Partnerships with modest designers and a greater focus on sustainability could help big Western brands be more successful in the Islamic world.
“In its original form the modest fashion industry was a grassroots movement borne out of a growing generation of young Muslim women wanting to assert their Muslim identity,” says Shelina Janmohamed, vice-president of Ogilvy Islamic Marketing (an arm of the creative ad agency Ogilvy). Since then the sector has expanded beyond traditional elements such as the hijab to include loose-fitting and less revealing clothing.
When “modest fashion” was emerging as a distinct category, designer and entrepreneur Rabia Zargarpur was among those who helped coin the term. “I insisted that it should be called ‘modest fashion’ to be more inclusive rather than ‘Islamic fashion’,” she says. “I see [the sector] addressing professional women and body-conscious women too.”
Her search for modest clothing in US malls in the early 2000s yielded little success. “Fun shopping experiences became depressing because I couldn’t find anything to wear,” she recalls.
But with a degree from a New York fashion college and a stint at luxury fashion house Valentino under her belt, Ms Zargarpur decided to chart her own course. In late 2001 she founded the label Rabia Z with a line of ready-to-wear turbans, long shirt-dresses, and contemporary tunics. Today it is one of the best-known brands in a growing modest fashion sector.
Western labels are now trying to win a slice of the market. In 2018 the global modest fashion industry was worth US$283bn—a figure that is expected to balloon to US$402bn by 2024. That growth is spurred primarily by 1.8bn Muslims who, by 2050, will account for 31% of the world’s population. Two-thirds of all Muslims are under the age of 30 , making them the world’s youngest consumer segment.
This cohort has long complained that retailers do little to engage with them, but that is slowly changing. High-street brands such as Mango and Uniqlo have recently launched Ramadan collections, as have luxury labels such as Dolce & Gabbana and DKNY. The high-end online retailer Net-a-Porter runs an annual “modest edit” featuring exclusive designs from the likes of Oscar de la Renta, Jenny Packham and Dubai-based SemSem. Sporting brands Nike and Adidas have also entered the fray, with both now offering a sports hijab.
Magazines and catwalks are growing more inclusive too. In 2017 Halima Aden, an American of Somali descent, became the first hijabi woman to make the cover of Vogue while an H&M campaign last year featured its first hijab-wearing model, Mariah Idrissi. In addition, hijabi models are increasingly sought after to walk the runways of mainstream global fashion shows.
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