You only needed to take one look at the crowd at Dubai’s recent Arab Fashion Week to realise that modest fashion is having a moment. Many women, regarding of nationality, religion or culture, merged fashion and classic style with modesty: Loose-fitting culottes, buttoned-up long sleeved shirts and maxi dresses replacing short skirts, off the shoulder tops and bodycon dresses. And it’s not just locally. Red carpets and catwalks across the globe are being flooded with conservatively dressed models and celebrities. Alongside, online fashion sites and modest-blogger social media accounts are altering the way we shop and the way conservative styles are promoted.
Earlier this year, UAE-based modest-specific fashion website The Modist launched; globally, many international brands have showcased outfits that are more conservative, as well as creating ‘modest specific ranges.’ Designers including Dolce & Gabbana, Caroline Herrera, DKNY and Nike have all released specific modest or conservative collections in the last few months, some of which consist of traditional abayas with a fashionable twist. You know a fashion concept is making the leap to being a trend when it comes off the designer catwalk and onto the high street; just last week, affordable modest clothing brand Aab launched in Debenhams stores in the UAE. There was a Modest Fashion Week in London earlier this year, while in September 2016, Indonesian fashion designer Anniesa Hasibuan became the first designer to show a collection at New York Fashion Week with every model wearing a hijab. There’s definitely a change happening worldwide in the way these kinds of clothes are being presented.
But is it really a huge fashion trend – or an existing style with a new label put on it?
‘It has always been there, but only now is it being recognised,’ says Latifa Al Shamshi, an Emirati fashion blogger that Friday caught up with at Arab Fashion Week. Her Instagram features shots of her latest handbags and jewellery, but does not show her face. ‘The notion of modest used to be plain, boring outfits but am glad that we are moving away from that. The association of fashion and modest wasn’t there until recently. The fashion world has just realized that modest fashion is a huge segment that needed a lot more focus.’
‘No one should have to sacrifice their beliefs in order to be stylish and feel confident and beautiful and if we can dress stylishly and modestly at the same time then that’s a huge win,’ says Melanie Elturk, CEO of Haute Hijab, a US-based online fashion store catering to those looking for stylish hijabs (they also ship to the UAE). ‘I have never allowed the hijab to hold me back in how I dressed and I’ve always been very conscious to be fashionable. With everything we have in the world today the media, the social media etc. it is really important for every girl, including Muslim girls, to be able to look amazing but not have to sacrifice their beliefs.’
The Middle East has always been known for its glamorous yet modest fashion, worn by women for cultural and religious reasons, and by expats who cover up out of respect for the country they are living in. As a result many of us living in the region, whatever our heritage, find ourselves dressing quite modestly - with what we find in stores already.
Nonetheless, ‘a few years ago there wasn’t a lot of choice’ says Nazmi Ali, founder of modest fashion brand Aab. ‘Things are changing now, there is a lot of momentum around modest fashion, especially through social media.’ Nazmi explains that many of her customers aren’t buying her modest clothes because of religion but because of what they like. ‘We have very diverse customers, our brand is not only for Muslim women but we create modest fashion for women looking for modest silhouettes. We try to design the type of garments any woman can wear.’
Social media has been key in bringing attention to the concept of fashionable modesty, and capturing the attention of individual women, brands and advertisers alike. ‘Take away social media and nothing would have happened in the mainstream,’ says Melanie; her site, founded in 2010, also provides a support group for those who dress modestly and encourages shoppers to upload pictures of themselves wearing their modest looks on the streets.
‘Social media has shown the mass market that there is this small group of bloggers and influencers that is able to influence millions. When people see that happening they see dollar signs and want to work out how they can use it,’ she adds.
Summer Albarcha is one of the world’s leading modest fashion bloggers, with a following of over 300,000 on Instagram and a presence at New York Fashion Week – she’s frequently snapped by street-style photographers and has collaborated with fashion brands, and appeared in a fashion show for the Express brand with model Karlie Kloss in March. She says the trend has wide appeal.
‘I think that the modest fashion industry is growing so much because businesses are realizing how massive and widespread it is, considering that the majority of women can take part in modest fashion, whether they are Muslim or not’ Summer tells Friday. ‘I do think a lot of the contributions can be made to the availability of modest bloggers nowadays but also to social media in general that has played a huge role in promoting and expanding the Muslim presence online.’
While modest fashion has always been a way of life in the GCC, often with individuals or personal shoppers curating existing fashion ranges to find suitable pieces – or having clothing made to order – only now brands have realized its marketing power, it was only a matter of time before that branding took on a luxury angle.
Enter online fashion store The Modist. Stocking brands including Alberta Ferretti, Osman and Mary Katrantzou, The Modist’s founders select pieces that will cover most of the body, and style them in a conservative way with lots of layering and oversized items. Founder Ghizlan Guenez says it was shopping ‘frustration’ that led her to create the site.
‘I was brought up in a family of women who dress modestly and have experienced the frustration that one goes through when trying to find fashionable and trendy pieces that take into consideration that way of dressing,’ she tells Friday. She took the step of leaving a career in finance to start the site – something that tells us there’s a big future in modest fashion.
But are the pieces just the same clothes that are sold in stores, with a modest label on them?
Ghizlan says it’s the convenience of the site – eliminating sifting through countless products, finding items that work with the needs of a modest dresser – that makes them more than just a retailer of high-end long skirts. ‘We alleviate all of that frustration by speaking to the modest dresser’s needs in everything that we do, be it the curation of fashion products that we offer, the inspiring styling, as well as elevated and relevant content and editorials that aims to inspire and celebrate her in our online magazine, the mod.’
‘What we do not offer this woman is as important as what we offer her.’
The gap in the market at all price points is clear, says Yulia Shakurova, a former model who converted to Islam when she moved to Dubai and met her now husband, has a unique take on the subject. When she started dressing conservatively she found it hard to find clothes as ‘these places just weren’t promoted anywhere.’ She adds that ‘it is better now but it is still something the women find really hard and it’s something that’s very close to my heart.’
But it’s important brands do their homework about what is appropriate, and provide something for all price points. ‘It’s all very well having “stylish” modest wear but many Muslim women are not working or simply can’t afford luxury brands, so there is still room for affordable stylish lines.’
Some ‘modest’ clothes still aren’t suitable for her, she says.
‘Sometimes these fashion brands don’t really understand exactly what we need, so I think there is still a space in the market for that.’ Nonetheless, ‘it is very important for me to dress modestly and look beautiful at the same time’.
Haya Eyad Al Yousfi, a student at the University of Ajman, mixes hijabs and abayas with high-street clothes to create her own unique style, shopping in stores including Mango, Promod and Riva, where she manages to find conservative yet stylish clothes. She’s pleased about the increased visibility of modest fashion, enabling her ‘keep up with new trends while staying modest. For me, it makes shopping easier and provide us with more options’.
Haute Hijabs’ Melanie says we haven’t seen anything yet – expect to see new, big brands catering to the modest fashion segment. ‘There’s so much room for it to continue to grow. We are definitely going to see more brands being introduced that have some real leverage behind them in that they have investors backing tem or a part of other mainstream groups. We are going to see it become a lot more professional and a lot bigger than it is today. The whole industry is in its infancy so we are going to see it really boom and see these brands break through global barriers and become global brands.’
While it may seem that the fashion industry is cashing in on women’s cultural and religious values, there’s an overall benefit from from the commercialisation of modest fashion, beyond simply having more choice at the mall.
It’s a new opportunity for business, which could be led by the very women who need the clothes them themselves.
And it’s already resulting in more diversity in fashion – and presence for women of a underrepresented backgrounds in the style conversation.
Says Latifa: ‘There is no denying that there money is there to be made from these modest collections and sites, this is ultimately why designers make clothes but it seems there are many women who will benefit. This is a whole new market in an industry that is currently saturated, so to find something new and fresh that there is such a huge demand for is rare.’
Summer, too, says the increase in visibility that has stemmed from modest fashion’s new platform ‘ultimately is benefiting us more by making modest fashion so mainstream and widespread’, even while she admits it may be ‘solely for profits or perhaps to boost their image’.
Not only does it give modest shoppers more options at more price points, it has increased the presence of Muslim women in the fashion industry. ‘ I’ve had the opportunity to work with US brands on some amazing upcoming campaigns,’ says Summer, ‘and I really think it’s important to feature Muslim women in their advertisements in a time where so many companies are pushing for diversity-- we should be part of the picture too.’