiful woman. Having Native American blood in her, often times she would be confused. She was a brown-skinned woman, a deep cocoa brown, but her hair was so long, she could sit on her hair. She was always very conscious of her dress, and she always wanted to make a statement with her clothing. Growing up as a young girl, even watching her get dressed for church, I would see something different. Something, seeming insignificant, that she would do that would make me take a second look. Whether it was a piece of jewelry or the way she styled her hair or the combination of how she put her colors together; it inspired me to want to dress up. At a young age, it made me want to grow up to be beautiful like her. Which led me to my dolls. I would sew their doll clothes; I was very conscientious of their appearance in clothing.
I had no formal training in fashion. When I really took on a serious attitude about my fashion and style, and what statement fashion would make, was when I transitioned from Christianity to Islam. At the time that I accepted Islam, I was also a regular dancer on the TV show, Soul Train. I was pretty popular and was considered to be the social butterfly among my peer group. I shared with everyone that I was going to be a Muslim and that my lifestyle would change because I would no longer engage in a lot of the social environments involved in being a teenager, (going out to parties, that kind of thing) and everybody was like, “What are you going to look like?” So, that was when I decided; when I was really ready to think about modest fashion in the way of wanting to design my own clothing. I didn’t want the focus to be uncomfortable with my peers. I wanted them to still tell me, “Oh, my God, what is that you have on? Oh, my God, I want that.” So that’s when I started to style myself and really get into fashion from the perspective of a young Muslim woman who wants to be modestly dressed but still wants to be down with the modern times. Let’s just say…the early 70s.
Team BMGFly: What were the steps to creating your brand?
Carmen: Well, I think that when I sit down, there are certain signature things that will always be a part of my designs and collections. And, because I am a modest dresser, one of the signature things that people will often look at and know it’s mine, has to do with features on the collars, some of the cuts I do with some of my designs, the tailoring. I’m not really into trends, I don’t follow trends. I study trends of iconic designers from season to season, but only for the purpose of seeing what consumers are gravitating toward. With my particular design style, I deal with a lot of colors. I deal with things that bring out the brightness in people. I like to inspire and, I think you can do that through clothing, just based on some of your color choices. A lot of my design pieces have a little of a military flair to it. The military flair reflects discipline. It’s a statement I am trying to make in order to be able to be a confident and modestly dressed woman. You have to have certain disciplines. You can’t follow the trends because the trend might not be reflective of modest dress. So, I think that all of these different things are what play a part of what you see when you see the brand Al-Nisa. You see high fashion, you see high civilization, you see beauty, you see class, you see style. You don’t necessarily see pieces clinging to the body. I think that when you put all emphasis on the physical contour, that sometimes you don’t see the beauty of the design style. I think all of these things have a lot to do with the brand itself and how I decided to create my brand and my collection.
Team BMGFly: How do you stay aware of the uniqueness of what you deliver, and what is it that you have that separates you from the others in your business?
Carmen: I think what makes my spin what it is, is the inspiration through certain thoughts. My thoughts have a lot to do with the evolution of women. I feel like right now is the time for women in power. I’m always going to deal with the military aspects of my collections because I constantly want to put out there that discipline is important. I think that my color choices, not being locked into certain variables when it comes to color choices and fabric choices, (some designers will only work with one set type of fabric, they never change) is one of my signature takes on fashion. I think outside of the box when it comes to things like that. So, I think that is what gives me a little bit of an edge in terms of my design style because, it’s not connected to one particular thing. It’s basically an expression of a creation, and it’s whatever I’m feeling. I’m currently here, in the midwest, and I’m designing in the midwest because I’m looking at the seasonal changes that are happening here. A lot of times what you’ll get is some seasonal colors. You’ll also see an infusion of the change of the season, with the change of the design styles. When I’m designing and I’m in L.A for long periods of time, then you’re going to get something else because there’s a different type of energy that takes place in L.A. There’s a more laid-back energy here. Your designs and your creativity have a lot to do with your mood and your atmosphere; your environment. So, that’s what I deal with when I’m in collection mode.
Team BMGFly: Do you have an upcoming project scheduled for release? What inspired you to complete this project?
Carmen: Yes, I do. I do, and that’s another thing I think that kind of makes me, me. I haven’t set up my online store yet, (which I’m in the process of doing now) and a lot of my shows are international shows. There’s always a different audience at my shows. A lot of times, a lot of the fashion weeks are strictly for a season. If you go to fashion week during the summer, you are showing upcoming fall. If you go to a fashion week in the Fall, then you’re showing spring and summer. With me, with my collection, because I’m a new and emerging designer, when I go to these international shows, I generally show something from every season or every period because I have a following of Muslim women from all over the world. I’ve got women in Dubai that are interested in my fashion. Well, in Dubai, its pretty much 80-90 degrees year ‘round. It may get a little cool, but for the most part, that’s the climate. I have women who are in California, they don’t really get seasonal weather, then I have women in the Midwest, and in other parts of the country. So, when I design collections, I design collections with all of those consumers in mind. I am working on a collection now, that’s for my appearance at Milan Fashion Week 2018. You’ll see an infusion of all of those pieces from different areas of the world. I’m not sure of the date of this particular show that I’m going to be doing. Milan has never really incorporated a modest segment into their fashion week and I think this is probably a first. The actual fashion week starts September 19th-25th, and the actual day we will be showcasing I haven’t gotten word yet. I will be there after the 20th of September.
Team BMGFly: What’s your most popular piece? What’s the story behind it?
Carmen: The most popular piece is the one that you like. That is one of my most popular pieces, the other is the Matrix jacket. It’s called the Matrix and is the girl that was standing in the long red jacket that I showed you on Instagram. Which also has the military structure to it; and that is another one of my popular pieces. The other piece is (to where it is the logo for Al-Nisa) floral and it’s out of the Italian silk; that as well is a popular piece. Then, there’s the red, long cape dress that you saw is extremely popular because it goes over into what people would label couture fashion; that is another very popular piece. The story behind the one you like the most is that a lot of the women that I have as a consumer base are the millennial women of our faith, they are the younger women, and they also are actively involved in the military training in our faith. So, they love fashion, and they came to me because they know that a lot of my pieces do have the military edge. And, they said “Well we do these big major conventions like Million Man March, and conventions like that,” and they want to have on a look that defines what role they play within the structure of the military, and that’s really what is the creative genius behind that look.
Team BMGFly: What’s the number one thing you hope people will gain from your clothing designs?
Carmen: I think that the number one thing that I really want people to gain from my designs is that modesty is the highest form of a well-dressed woman. That is what I want people to gain from my designs. Modesty has always represented high civilization, and it has always represented the highest form of a well-dressed woman. I mean, think about it, when a woman is exposing every part of her body, you are not looking at the fashion, what you are looking at, and what you are admiring is her body. So, when you’re allowed to wear clothing that focuses on design, style, and creativity, what else would be the highest form of fashion?
Team BMGFly: Who did you look up to while growing up? Who inspires you now?
Carmen: The person of inspiration and who I really looked up to the most was my mom. My sister and I, we felt the same way about that. Our mom was on our watch, she was the matriarch. She was what we talked about when we grew up, we wanted to be just like her. No matter how many TV shows we watched, we watched Diahann Carroll, and all these people, like Diana Ross. But, it was still our mom that put that sparkle in our eyes. So, that would be the person that I most admired growing up; and that was my mother. I admired her for her resilience, and just for her commitment to her being a woman of God and reflecting that in everything she did. My mother still inspires me, honestly; honestly the memory of my mother. My inspiration, my great deal of inspiration is that I feel that God has put me in a place where I can help to elevate the thinking of women through the creation of my fashion. When I went to Torino for the first time, the award I won was the Louis Vuitton Brand Ambassador Award for luxury fashion. To have gained the recognition of an iconic institution, whether it was just one of their representatives there or not, for people to see it and to be inspired by it, and to make it cool, this is the thing that attracts the younger generation. They want to connect with what’s cool and what everybody has been talking about. So, that has been a blessing to me. So I just think that being able to inspire young women to be their very best, and have that connection to God is the self-confidence that they need. They have to understand the role in which they have been created, because it brings about another level of commitment to being responsible, a commitment to having integrity, a commitment to knowing this is the way that you want to shape your life. Falling in love with who you are, and knowing that you are a special part of God’s creation. When he created us, he created you as this special human being. So, it’s really understanding that those are things that nobody can take away from you. Once you gain that confidence, once you gain that oneness with God, once you gain that understanding of who you are, knowing that helps shape the thinking of the whole of humanity. Just as you bring a child into the world; the dotingness you give and the upbringing and raising of the child, all of these things impact humanity. So, teaching human compassion for others, all of these things are what’s going to build a better society for us. When you know that, then you take on a different type of understanding.
Team BMGFly: Can you describe a moment where you felt defeated, and how did you overcome that?
Carmen: I think that probably one of the moments I felt defeated was last year. Even though I knew that Allah does not like divorce, that was going to be a reality in my life. When you really look at the Black family as a whole, and then being brought up the way I was, brought up by a single parent mom, the value of the family institution was always instilled in me. That was something that I never wanted to feel like I failed in. Even though I had wonderful children, I couldn’t ask for better children, and this was my second marriage. I had gotten married at 17 going on 18 years of age. By the time I was 21, I had already had 3 children because that was the thinking of that time of our faith; building the Nation. And, even though I still went to college and I still did all these great things, I understood that the family is the cornerstone of the foundation of our race. And, in those healthy marriages, healthy family, all of those things were very important to me. So, I felt very defeated when I thought about that there had been a lot of time invested over the 13 years in the relationship and building this assistance’s and it had gotten to a state where we had outgrown each other. So that was a very defining moment for me, and what I had to do was, I had to nurse on the Qur’an. When I nursed on the Qur’an, I was nursing not the word of God, and I understood that God was going to present me with certain trials in my life. The Qur’an says you are going to be tried with debt, tried with your wealth, you are going to be tried for all of these things, and what brought me out of that was knowing that I wanted God to be pleased with my response to my trial. I didn’t want that trial or that feeling of defeat to destroy my relationship that I had with God, which meant that no matter what was going on in my life, that He was at the center all love, and that he would make it right; regardless of I felt it was right or not. That is what helped me to be able to heal from something that I felt was very personal. I felt that I had already failed at it, it was turning to my faith, and the prayer, and the studying of the word, and just understanding and knowing that life itself is a journey. From the time you get here, to the time you leave here, its a journey. We don’t have the right to get angry with God if He decides to try us with marriage, try us with children, try us with our profession. All we can do is seek refuge in Him, and ask “Oh Allah, please help me to navigate through these trials, and you are pleased with how I handled the trials. And I don’t forsake you and my belief in you.”
Team BMGFly: Can you describe a moment where you felt like you defied odds or broke barriers?
Carmen: That would definitely be my appearance at Torino Fashion week. When I was invited, at first, I wasn’t sure about attending because of these mainstream fashion shows at this level, it takes probably $40-50,000 to prepare for them. And, because I was in the midst of a divorce, all of my personal assets were tied up, and during my marriage, we had a business, it was a corporation, all of that had been frozen, and then I was offered this opportunity to come and be a part of what was going to be a historically significant event because there had not been a mainstream fashion show at this level that had ever offered a modest segment to incorporate with their show. SO, that was phenomenal for me because once I got past it I said “You know what? We plan, and Allah plans, and He’s the best of planners.” So he had wanted me to do this, because I ended up being invited to it, and the outcome of just submitting myself, and just knowing that God would guide me through this, and I would have everything that I needed and to step out on fate, and begin to work my creativity and in a matter in which I would go there, and I was the only modest designer to win two awards; one of which was the Louis Vuitton Branded Basker award. Which gave me an appearance at Paris Fashion Week and by the way, I’m going back again this year to do Paris Fashion Week.
Team BMGFly: What would you cite as the foundation of your success?
Carmen: Oh my foundation is definitely, first of all, submitting to the will of God. We live in a universe where we can pull out of the universe whatever we put out. So, when we decide we are going to live our life a certain way, then that is the energy we will pull into our atmosphere. So, my foundation is my submission to the will of God, and I don’t want to sound like I’m overzealous in terms of religion, but I believe that is your foundation. You navigate yourself in your life journey; it’s all about your belief system.
Team BMGFly: #BlackMuslimGirlFly is an empowerment brand created to uplift and remind Black girls that they are FLY in many ways. What advice would you give all the Black Muslim girls out there, worldwide, to cultivate their own individual #BlackMuslimGirlFly?
Carmen: I think what I would say to them is know who you are. Know yourself, understand yourself. When you know yourself, and you study yourself, of course, all of that is your belief in God, but you begin to do that, then you begin to understand the things that are good and the things that are not good. And, it gives you the balance that you need, to make decisions in life no matter what your age is. Even at 7,9,8,10 years old, you are gonna have to make a decision, and a child when you are growing up, when you know your likes, your dislikes, know what your weaknesses are so to speak, whats influencing you, it helps you to develop your character; and your character is based on all of those things. SO, its very important that first of all, they connect with their creator. That they understand that there is a higher source in life, and the second thing is to get to know yourself and start loving yourself.
Team BMGFly: What’s something you haven’t done yet, but would like to do next?
Carmen: What I plan to do next, first of all, that’s what I talk to you about the other day, there is a project. I started an organization in 2000, called women working together. The basis of that organization was to set up a networking system among women from every profession and every bulk of life and every faith. And every year, we would host an annual event, the very first, the second year we had the event, I brought Nelson Mandela’s daughter to the country to be my keynote speaker. We’ve had, well, we are going into our fourth major event. I wanted to do them every year, but since we’ve been living in a fledging economy with different leadership in office, it hasn’t been what I wanted to do every year. But the first year in 2000, the event was hosted in Atlanta, Georgia, and it was an interfaith women conference where we dealt with the roles and rights of women, education, health, mothering, peer pressure, entertainment, just every aspect of a profession that women would possibly be in. We did workshops, we did financial workshops, teaching women to rebuild themselves and monetize their businesses, it was a great conference. That conference, we had 500 women in attendance; that was in 2000. Then in 20005, we did the conference in L.A. We did it at the central plaza hotel, and we ended up with possibly about 750 when in attendance. The third conference was in 2016, and we went back to Atlanta, Georgia. We did the conference there with 1000 women, and we had to turn 500 away at the door. Now, over time we have done these conferences, the crowning event has been fashion, and I’ve always done a fashion showcase. After traveling to Italy, Dubai, and Paris, the different places where I’ve had shows and gaining notoriety and momentum, knowing what modest fashion represent in retail and right now in several places in the world, I decided to do a conference again. But, this time, I will be doing as the crowning event the biggest modest fashion show that has ever taken place in the US. Even though NY fashion and LA fashion week has one or two modest designers, modest fashion is really here to stay and I think its very important that it’s introduced a certain way here in the US. So, I feel like all of what Allah has blessed me with overseas, with international the attention that I got, has really been just a dressed rehearsal for what I really want to do. So in 2019, along with the museum exhibit going on, which I’m hoping is going to bring another level of notoriety to our release of brand, I want to and I’m looking to host the biggest modest fashion showcase ever been done in the US where I want to bring modest designers from all over the world to showcase modest fashion. It will be a 3-day weekend event, and I want to rent the staples center for this fashion show. So, what I’m doing now is I’m going to be networking with individuals from different areas of professions that I know that have a networking base in and I’m gonna be saying “Hey, I want you to be a part of what we are about to do, because its going to be monumental if not historical”. SO, that is what I want to do right now, so that’s what I’m working on besides the international appearances in a museum, and that is to be able to host this event in 2019 when we have over 10 or 15,000 women at the event.
Thanks again for sharing your story with us and the rest of the world. For far too long, we’ve been made to be invisible. I believe it’s very important for us, Black Muslim Girls and Women, to stand up and speak up and let the world know we are here and we’re making things happen.