Why mainstream brands are embracing modest fashion

muslim fashion industry 1

Editor’s Note: Reina Lewis is professor of cultural studies at London College of Fashion (University of the Arts London) and a consulting curator of the de Young Museum’s exhibition “Contemporary Muslim Fashions.” The following is an edited excerpt of her essay “Muslims and Fashion Now, and Then,” taken from a book accompanying the exhibition, also called “Contemporary Muslim Fashions.”

CNN  — 

For many years – especially after the attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001 – the fashion industry was deeply averse to being publicly associated with Muslims, whether as designers, models, consumers or influencers. That Muslim clients from the newly rich petro-economies of the Gulf provided essential support to European couture houses from the middle of the last century was insider knowledge only.

But fast-forward to the second decade of the 21st century, and a connection to Muslims is seen as an asset. 

Global fashion brands from luxury to high street have woken up to the Islamic calendar. Around the world, brands run fashion promotions for Ramadan and Eid – the “new Christmas.” In London, luxury retailers gear up for the “Harrods Hajj,” a seasonal pre-Ramadan influx of affluent Gulf shoppers.

Sometimes, fashion brands create a capsule collection from their existing ranges (DKNY led with a Ramadan campaign in their Gulf stores in 2014, for instance). And a specialist fashion-industry infrastructure has also grown globally – now Muslim designers of modest wear have opportunities to show their work at the proliferating number of modest fashion weeks and fairs around the world.

In the mainstream luxury sector, online portal Net-a-Porter forged ahead with an Eid edit in 2015. Last year, new Dubai-based modest e-retailer The Modist showed sufficient confidence in a Muslim market to persuade high-end designers, such as London-based Mary Katrantzou, to produce exclusive modest designs.

A skirt and shirt by London-based designer Mary Katrantzou, paired with Malone Souliers shoes.

Fashion imagery has changed, too. A decade ago, some modest clothing brands and magazines avoided showing faces – or the human form at all – in deference to some interpretations of Islamic teaching. Now, Muslim models who wear the headscarf, or hijab, are starring in ad campaigns and on the catwalk – from the viral H&M video featuring hijab-wearing Londoner Mariah Idrissi, to Somali American Halima Aden, who has walked for Max Mara and Kanye West’s Yeezy.

Drive for diversity

But visible religious diversity isn’t happening in a vacuum. It is part of the industry’s belated wake-up to its lack of ethnic and racial diversity, as well as to body size and to gender and sexual identities. Now, religion is being melded into the mix.

Take cosmetics company CoverGirl, for example, which once paved the way on racial and sexual diversity with brand ambassadors from Queen Latifah to Ellen DeGeneres. It is a sign of the times that, in January 2017, the company appointed American hijabi beauty blogger Nura Afia. Sephora, too, has showed hijabis in cosmetics marketing for its Fall 2017 campaign. Given that Islam is not an ethnicity, the diversity of the Muslim population offers a double win for brands seeking to make visible their commitment to all forms of social diversity. 

Ensembles modelled for the Dubai-based e-retailer, The Modist.

More Muslims are finding ways to break into the fashion industry, but established names are also being more “out” about their Muslim heritage. Supermodel sisters Gigi and Bella Hadid have associated themselves publicly with Islamic causes. Bella has openly identified herself as Muslim and spoken of their Palestinian father’s encouragement that they should be proud of their dual heritage. Gigi, a “proud” Palestinian, has shared on social media her cultural participation in Muslim festivals such as Eid with her then-boyfriend, Zayn Malik. 

The Hadid sisters have used their celebrity status and Muslim identity to speak out against the perceived anti-immigrant and anti-Islam rhetoric of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the legislative efforts to curb immigration and travel from Muslim-majority countries. In making themselves visible as Muslims, the Hadids – whose personal styling and professional modeling assignments do not associate them with modest dressing – immediately widened the perception of what a Muslim woman looks like.

‘Think halal, act local’

As niche modest brands cross over into the mainstream and as mainstream fashion and lifestyle sectors target Muslim consumers, it will be harder to reconcile community with competition. To date, the sector has been notable for an etiquette of respect and of collaboration in supporting others to foster modest fashion and its related values.

With “home-grown” designers from within the Muslim community now facing competition from global brands – whether Dolce & Gabbana’s abayas or Nike’s Pro Hijab – the competition is more marked as the stakes have become higher. A global modest fashion infrastructure of competing modest fashion weeks, fairs, and expos has grown out of what were once low-key, community-run gatherings.

This growth has created new opportunities in the fashion industry for Muslims and for those who understand Muslim cultures. The upward-spiraling estimates of Muslim spending on fashion and on modest fashion don’t come out of nowhere: The transition from avoiding Muslim consumers to wooing them has been fostered by professional marketers who have identified Muslims as a global consumer segment.

A modest ensemble by British designed Rebecca Kellett.

In early 2018, British retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S) decided to include “modest outfits” as an online search category and received quite a few negative responses. When M&S had started to sell burkinis two years before, the controversy was about the garment. This time, the garments – selected from existing lines – were not the problem: it was the terminology.

Lots of women commenters welcomed longer sleeves or higher necklines (as suitable for occupation or age). Less welcome was the inference that other forms of dress – and the women who wear them – are immodest. As some guessed, it was search engine optimization rather than religious ideology that drove the decision: M&S confirmed that “‘modest fashion’ is an increasingly popular search term.”

Transitioning from marketing kiss of death to valuable commercial category through the jangle of cash registers, the language of modesty is now fully monetized. But if mainstream fashion brands continue to chase Muslim consumers, as the market matures brands will need to listen to marketing experts who advise them to learn to “think halal, act local.”

Contemporary Muslim Fashions,” published by Prestel, is available now. An exhibition of the same name, curated by the author, is showing at the de Young Museum in San Francisco until Jan. 6, 2019.