A year or so ago the term modest wear would have drawn puzzled looks. But what a difference a year — or, in fact, a few weeks — makes.
This month, Vogue Arabia launched its first print issue, with Saudi Arabian princess Deena Al Juhani Abdul Aziz as its editor in chief. Days later, Nike pioneered a hi-tech hijab for Muslim female athletes. London has seen its first modest fashion week. Big brands such as DKNY, Mango, Dolce & Gabbana, Oscar de la Renta and Uniqlo have all offered modest fashion lines to women, and Debenhams has just become the first department store to sell hijabs on the high street.
Yet the latest talking point in fashion circles has been the appearance of The Modist, a luxury e-commerce venture that launched, quite intentionally, on international women’s day. Fashion that caters to women who want to combine their faith or modesty with contemporary style has emphatically arrived.
The founder and CEO of The Modist is 38-year-old Ghizlan Guenez, of Algerian background, who presents her new company more as a philosophy than a fashion destination. And of course Guenez, who has a private-equity background, knows this is where the big money lies. Global Muslim expenditure on fashion is set to rise to $484 billion (Dh1.7 trillion) by 2019, according to Reuters and DinarStandard, a research and advisory firm.
“The Modist could not have launched at a better time,” says Guenez. “The stars were aligning for us. We saw Halima Aden, the first Muslim model in a hijab on the catwalk at New York fashion week, modelling for Yeezy, Kanye West’s fashion line; we’re seeing big brands reaching out to Muslim audiences even more, and we had the women’s march, which was incredibly empowering for women all over the globe.”
Guenez sees social media as pivotal to the modest fashion industry. “Social media has played a significant role in bringing women together — so a Malaysian fashionista can be inspired by a student in London. They’re informed by an online community of women who want to combine faith values with fashion.”
The Modist curates outfits that range from around £200 to £2,000 (Dh893 to Dh8,931), from coloured maxi dresses to wide-leg trousers, and dynamic-cut tops. Yet when it comes to gauging what modesty really means, Guenez is measured. “Modesty is a wide spectrum that involves personal choice,” she says. “But we do respect certain parameters, through lowering hemlines, avoiding sheerness and low necklines. We want to provide something that is inspiring, fashionable and relevant.”
Yet modest fashion, particularly when it comes to Muslims, has not been without controversy. Vogue Arabia’s front cover caused a Twitter backlash for depicting 21-year-model Gigi Hadid in a jewel-encrusted veil. She was criticised for giving religious offence, for cultural appropriation and for using her Palestinian roots as a fashion gimmick.
And of course there was the global outcry when burkinis, the full-piece Islamic swimsuits, were banned last summer from a string of French coastal towns and bizarrely linked to terrorism.
Reina Lewis, professor of cultural studies at the London College of Fashion, observes that when modest fashion mixes with major brands and Muslims, it can prompt controversy. “The fashion industry is broadly secular and there is an anxiety associated with Muslims and Islam in particular,” she says. “Muslims are often seen to be outside western-perceived cultural production.”
But that negative attitude is shifting, says Lewis. When she started researching her book Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures, she found the Muslim female designers, bloggers and entrepreneurs she spoke to could not get the attention of the big brands. “Now modest wear is seen as an asset because of Muslim spending power,” she says.
According to Reuters and DinarStandard, the Islamic economy is growing at nearly double the global rate. Muslim consumer spending on food and lifestyle reached $1.8 trillion in 2014 and is projected to reach $2.6 trillion in 2020.
And so modest wear continues to draw major brands: Dolce & Gabbana created a luxury hijab and abaya range in 2016; DKNY and Mango launched exclusive modest wear lines for Ramadan and Eid targeting the UAE; H&M featured its first Muslim model in a hijab, Mariah Idrissi, and Uniqlo joined forces with British-Japanese designer Hana Tajima to create their LifeWear collection. Debenhams is collaborating with a Muslim-run company, Aab, to sell kimono wraps, silky jumpsuits and elegant hijabs.
Just weeks before the release of Nike’s Pro Hijab, aimed at Muslim athletes, the company launched a video for Middle Eastern audiences. It featured a diversity of Muslim women ice-skating, boxing, horse-riding, and fencing. The voiceover, in Arabic, says: “What will they say about you? Maybe they’ll say you exceeded all expectations.”
It’s long overdue, according to Rimla Akhtar, the first Muslim woman on the Football Association council, and chair of the UK’s Muslim Women’s Sports Foundation. “Modest sports gear and sports hijabs are nothing new, but to have something from such a giant as Nike is significant.”
Akhtar, who has been competing since her teens, finds the sharp spotlight on Muslim women over the past few years to be both positive and negative. “It’s encouraging to see Muslim women recognised, but much of this advertising pushes the narrative of breaking stereotypes,” she says. “I look forward to a time when we can normalise Muslim women in sports, not constantly make them a political or social statement.”
Nabiilabee has been a blogger for seven years, and is among the pioneers of modest fashion. She started her eponymous clothing brand for anyone looking for something “modest, but still fun and quirky”. The 21-year-old belongs to the Mipster generation (Muslim hipster), which comprises urban, tech-savvy millennials who are confident in their faith and fashion choices.
“Hijabi bloggers and influencers weren’t really being seen by advertisers or companies, so we had to create a platform which united other Muslim women who were facing fashion dilemmas,” she says. “The problem still exists today; however, there is a lot more choice and those women who were once isolated by the high street have launched their own collections, like Arabian Nites, Aab and Verona Collection and my own Nabiilabee.”
So does this mean women who want stylish modest wear are finally being catered for? The answer, for Nabiilabee, is mixed. She feels that while recent moves are encouraging, there is still a long way to go in penetrating the high street and treating Muslim female shoppers as a sought-after commodity.
“It’s important that brands and marketing campaigns try to have an authentic conversation with this audience rather than simply sticking a ‘modest’ sticker on everything and hoping it will sell,” she says.