Modest fashion has become big business in recent years—as shown by the announcement that luxury e-commerce site The Modist has secured investment from two major fashion industry players. The retailer—set up in 2017 by Algerian financier Ghizlan Guenez after noticing the dearth of options for modest-minded women like herself—has received backing from Farfetch and Nicola Bulgari, as it continues its expansion around the world. The Modist, is currently seeing 250 per cent growth year on year, now ships 180 brands to over 120 countries around the world.
“We are delighted to welcome Farfetch, an invaluable player in the world of luxury and innovative technology and look forward to continuing our journey of growth with their support and expertise,” says Guenez, on the announcement. Commenting on the remarkable rise of the modest fashion site, Farfetch CEO José Neves adds: “Ghizlan and the team have built an incredible business and it’s great to be a part of supporting the next phase of the company’s growth.”
The investment boost validates Guenez’s conviction that The Modist would be a viable business. While considered a niche offering, the e-tailer’s nondenominational approach means it appeals to women across different faiths, age groups, sizes and cultures. “It doesn’t matter to us what the reason for dressing modestly is. All we care about is offering women fashion and functionality in an elevated experience,” she says.
“Our woman is bold in her fashion choices and we love that because it smashes all stereotypes around modesty and it being dull and boring,” continues Guenez, as she scrolls through the site’s brands, including avant-garde favourites such as Haider Ackermann. Guenez, who grew up surrounded by modestly dressed women, is particular about catering to their needs. Sleeve lengths and fabric opacity are all taken into consideration. Sometimes her team will work with designers to customise pieces specifically for the modest dresser, like an exclusive party-wear capsule collection by Petar Petrov that launches in November to correspond with the festive season. “Ultimately, we want every woman globally who struggles with dressing modestly to see us as her go-to platform,” she says.
Along with the rise of The Modist, brands like Batsheva, founded in 2016, also show how modest fashion—once a niche market—has entered mainstream consciousness. No longer dismissed as the dowdy domain of religious folk, this multibillion-dollar industry is being driven by a young and cosmopolitan consumer who demands coverage in accordance with her faith but refuses to skimp on style. It’s also been embraced by those who simply prefer an aesthetic that doesn’t cater to the male gaze. Even Hollywood stars are dabbling—at the Venice Film Festival 2018, Tilda Swinton wore Haider Ackermann on two occasions, each time sporting a long-sleeved, ankle-swishing silhouette with a ruffled neck that brushed her jawline.
“I know some people will think modest fashion is regressive and telling a woman to cover up, but I actually feel like the women it appeals to want to wear stuff that’s fun and not have to worry about being sexualised,” says Batsheva Hay about her designs, which she shows at New York Fashion Week and retails at MatchesFashion.com.
As the movement has gained momentum, it’s revealed the economic clout of those driving it. Hay’s brand caters to a secondary tier of religious women—namely Orthodox Jews and Christians—as well as secular shoppers interested in pieces that can be appreciated for their style and craft. But it’s a new generation of Muslim consumers that has emerged as the demographic heavyweights, their modest-fashion spend accounting for $44 billion of the $1.9 trillion global Muslim market.
“What’s nice about this space is that you’ve got a loyal audience because they’ve committed to it for a higher reason,” says Alia Khan, founder and chairwoman of the Dubai-based Islamic Fashion Design Council. “They’re not doing it to impress anyone, so there’s no passing fancy, there’s no fad involved in this. They’re first and foremost doing this because of their values and belief set, which are going to stay with them for life.”
Hay’s own journey from Jewish secularism to observance began when she started dating her now-husband, fashion photographer Alexei Hay, who had already embarked on his own foray into Orthodox Judaism. Together, they began to observe Shabbat and keep a kosher household, deftly straddling two worlds: New York’s highly secular fashion scene and a new, spiritual realm of “super intense” Friday-night dinners with her husband’s rabbi and his 14 children. Inspired by outfits she spies at religious weddings, Hay designs her collections with tzniut—the Hebrew word for modesty applied to Jewish women’s rules of dress—in mind. The dresses might look better next to a 19th-century covered wagon, but they sport the high necklines, low hemlines and long sleeves required by Orthodox Judaism.
“Honestly, I’m designing for myself,” Hay says with a shrug, pointing out that a childhood diet of thrift-store finds and Laura Ashley bed sheets has translated into an ultra-feminine aesthetic that favours puffed shoulders, extravagantly ruffled collars, candy-coloured taffeta and loud floral prints. “The majority of it really is totally modest, but it doesn’t freak me out if there are one or two things that aren’t.”
For Khan, this proliferation of new styling is proof of the industry’s burgeoning innovation. She explains that Muslim women worldwide tend to follow the same Islamic principles of propriety—full sleeves, ankle length, no cleavage, no sheer fabrics—but it’s their variance in interpretation and execution that proves exciting. An Iranian woman in Tehran might favour a loosely draped headscarf matched to her trousers and jacket; her counterparts in the Gulf often have a fondness for flowing abayas that fuse Western influences with Eastern style. Even within one country, such as Saudi Arabia, there can be regional variations in the style of abaya sported. Far from being a monolith demographic, the Muslim consumer is as diverse in her needs as any other consumer group. The success of brands rests on their ability to recognise and cater to that.
“What we’re seeing now is that the boundaries are disappearing and there are no rules as long as the general expectation of modesty is met by the consumer’s demand,” Khan says. “The rest of it is really a great playground for these designers to come up with some fabulous, disruptive ideas.”
In a study into the behavioural habits of modest fashion consumers, Romana Mirza, a senior researcher at the Islamic Fashion Design Council, found them to be “savvy” shoppers with established and thoughtful opinions on brands. “The modest fashion consumer shops luxury, mainstream and modest fashion brands to fulfill their demand in this space,” she says. But despite their population size and spending power, they still feel desperately underserved by both bricks-and-mortar stores and online retailers. International brands, urges Mirza, must listen to this “insightful, articulate and attentive consumer”—after all, it’s their needs that will continue to take the driving seat in shaping this market.
In recent years, Western brands have made tentative attempts to court them. Every season, high-street retailer Mango releases modest-friendly collections of tunics, kaftans and maxi-dresses, and in 2017, Nike announced the release of a high-performance hijab. In 2018, Net-A-Porter promoted capsule collections designed specifically for Ramadan by brands including Oscar de la Renta and Jenny Packham; the website also includes ‘modest’ as a category within its clothing menu, filtering all womenswear that fits the bill aesthetically, regardless of whether it was designed expressly for the modest market. A shift towards inclusion can also be seen with the advent of hijabi supermodels like Ikram Abdi Omar, who walked the catwalk for Molly Goddard at London Fashion Week, and Somali-American model Halima Aden, whose runway shows have included Max Mara, Alberta Ferretti, and Kanye West’s Yeezy label. In May 2018, Aden made headlines as the first hijab-wearing supermodel to pose on the cover of British Vogue.
Yet despite the recent publicity surrounding modest fashion, to claim it as a new trend would be to overlook the many women who have clothed themselves like this for millennia. “The truth of it is that modest fashion has been around since the beginning of time,” says Khan, exasperated at the notion that covering up is anything new. And it’s not that the number of modest dressers has increased so much as that we’re finally noticing it. So what’s changed? The intersection between a rapidly growing and remarkably youthful Muslim population of consumers (their global median age, in 2015, was 24) and social-media technology has enabled a wave of influencers, designers and consumers to broadcast their lifestyle to a like-minded audience.
“I think platforms like Instagram and Facebook have enabled a dialogue to take place among women who may not have had that chance in the past and it has enabled their voices to be heard,” says The Modist’s Guenez. “A modest dresser in Indonesia is now able to connect with a modest dresser in New York and see how much they share in common in terms of their fashion and lifestyle choices, and with that comes a movement that started on these platforms and is translating to other aspects of life.”
While social media has thrust modest fashion into the international limelight, the way these platforms are being utilised is often accompanied with a raised eyebrow. Susan Sabet, an influential Egyptian fashion magazine publisher and founder of Cairo’s Fashion Nights (a seasonal city-wide shopping event), recently joined the executive committee of Fashion Trust Arabia, an annual prize initiative that will nurture regional design talent. Sabet has witnessed first-hand the powerful impact of social media for emerging designers: it gains them a fanbase which, in turn, convinces retailers to stock them. But as she points out, many in conservative Middle Eastern Islamic societies see an inherent contradiction between the religious symbolism of modest clothing and the propriety of influencers who model their outfits to a mass following. “The Koran states that [believers] should lower their gaze and be modest,” she says. “When you have a lot of social media influencers who are basically posing on social media with millions of followers, and are not lowering their gaze, a lot of people see this as a bit controversial. This has people saying, ‘Is this right? Is this really a modest person at the end of the day?’”
One such tastemaker is Ascia, a Kuwaiti-American Instagram star whose 2.4 million followers enjoy her propensity for streetwear-infused style, neatly wrapped turbans and shoulder-skimming statement earrings. She launched her account in 2012, frustrated by the lack of women who “looked like her” online. As Instagram ascended, so did her visibility. Now Ascia heads up an empire—including a Korean-inspired beauty line and a range of baby slings – that has been built on a willingness to share her deeply personal approach to blending fashion and faith. As such, she is highly attuned to the religious and cultural sensitivities that come with a public platform. Although Muslim, she is careful to avoid referring to herself as a hijabi in deference to the stricter dress codes observed by other women. Instead, she prefers to identify under the broader “modest space” umbrella.
“My brand has evolved with my transition and my own understandings of where I’m at with my relationship with God and where I’m at with my relationship with my dress sense and my own body,” she explains. Some days, that means Ascia wakes up with a hankering for longer hemlines; other days she’s comfortable in a pair of jeans and an oversized top. Her own varying approach to fashion mirrors the vast—and vastly overlooked—possibilities of modest dressing.
“For so many years, we’ve been written off,” she says. “No one catered to our dress sense, no one thought about us as an entity.” Slowly, with the increased presence of women like her in the media, she sees that attitude changing. “Just fit us in, make space at the table. That’s really what we want.”