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This Is How the Biggest Modest E-Commerce Site Came to Be

For Algerian-born Ghizlan Guenez, wearing stylish, modest clothes used to mean altering or making your own. Determined to change this narrative, she launced The Modist – and became one of the biggest players in fashion today.

“I don’t know why it took so long for a platform like The Modist to start, but I know why I started it. I got my love for fashion from my mother – she’s always been glamorous and enjoys dressing up and looking after her appearance – but even between Beirut and Dubai, finding the right fashion was difficult for us. To find a modest outfit, I had to spend way more time than the average woman looking for it. I had to constantly modify clothes, whether it was taking it to a tailor to close a slit or a keyhole, or I had to layer. When it came to evening dresses, we would make the pieces from scratch.

I would love to say I was sitting in the house one day and suddenly had this ah-ha moment, but the idea to launch The Modist kept recurring in my mind. I got to the point where I knew I had to do something different. I had gone through the problems and frustrations, and I realized that there were millions of women out there facing the same challenge – I knew I could speak to them in a meaningful way.

In 2015, I left my job and spent about six months traveling through the Middle East, Europe, and the US, speaking to friends of friends and women I was introduced to. I wanted to understand the way they dressed; the way they dealt with the modesty challenge in fashion; what designers they enjoy; what they don’t want; and their ideal shopping experience. I immersed myself in understanding this woman beyond my own experience and across different regions. In early 2016, I hired my first employee and from there, it took a year to build the team, infrastructure, and technology, pitch to brands, and do everything that allowed us to launch on March 8, 2017.

Originally published in the April 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia

Launching on International Women’s Day was intentional because the Modist team is all about women. When we make decisions in the business, we are constantly thinking of the Modist woman; what she is looking for and what we can do to enhance her experience. There’s also this notion of empowering her. We are enabling this woman to dress in a modest way, which she has chosen to do. We believe in the idea of choice and that exercising your choice is the most empowering thing.

We decided on an e-commerce site rather than a store because we wanted to reach women wherever they are in the world. We launched with 75 brands and from day one, we shipped to 120 countries. The biggest challenge was getting brands to understand modesty. In 2016, every designer and brand I sat with hadn’t heard about modesty. They would respond with, ‘Is it a burqa? Is it an abaya?’ That’s genuinely what they thought. Then we would take them through our vision.

Yes, the abaya might be part of it, but we showed them that there is a whole spectrum of women considered modest dressers. We work with designers on closing a slit or adding a sleeve to make it relevant to the Modist consumer. We still respect the DNA and integrity of brands, but it’s nice to see designers get inspired and excited about the modest woman, her challenges, and what she is looking for. Despite the customizations, there are still gaps in the market as well as items and categories that we find challenging to curate. We launched our own label, Layeur, to fill that space.

Since the launch of The Modist, we have seen the dialogue change. Hijabi models are now walking the runways and appearing on the covers of magazines. We once walked into the showroom of one of the designers we carry and there was quite a bit in the collection that was modest. I told the designer that it’s all so beautiful and there’s so much that’s relevant to us, and they said, ‘Your woman in now our mood board.’ That made my day. If our woman is in the mind of these designers, then we have achieved a milestone.

From the start, I didn’t want the website to scream modesty. This woman doesn’t care about that. It’s her way of life but she doesn’t want to see modesty, she wants to see modest fashion. It just needs to tick the functionality box for her. That’s the difference. We are unapologetic about modesty and how we go about it. We pull no punches in fashion. We talk to a community of women. It isn’t about a 20-year-old or 60-year-old woman or a Muslim or Middle Eastern woman. The site transcends all of that.

Farfetch recently invested in us, because they understand the success and goal of The Modist. I’m excited about it. We partnered with them at the end of last year and they’ve seen the growth. They will bring a lot of value beyond the investment. In the world of fashion, when you look at tech and innovation, they are the leaders and for us, that is going to be immensely valuable.

I’m incredibly proud of what we have achieved in two years. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned from the journey is to not let people tell you want you can or can’t do. If I had listened to everyone who told me what I could be in life, I’d be something very different.”

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