The future of modesty
Is it a fad or a long-term trend? We bring you anexcerpt from UAE-based writer Hafsa Lodi's new book Modesty: A Fashion Paradox
Where does the future of modest fashion lie? According to Lisa Vogl of Macy's Verona line, while the hype surrounding modest fashion may die down, the lasting appeal of modern modest attire will not. "I think sometime in the near future modest fashion in Western countries will no longer be 'newsworthy'; I believe it will become more and more the norm," she tells me.
British-Muslim fashion model Mariah Idrissi points out that some retailers are needlessly jumping onto the modesty bandwagon just to ride the hype. Stores like Marks & Spencer, she says, don't need to promote specialised modest wear collections, since they already offer more conservative styles in their regular lines. "I think the 'modest' thing only works when it's literally a brand that you know doesn't make modest clothes," she explains. And more effective than releasing time-sensitive capsule collections, says Mariah, is hiring relevant spokespeople to help promote a brand's designs to more diverse communities. "You just need a brand representative of the people you're trying to target," she says. "If anyone wants to target the modest consumer, do a social campaign - a style edit of modest girls who style the clothes."
It's also worth noting that some brands earn credit for supposedly ground-breaking garments that have, in fact, been around for some time. "A sports hijab is nothing I haven't seen before. I saw sportswear for Muslim women in Egyptian markets everywhere while growing up, but it's not 'cool' until it has a mainstream label on it," writes Dina Torkia. "It's the same when a big brand does a 'Ramadan Collection'. All they've really done is use existing products and stuck a Ramadan label on it to cash in. This is just lazy. Muslim women are wearing brands all year round, so if these companies really want to champion inclusion, don't turn us into a trend. We aren't just about Ramadan or Eid, or even merely a sports hijab."
Zahra Aljabri, the co-founder of Mode-sty, an early modest fashion website aimed at women of all faiths, acknowledges that Western brands often accredit the Middle East market with the highest purchasing power. "Brands have relied mostly on limited market research which has led them to believe that Muslim spending is concentrated in the Middle East where Muslims spend their Ramadan evenings shopping in malls," explains Zahra. "What's puzzling is, why go after a foreign market with customers you don't understand and who have constant access to modest clothing, while ignoring the estimated US $100 billion market in the West - a market these brands are more familiar with who have very limited access to modest clothing?" She adds that the Middle East contains only around 20 per cent of the global Muslim population, and even if these same garments were to become accessible to consumers in the West, the prices would need to be adjusted in order to be affordable for Westerners. "Most price points also cater to the 'oil rich' myth of high-spending Middle Easterners. Most people don't have lavish clothing budgets," she writes. For modest fashion to truly thrive long-term, Zahra believes, brands must treat the retail category as they do other sub-categories of fashion, like those that cater to plus-sized or petite women.
Just as retailers like ASOS provide Petite, Tall and Maternity categories, modest fashion will be more successful if it is inclusive. Dubai-based designer Dima Ayad, for instance, whose designs are available online at The Modist, creates elegant ready-to-wear and occasion wear for women of all shapes and sizes. Many of her cuts include loose but glamorous kaftans, luxe belted robes and embellished, maxi-length kimonos.
Though the fashion industry has been notorious for promoting a limited, Western-influenced definition of beauty, multiculturalism is now being reflected on international runways, as models from all sorts of diverse heritages are increasingly earning spots at the big international fashion weeks. But showcasing a range of colour isn't the only important change needed in the industry - body inclusivity needs to be addressed too. French-Algerian modest designer Faiza Bouguessa tells me that seeing diverse body shapes on international catwalks has changed her own approach in how she displays her creations. "When I'm looking for models for a fashion shoot now, I'm thinking, 'there's no way I'm going to take a model if she's too skinny'," she says. Seeing models that are not confined to the traditional size zero sizes has also had a personal effect on the designer. "Now I look at models in a different way, and at myself a different way," she says. "It's so crazy how the fashion industry has a power over how we see ourselves." Whereas the constant influx of ultra-skinny models as the faces of fashion brands can cause insecurities among regular women, even those as trim as Faiza, the sight of a range of body sizes in the limelight can normalise them. "It's great," says the designer. "It's a really nice time to be in fashion."
The demand for inclusivity doesn't end at body sizes and skin tones - at Dubai Modest Fashion Week in 2019, Abu Dhabi-based designer Asiya Rafiq showcased a collection of modest wear created especially for people of determination (a new term implemented in 2017 by the ruler of Dubai), who use wheelchairs or live with conditions that may inhibit their movement. Her practical, functioning garments incorporated zippers and Velcro for ease in dressing, and clothing fitted with magnetic buttons was designed for those who suffer from Parkinson's disease.
(Modesty: A Fashion Paradox is now available at Kinokuniya, Magrudy's and Amazon.ae)