Sometimes it’s the small victories that are the most significant. When Apple recently previewed 12 new emojis to be released later this year, among them was a hijab-wearing figure designed by 16-year-old Saudi student Rayouf Alhumedhi. The fact that there wasn’t an emoji to represent me and the millions of other hijabi women around the world was baffling,” she says. “I wanted to be represented.” While integration into the digital world is a positive sign, the hijab emoji also hints at something bigger. The movement motions where designers, buyers, and style-savvy shoppers are all casting an eager eye: modest fashion. Although new, the term has become part of the lexicon used to describe a stylish, albeit covered look.
Every movement needs its icon and 19-year-old Somali model Halima Aden has become the unofficial global model of modest fashion. Aden walked in Kanye West’s Fall 2017 Yeezy Season 5 show in New York, and on the Max Mara and Alberta Ferretti runways in Milan. The first hijab-wearing model to walk at international fashion weeks, Aden continues to make headlines and history. She became the first headscarf-wearing cover star for Vogue Arabia (June 2017) issue, after competing in the previous year’s Miss Minnesota USA in a burkini, also a first. “I never thought I’d be a model,” she admitted in the interview. “I think it has to do with not seeing Muslim girls wearing the hijab and putting themselves out there. I wear my hijab as my crown.” Aden appreciates the importance of modest fashion, too. “I’m signed to one of the top agencies [IMG] in the world,” she says. “They already have models who are willing to bare all, but there’s only one right now who’s wearing the hijab. I want girls to be able to flip through a magazine and see someone who looks like them.”
While the modest fashion trend may have mushroomed into the biggest style movement of the last 12 months, it’s led to a mixed response among Muslim women. “When linked, it makes sense that modesty and the hijab go hand in hand,” says Safiya Abdallah, the designer behind abaya brand Dulce by Safiya. “People argue over the fine line between the two. I take no offense at all. The hijab has a significant role in my life.” Street style star Yousra Zein isn’t so sure. “If we wear a hijab, we’re immediately put in the modest fashion box even though sometimes, it’s not modest,” she argues. “If there is a modest aisle in a store, I tend to skip it.”
If opinions are divided, one thing is certain: “modest” is a lucrative market. With figures revealing that the annual global spend for Muslim fashion is set to reach US$484 billion by 2019* and with Islam set to become the world’s largest religion by 2075 – currently23% of the global population is Muslim – it’s no coincidence that modest fashion is gaining momentum. Modish Muslim women are finally getting the recognition they deserve.
Point in case, the five inspiring ladies in this Vogue Arabia shoot: Saufeeya Goodson, a content creator and social media star with more than 315 000 followers on Instagram; Leena Al Ghouti, a style blogger with 181 000 followers; Swiss-Tunisian blogger Yousra Zein, with her 13 600 followers; Safiya Abdallah, founder and designer of Dulce by Safiya, who has 18 300 followers; and Mthayel Al-Ali, founder of creative agency Tkhayyal, with a staggering 682 000 followers. These women, and many more like them, have been marginalized for generations because of their headdress, but offer a smart riposte to the tired prejudices surrounding the “oppressive” hijab via their respective accounts.
For Abdallah, the problem lies in the hands of the fourth estate. “The media portrays us hijab-wearing women to be hidden behind men, when, in fact, we are in the workforce in all sectors of society. We are leaders, homemakers, doctors, mothers, and entrepreneurs. We have wants and needs just like every other woman. The only dividing line is less than a yard of fabric.” Zein agrees. “Submissive, brainwashed, non-educated, and old-fashioned. These are the stereotypes I receive because I wear the hijab, but that’s the exact opposite of who I am,” admits the woman whose Instagram posts feature chic images that wouldn’t look out of place in a coffee table tome on style icons.
The runway has proved to be something of a mediator in changing perceptions of the hijab. The introduction of modest fashion shows at international fashion weeks has given the West a glimpse of the on-trend styles of Muslim women. “I love how modesty is becoming a key principle in fashion,” praised Al Ghouti. Designer Abdallah agrees, “These shows are legendary and long overdue for Muslim and hijabi women – we live and breathe fashion just as much as any other woman.” Zein, however, insists that all fashion shows should cater to all women and that such shows wrongly classify covered women who do not wish to be labeled modest dressers. “I feel like we’re putting ourselves in a corner by creating a special ‘modest fashion week,’” she says. “We shouldn’t enter another door to reach the same world.”
Fashion Forward (FFWD) CEO and co-founder, Bong Guerrero, aims to echo this sentiment by featuring various fashion styles at the Dubai-based biannual fashion week. “Since its inception in April 2013, FFWD has always had the concept of inclusion at its core,” he says. “The platform is representative of the region’s collective design talent. Modest fashion has always been a highlight at FFWD and will continue to be so.”
One thing all hijabi women seem to agree on, is that the current trend of layering, along with high street’s efforts to create hijabs and abayas, makes shopping easier. In the past, options were limited – many recall their mothers sewing their own headscarves. American Eagle recently launched a denim hijab, with Aden as its campaign model; since 2016, Dolce & Gabbana offers an abaya and hijab line; Carolina Herrera launched its abaya collection this April; meanwhile brands including DKNY, Mango, and Tommy Hilfiger all produce special collections for Ramadan. Nike created the Nike Pro hijab, working together with running coach Manal Rostom and future Olympic figure skater Zahra Lari, to perfect the design. Lari says, “I was thrilled and quite emotional to see Nike prototyping a hijab.”
“The modest fashion market is large and virtually untapped,” says Ghizlan Guenez, founder of luxury ecommerce site The Modist, which specializes in modest designer clothing from international and regional brands. Based in Dubai, the site targets the global market, with Guenez citing social media as a key player in uniting women. “A Malaysian fashionista can be inspired by a student in London. They’re informed by an online community of women who want to combine faith values with fashion.”
As hijabi fashion draws closer to the mainstream, the modest fashion movement offers green shoots of encouragement. Muslim fashion doesn’t translate to oppressive, restricted options; rather a whole spectrum, just like any other style. While highlighting its distinctions may come across as counterproductive, perhaps the ends justify the means. For Zein, the aim is clear. “I wish that someday we simply call modest fashion: fashion.”