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Shia Chic: Meet The Qom Tailor Who Dresses Iran's Clerics

Abolfazl Arabpour, 86, has been sizing up all the high dignitaries of the Iranian clergy for half a century.

Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami voting in Tehran in 2009
Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami voting in Tehran in 2009
Louis Imbert

QOM — Abolfazl Arabpour, a tailor from this Iranian holy city, is simply the best in his field. At 86 years old, he has been dressing the cream of the Shia clergy for 50 years, supplying everything, "even the boxer shorts."

Ahead of February's elections for Iran's parliament and the so-called Assembly of Experts — a body of 88 theologians in charge of appointing the Supreme Leader — Arabpour and his five sons' workshop was feeling Qom's sacred bustle up close. The legendary tailor knows many of these public representatives: has touched them, sized them up, measured them from head to toe, always with the endless respect that they are due.

And as for Imam Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the revolution and founder of the Islamic Republic in 1979? The tailor delivered his clothes as early as the 1960s during his exile, in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf. His successor, Ali Khamenei, who has been in power for 27 years? "His father was a very good man." This phrase keeps coming back. It is a reminder that the Shia high clergy is a family business.

Over the years, Ali Khamenei has gone from wearing the labbade, the item of clothing of the "chic mullah," to the qaba, the more old school look of the "ascetic clerk, who's left the attractions of the material world behind."

A fundamental choice

Here, it's more a technical question. The qaba is a loose item of clothing with two sides that cross each other in a "V." Arabpour closes them with three buttons, two of which are visible. The fabric is usually provided by the customer, even though the tailor and his sons have better fabrics from England, Yazd and the holy city of Mashhad. In their narrow shop, in a covered lane of the city center, rolls are piled up between the ceiling and three glass cabinet walls.

The labbade is the item of clothing worn by Hassan Rouhani. The moderate president of the Islamic Republic chooses it in dark blue or gray. The viewer's eye glides without stopping on a dark clerical girdle, up to that beard that has become grayer after two years in power, towards the sharp look and keen smile, and eventually to the dazzling white turban.

The labbade is meant to make the human body disappear into clerical dignity. The slightly asymmetrical round collar is adapted to the high-collar shirt favored by a revolution that rejects the Western tie. Its left side closes above the right side and forms a bulging shape on the torso. There are nine layers of fabric, one part of which is disappointingly made in South Korea.

Ultimate in clerical "chic"

Who wears it the best? Without any doubt Mohammad Khatami, according to the tailor. Not even Rouhani has replaced him in his heart. The only true reformist Iranian president (1997-2005) embodied, in his day, a new face of Iran. He advocated "dialogue between civilizations" while wearing immaculate clothes. He was the one who made Abolfazl Arabpour famous.

"The BBC came to see "Khatami's tailor." They all came running after that," Arabpour says. "The Egyptian, Syrian, American religious leaders. The BBC brought me Hassan Nasrallah," leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah, who still comes here for clothes.

Today, Khatami has been banished from Iranian media, forbidding the publication of his likeness. They are, however, everywhere in the tailor's shop. The former president has been orchestrating behind the scenes the return of real reformists into the political spectrum. With their centrist and moderate conservative allies, they have just taken over almost all the seats at the Assembly of Experts, in the Tehran district. The hardline supporters of the Supreme Leader may be on the way out.

Abolfazl Arabpour doesn't comment on these disputes. He lives sheltered in the slightly surreal warmth of clerical solidarity. And no one will ever force him to declare that "chic" has a political color.

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