a call for creativity in muslim modest wear

As Western retailers and design houses fight for the growing hijabista market, we examine the subtleties of this very specific fashion universe.

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Jan 26 2016, 5:50pm

Earlier this month, Dolce & Gabbana debuted an exclusive collection intended for Muslim women, and drew strong opinions from all sides. In a media landscape full of Islamophobic headlines around the world, who'd think that a story about high-fashion abayas and hijabs would dominate so much discussion time?

Somewhere between the politicization of the hijab and the reality of the fastest growing high-income demographic in the world, mainstream brands woke up to the existence of the Muslim shopper. With a projected global spending capability of up to $484 billion on fashion and retail by 2019, Muslims' consumption habits indicate they are serious about style. But until recently, most Western retailers paid scant attention to how Muslim women wanted to dress, which in part gave rise to an alternative "modest fashion industry" where designers, stylists, and bloggers found avenues to reconcile faith and fashion for themselves.

Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab, or the full-length abaya dress, do so because they view it as a full observance of principles of modesty prescribed in the Quran. Some women also see the hijab as a way for them to express their full religious identity. Of course, there is variation in the way Muslim women across the Middle East and the world dress, with moderate to strict adherence to modesty guidelines, and a mix of traditional and Western influences imbued in their style. Pious observers may wear some type of covered clothing with loose-fitting silhouettes that is not always limited to abayas and can include longer shirts, tunics, skirts and dresses.

For years, many women had to be resourceful in sourcing such items. Now, both high-end and mainstream Western retailers are beginning to design modest-wear specifically for these needs. Brands like Zara and Mango, and fashion houses such as Oscar de la Renta, Armani and Tommy Hilfiger introduced specific Ramadan capsule collections in 2015. Concurrently, scores of Muslim fashion designers like Dian Pelangi, Rabia Z, and lesser-known retailers like Aab are also making an appearance on the scene.

While the Dolce & Gabbana collection is ostensibly a move towards inclusiveness, it has been divisive among Muslim fashion followers. Dina Torkia, an Egyptian-British fashion blogger and designer, wrote this month, "I've dreamed [of] the day a major design house would officially recognize us, hijab clad muslim women and finally 'cater' to us. But my dream wasn't resulting in a line of lacey, embroidered traditional abayas and matching scarves."

Torkia also points out that there are many lesser-known designers who have been designing high-fashion modest wear for several years: "Fashion conscious Muslim women in the form of bloggers, designers & stylists have been taking centre stage for a good few years showing the world that modesty & style can coincide with [sic] faith."

Muslim fashion is not restricted to dark, no-name garments on one side and Westernized creations on the other. Inventive styles have been showcased at Islamic Fashion Weeks from Malaysia to Cannes and in special collections at New York Fashion Week in 2015. Some designers, such as Calvin Thoo, use colorful and avant-garde elements like intricate headdresses decorated with feathers, beads, and jewels.

Alia Khan, founder and chairwoman of the Islamic Fashion and Design Council, is among those who see the Dolce & Gabbana line as a positive breakthrough for Muslim buyers and designers. "This is a consumer to be taken seriously and Dolce & Gabbana has confirmed that," she says. "The smaller designer that hasn't quite reached [Dolce & Gabbana's] level of success in their career should have a lot to look forward to — I see it as a major door opening."

Khan, who is based in Dubai, but was raised in Canada and the United States says, "what I feel is very unique and cool about this particular demographic is that they still don't give in to these trends — they don't have lingo like what's in and what's out." She continues, "I think that's very cool because they remain very individualistic about who they are, their approach to life." The IFDC advocates for creative Muslim-focused brands and designers, ones that are taking big risks and trying to match their luxurious counterparts with wider appeal.

While Muslim fashion has sparked a global movement that's here to stay, there are subtle differences in how styles appeal to observing women living in Dubai or Jakarta versus London or New York, adapting regional influences and cultural motifs, or mixing popular patterns and localized streetwear that's constantly evolving. Designer clutches, big sunglasses and light, flowy caftans might dominate in the UAE, while London leans more towards a mix of edgy, layered looks that adapt to the weather and urban life. Surprise! Islamic fashion isn't monolithic and varies across contexts, although Instagram and other social media help Muslim women stay connected and adopt sartorial cues from one another.

A quick look at the multitude of hijabistas (hijabi fashionistas) behind popular online platforms and at major fashion weeks reveals just how complex hijab identity is. Last spring, H&M introduced hijabi model Mariah Idrissi as part of its denim collection campaign that became massively popular among young British Muslims. Along with Idrissi, hijabistas like Swedish-Jordanian Iman Aldebe have gained widespread appeal with luxe turbans and garments for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. UNIQLO partnered with British designer Hana Tajima for their LifeWear collection showing that modest fashion can have an appeal that extends beyond Muslims.

All of these are positive ways to bring more diversity into fashion. It's reassuring for practicing Muslim women who constantly have to bust stereotypes to express themselves beautifully and not compromise on Islamic piety. The constant resistance to this garb, often accompanied by harsh legislation, is a reality for Muslim women living in the West.

And there are waves of hijabistas confidently reclaiming the scarf and forging Muslim visibility on their own terms. Hijab fashion is an unapologetic people's movement. The issue is, though, will these designers and bloggers find success in Western markets without being overshadowed by designer labels that don't fully acknowledge personalized Muslim identity?

The fashion industry is notorious for taking an existing subcultural movement, packaging a more palatable, mainstream version of it, and selling it back to the public. Punk, hip-hop, goth subcultures have all experienced the fashion takeover and appropriation.Yes, this has meant more visibility for those movements, but it has also watered down the message — without any vested interest in their realities.

Perhaps the styles of young, urban Muslims are the next frontier. It's a wide creative space with a huge potential for innovation. This could be modest fashion's moment: where Muslim designers and creatives create the apparel that they want to see and wear, subverting stereotypes and notions of who they are and how they stand out.

Credits


Text Sana Anoshe Malik
Photography Faizal Riza Mohd Raf via Flickr