For any high street brands toying with the idea of adding a “modest” range to their collections, Mariah Idrissi has some advice. Just don’t. That the advice comes from the first hijab-wearing model to appear in a mainstream high-street campaign may seem incongruous, but for the 25-year-old Londoner, who starred in H&M’s 2015 adverts, the rise of the modest fashion trend has less to do with the clothes and more to do with representation. 

‘When I talk to brands and they say “shall we create a whole modest fashion collection?” I tell them no. Some of the stores are modest already, but they bring out these collections and stamp the word “modest” on it. 

Read more: Dubai Modest Fashion Week: The highlights

Looking around the high street, despite Mariah’s H&M adverts, it is still rare to see a woman wearing a hijab in a mainstream fashion campaign. Modest fashion lines seem to be isolated into their own section of stores, rather than being slotted in amongst everything else. 

‘I told one brand all they need to do if they want to bring out a collection that is modest is use a Muslim woman as the face of it. But I think that’s the problem – they still don’t want to put us at the forefront. I would never expect a whole campaign to change just because I wear a hijab; if there is something I can easily fit in to but I’m wearing a headscarf, then that’s all the world needs to see. It’s not massive changes.’

Mariah, now a full-time model (she has just signed with a new talent agency and she tells us she has a major beauty brand campaign coming up this year), is also called upon as a spokesperson for modest fashion. She is the face of Dubai’s first Modest Fashion Week, which took place in early December 2017. But her views on what modest fashion is have changed significantly since her career began, however. 

‘When I first started [modelling] I just went with what was trending and what everyone else thought it was, but now I do feel like it’s just a more politically correct way of saying “Islamic dressing”. I think people think that term is too controversial, particularly in the western world, so using the word “modest” is a softer way of saying it.’ 

Ozlem Sahin and Franka Soeria

Modest Fashion Weeks have already taken place in London and Istanbul, and the founders, Franka Soeria and Ozlem Sahin, have plans to make it an annual event in the UAE. ‘The events are raising awareness but there is a long way to go yet.’ Mariah says. ‘The more we are out there in the media, showing our personalities and that we have a trend, it becomes something that people also want to be a part of. Right now I’m actually quite content with the way fashion is because I can shop on the high street and get everything I need to get without having a problem. The only thing I do struggle with is evening wear – I’d like to see some better options for that.’ 

International fashion brands are focusing on more modestly designed garments: Dolce & Gabbana and Carolina Herrera both recently had abaya collections, while high-street stores are creating ‘modest’ ranges. Mariah says, ‘Brands that once ignored modest dressers ‘have now realised how many Muslim women there are in the world and how much we spend on fashion and beauty – and they’ve realised they were missing out.’ 

‘Everybody wants to do modest fashion now,’ says Franka. ‘They are free to do it as it’s a new, trending market. However, it is important to keep the identity of modest fashion – it is important to have a character, or else people will be confused and this industry won’t be sustainable. However, exposure and business should go hand in hand – in the end, modest fashion is business.’

Importantly, modest fashion now has a voice, adds Ozlem – with its own talents, rather than brands treating it as a niche to be filled. There are designers, brands, media, industry experts and, of course, social media influencers. ‘Since we have created our own platform, everyone has started to be more aware of what modest fashion is. It is easy to see how big brands take modest fashion seriously – Dolce & Gabbana, Zara, H&M, Nike... just enter their stores, look at their campaigns, their styles. That shows that modest fashion is one of the next big things in the global fashion industry.’ 

The duo agree that each and every shopper will decide what their own modest fashion is – there’s no one concept. ‘It’s a choice of style,’ says Franka. ’Everybody can wear modest fashion. In the past, many people told women that to be beautiful, you need to expose more skin. Not all women are comfortable with that, including me in the past – I didn’t wear a hijab until four years ago. So modest fashion exists as a choice. It’s a freedom of style.’

Variety and knowledge of markets will be the deciding factors in which brands make it through the early days of the burgeoning industry. ‘Many people will want to jump into this industry, competition will be harder and only the good will survive,’ says Franka. ‘Always remember that modest fashion is not just a trend, it’s an industry that has been around for more than ten years. The only difference is now the mainstream public have started to recognise this industry, everybody is talking about it.’

The market is ‘huge’, adds Ozlem. ‘It is important to understand what is the right market for a brand, since the styles and design tastes differ from one region to another: European styles are much more sporty, GCC styles are much more haute couture and Asian styles have more prints.’ 

‘First and foremost, yes it is business – as much as we like to think they care about us – but at the same time it’s great, because we have more options of things to buy,’ says Mariah. There’s one thing that she thinks the high street is still missing, though. ‘Hijabs – I still have to buy mine from the market! High-street stores are missing out on a huge market there. I even have friends with modest clothing lines but none of them actually do hijabs.’ 

Safiya Abdullah
Aiza Castillo-Domingo

Testament to how modest fashion crosses boundaries is Dubai-based fashion designer Safiya Abdullah, a.k.a. the woman who got superstar Gwen Stefani to wear one of her designs on stage in Dubai. Safiya, designer and founder of the Dulce by Safiya label, was at the front of the audience when the No Doubt singer performed at a hotel opening in the same week as Modest Fashion Week, and personally handed a turban and a mesh bomber jacket to her childhood idol.

Gwen Stefani

‘It was absolutely amazing. I have loved this woman since I was like 10 years old so when I saw a friend was going to the event I told her she had to take me. I waited at the front of the stage, and towards the end I just thought “I’m going to give it to her”. I put my bag out and she came and grabbed it from me and she put it on!’ Since the event, Safiya has been contacted by the US press for interviews and her jacket appeared on celebrity gossip site TMZ. ‘They wanted to buy the photo and video from me, but I told them no – I want to keep them for myself for now.’ She told us. 

Safiya, 31, who is originally from California, is no stranger to celebrity endorsements – last year Lindsay Lohan was pictured wearing her creations and the two are even working on a collection together. ‘We became friends after I was invited to dress her on a shoot. Let’s see when things happen. It’s [the collection] very much still in the works.’ 

But while Safiya is attracting the attention of Hollywood celebrities (even Selena Gomez is rumoured to be wearing one of her designs in the near future), the mum of three originally founded her brand to fill a gap in the market for modest yet fashionable designs. 

‘I didn’t always cover my body for religious reasons so when I did start covering, I had a certain way I wanted to look and I could never find that in the mall, so I just started designing things that I wished I could buy. Then I had people asking me where my clothes were from and I realised I should start creating collections.’ Safiya’s clothing line puts a modest twist on western cuts and styles, making them wearable for all women. ‘I usually do looser fits and I have them fitted in the right places so people don’t feel like they’re wearing a bag. I want people to feel good. Most of my clients are not Muslim so I try to make my designs versatile so they can be worn in two or three different ways.’

Safiya’s spring/summer ’18 collection, which was the closing show at Modest Fashion Week, is the first one she has presented as a catwalk show. ‘So many people were shocked because I did a complete 180 with my style. I used to do very feminine pieces in light and champagne colours, whereas in this collection, I used a lot of metallic and darker colours. I wanted to make sure it was a really strong collection.’ 

While Modest Fashion Week featured catwalk shows – as it has been in other editions – the runway is not where you’ll find Mariah, who says she initally faced a backlash for her choice to model. She explains: ‘There was negative feedback, both from my community and from non-Muslims. It was a bit of a shock – people were even saying they wouldn’t shop in H&M because [the store was] supporting the hijab. Some of my own community were questioning how I could be a model and wear a hijab. I had to do a lot of research to make sure [modelling] didn’t contradict anything in the Quran.’ 

So how does she determine what is acceptable and what isn’t? For Mariah, catwalk shows cross the line, but photo campaigns can be a strong tool in informing the wider world about modest dressing. ‘As long as I’m wearing a hijab and wearing it to a high standard, that’s what I’m comfortable with. I think being the representation of hijab-wearing women in a picture is really powerful, as long as it is done properly.’ 

‘My job isn’t just being a model; I have to make these brands understand me. I think people think too deeply about the fact that I wear a hijab. I think people actually avoid working with someone wearing a hijab because they don’t know how to deal with it.’

 Could the UAE, then, a place that is at once fashion forward and understanding of people’s varying modest styles, take the reins of the movement? ‘There are so many people who dress modestly here, so I think it is the perfect place to have [Modest Fashion Week],’ says Safiya. ‘At the event there were a lot of women who don’t cover [their body] but wear headscarves. There are a lot of people that aren’t Muslim who dress modestly... [the event was] offering a platform that says if you want modest clothes you can find it all right here, rather than having to search the malls and high-street stores for things that are appropriate.’ 

How does Safiya define the trend? ‘I would say modest fashion is sometimes just the way you carry yourself. Literally, it is looser clothing, something that’s not so fitted, not too much skin showing. I did a campaign recently about how modesty doesn’t necessarily mean a hijab – it means so many things to different people.’ 

Like other fashion events, says Franka, Dubai’s modest week was ‘a mix.’ ‘You will always see stylish people wearing modest wear, either hijabi or non-hijabi.’

‘We had very different visitors from all around the world. Different nationalities, different religions, different styles. It was like a celebration of diversity of modest fashion. It is not just for women in the industry – there were also many businessmen. Since our vision to create global business collaboration, we welcomed everyone who respects, supports and wants to learn more about modest fashion.’ 

Mariah has a different vision for the future of modest fashion; beyond the market research and sales figures, it’s a genuine opportunity for inclusion. ‘I would just really like to see more representation of women who wear hijabs – on TV, spokespeople, in films. It doesn’t always have to be labelled as modest or Muslim, it’s just a realistic representation of the real world.

‘I can’t predict if modest fashion is always going to be a trend but at the same time I think because we have made this progress and we have Modest Fashion Week I don’t think designers can just make an entire sexy collection and leave us out.’