Betting on Modest Fashion

Originally appeared on Sbcltr

This month, a moment of history was created at the New York Fashion Week when Anniesa Hasibuan, an Indonesian designer had every one of her models wear the hijab in one of the most prestigious fashion galas of the world. She even got a standing ovation for it.

On one side, the hijab is portrayed as a symbol of oppression, a danger to western ideals and way of life. The truth is a little more complex. A large number of women, who choose to practice the religion, wear it out of choice. The same way a large number of Muslim women choose not to wear it.

About two decades back, Muslim women had a limited choice with the abaya or burqa or even the addition of the hijab to their various traditional outfits. Somewhere in the 80’s with the oil boom, the rules changed. Ailing Parisian and Italian fashion houses survived through the decade with patronage from the fashion-conscious, luxury seeking clientele from the Middle-East. While Muslim women in the 80’s were patrons of haute couture, they would not flaunt it in public. But with time, Muslim women were innovating and experimenting.

The modern Muslim women of the 90’s and 00’s wanted to assert her identity and individuality. She was a lawyer, a teacher, an entrepreneur, a banker, an educated go-getter. But, she was also religious and was limited by the options at her disposal when it came to fashion. These were women who were not willing to be dictated or confined by fashion rules that didn’t match their personal sensibilities. They rejected the overtly sexualized version of beauty that was being sold to them. They were unwilling to hide their personalities behind a garb of black veil. They wanted to be trendy, but still be modest and adhere to their beliefs. This thought went beyond just the Muslim women to encompass women from Orthodox Jewish, to Christian, to even Hindu faiths.

From adding sleeves to their high-end gowns, to sporting colorful hijabs and turbans, to wearing shrugs and jackets— they navigated the world of high-fashion by improvising. The advent of social media leveraged the trend with the rise of modest fashion bloggers such as Hana Tajima, Heba Jay, Ascia AKF and Dina Toki-O to name a few.

But, just the mere need for modest clothing and hijab is not a good enough reason for the rise of modest fashion and even the burkini.

Apart from local entrepreneurs and designers in the Middle-East, Europe and the US, large international brands such as DKNY, H&M and Uniqlo have all started creating exclusive collections to cater to the Muslim market. H&M stirred up a social media storm last year with their first ever muslim model, Maria Idrissi, who featured in their campaign wearing a checkered hijab and sunglasses. Oscar de la Renta, Tommy Hilfiger, and Mangohave all designed one-off collections around Ramadan. More recently, D&G created a stir in the luxury fashion world by launching an abaya and hijab collection.

All this is no mere coincidence.

Just like the rise of Plus-size clothing, modest clothing is about giving women options. But, make no mistake, there are serious economics and business interests that are driving this trend.

According to the State of the Global Islamic Economy Report (2015-16), Muslim consumers spend an estimated $230bn on clothing. Compare this number to the UK ($107bn), Germany ($99Bn) and India ($96Bn) and it becomes apparent why a business strategy of embracing diversity and inclusion makes perfect business sense. The biggest luxury brands have their outlets in Dubai and are focusing on the Middle-East, India and Asia markets like never before. There is an actual 1% Mall all set to open in Qatar in 2017 which will only have global luxury brands.

The consumers for luxury clothing brands no longer live in the West. With spending powers shifting to the East and the power of a younger demographics on its side, fashion retailers will continue to explore the ‘inclusive’ marketing strategy to impact their bottom-lines positively.

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