Can modest wear spark a fashion revolution?

28th Oct 2016
Can modest wear spark a fashion revolution?

Diana Kotb Winter Collection 2016 (Photo: Creative Commons)

Ala Abbas

The hijab officially became fashionable last month when an exclusively hijab-filled collection featured on a catwalk at New York Fashion Week (NYFW) for the first time. The designer, Jakarta-born Anniesa Hasibuan, wowed the crowd with her regal designs that didn’t show any flesh but incorporated a variety of classical and contemporary cuts and materials.

All the outfits, which ranged from kimonos and wide-leg trousers to ball skirts and cropped jackets, came with a carefully chosen headscarf, adding to the spectacle of the collection and making history at the same time. It’s no wonder it received a standing ovation.

In May this year Istanbul hosted the first International Modest Fashion Week (IMFW). The two-day event showcased the collections of 70 designers from countries including Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey. Kerim Ture, CEO of Modanisa, a major Turkish fashion retailer that hosted the event, said the goal of the event is “to create mainstream fashion out of modest fashion and to energize Islamic communities to produce for Muslim women.”

Designer Annah Hariri said, “I see IMFW as a statement to prove that modest fashion has its demand worldwide and that Muslim designers are the ones dictating the narrative of modest fashion.”

The spending power of the Muslim consumer has already been acknowledged by big brands in recent years, with Dolce & Gabbana and DKNY bringing out Ramadan collections. Last year, UNIQLO launched a special modest-wear collection created in collaboration with well-known designer Hana Tajima and is currently displaying hijabs in its retail outlets.

Globally, Muslims spent about £180bn on clothing and footwear in 2013 – more than the total fashion spending of Japan and Italy combined, according to a recent report by Thomson Reuters. No company wants to miss out on this untapped market. Last autumn, H&M featured its first female Muslim model, Mariah Idrissi, in a promotional campaign and Dolce & Gabbana have now stepped up their game by designing Abayas and Hijabs.

Using global Muslim spending power to launch the hijab into the mainstream and away from the political arena is an important step in tackling the very long-standing negativity surrounding it. Making the hijab as viable a consumer choice as anything else has already given Muslim women more confidence to be themselves in a hostile public sphere. However, it is important that Muslim consumers don’t allow the mainstream fashion industry to dictate the agenda for modest-wear.

While some modest-wear companies make a point of investing in philanthropy, the fashion industry as a whole has a long way to go to offset the problem of exploitation in its supply chain. The issues of the Living Wage, workers’ rights and health and safety in the global garment industry are still very pertinent.

Three years after 1,138 workers were killed when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in Bangladesh, not a lot has been done to reverse the systemic errors that led to the disaster, despite large companies signing the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. H&M was the first company to sign the Accord, but according to a recent report, “78,842 garment workers in Bangladesh continue to produce garments for H&M in buildings without fire exits” (Wage Alliance). H&M workers were found to be working up to17 hours a day and workers reported that employees who were pregnant were often fired from their jobs.

With global Muslim consumer spending on clothing estimated to be $230 billion in 2014, modest fashion will inevitably fall into the trappings of fast fashion and its exploitative practices. But this doesn’t have to be the case. One British Muslim designer, Sarah Elenany, has produced modest clothing that also encompasses the principles of ethical design. Rather than just tapping into a lucrative industry and following catwalk trends, she produced versatile designs that could be worn in different ways, avoiding the lure of disposable fashion.

The momentum behind modest fashion is so strong now that designers have the opportunity to use it to drive social change. Muslim consumers are already choosing to dress in a way that is different from what mainstream fashion has to offer. If modest fashion designers include other core principles in their business practices, such as fair pay and ecological considerations, the demand for modest-wear can help spark a different kind of revolution in fashion.


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