Hafsa Lodi on the business of modesty

Hafsa Lodi, author of Modesty: A Fashion Paradox, sheds light on the real motivations behind making and marketing modest fashion
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Hafsa Lodi on the business of modesty

As a fashion fanatic and admittedly compulsive online shopper, browsing the ‘new-in’ page of the ASOS app is something of a daily ritual. The other day, while scrolling, I stopped as a quartet of images flashed on my Samsung screen. New Karl Lagerfeld T-shirts, which had just landed on the site, were layered over long-sleeved tops and turtlenecks, worn by a model in hijab. Perhaps the ASOS stylist overlooked the irony of this commendable, but surprising pairing – the late Karl Lagerfeld was certainly a talented couturier, and left a remarkable legacy at Chanel and Fendi, but diversity, and Muslim women, were never high priorities of his. ASOS, on the other hand, an immensely popular, London-headquartered fashion e-commerce site, has embraced both, even curating special modestwear and Ramadan collections, complete with dark-skinned models and head coverings.

The modest fashion movement has gained steady momentum over the past few years, now becoming a booming, multibillion-dollar retail sector, surrounded by glamour, fanfare and high-profile hoopla. Fashion critics who once deemed conservative cuts to be old-fashioned and backwards, are now celebrating these very silhouettes. London College of Fashion professor and author Reina Lewis has written that the fashion editors of early Islam-based publications were denied press loans from brands for their fashion shoots, as the brands didn’t believe Muslim readers to be their target audience. Now, in a complete turnaround, labels left, right and centre are including hijabs on their runways, releasing dedicated modest capsule collections during Ramadan, and roping-in Muslim and Middle Eastern social-media influencers to front their campaigns.

When Mariah Idrissi became the first hijabi model to star in an international fashion campaign in 2015, it was a revolutionary feat. Now it seems like every season, a new Western brand releases an ad campaign featuring a woman with a head covering. Most recently, within the span of just three months, hijab-wearing Ikram Abdi Omar starred in campaigns for both British fashion house Burberry and American label Diane Von Furstenberg, in addition to walking for Oscar de La Renta at New York Fashion Week. ‘Modesty’ and ‘diversity’ are buzzwords of the moment, and fashion brands are cleverly riding the hype by recruiting darker-skinned, visibly Muslim women to model their clothes. They’re being applauded for championing inclusivity, even when the ideology isn’t necessarily ingrained in their brand’s DNA.

But it would be naïve and over-simplistic, to ignore the money that’s motivating this new marketing approach. To recognise why Western retailers are bothering with modesty, you have to understand the financial estimates and population projections that have influenced brands to dabble with more covered-up designs. According to the State of the Global Islamic Economy Report from Reuters and DinarStandard, Muslim consumer spending worldwide is expected to reach US $368 billion, which is a 51 percent increase from 2015. And the Pew Research Center estimates that Muslims will account for 30 percent of the global population by 2050, with more than 50 percent of that population aged under 25.

It’s this trend-conscious, social-media savvy and stereotypically wealthy consumer group, with possible faith-based or culturally influenced dress codes, that brands are now targeting. So, while they may receive brownie points for being diverse and inclusive, they aren’t necessarily inspired by Asian or Middle Eastern heritage or cultural aesthetics, but rather they are attracted to the profit they could gain, while simultaneously ticking the diversity box that will make them appear inclusive and culturally aware. Employing Muslim women as brand ambassadors and cover girls is thus part of a much larger marketing ploy – to attract the spending power of the modern, Middle Eastern, Muslim millennial, all while making headlines for supporting multiculturalism.

Modesty: A Fashion Paradox by Hafsa Lodi (Neem Tree Press) is out on March 19

Should this make you disillusioned? Does it dilute the message of modest fashion becoming a worldwide, mainstream movement? Not necessarily. Intentions aside, the fact remains that women who for years have had their needs ignored by the mainstream industry, are now being catered for.
Motives for turning to modesty may only be surface-deep, but these brands’ new marketing strategies, coupled with the rise of the ‘modest fashion blogger’ on Instagram, have helped make modesty cool. Layering corsets and strappy tops over white blouses is on trend, kaftans and kimonos are being worn beyond just the beach, and turtlenecks have become wardrobe staples. The fashion industry (like any other industry) may be motivated by money, but retailers are nonetheless providing solutions for problems long faced by modesty-conscious consumers.

Women who presumed wearing the hijab would be a deterrent to working in the fashion industry are finding new role models in the hijabi entrepreneurs, designers and models they now see all over social media. Girls who may have been laughed at for wearing dowdy one-piece swimsuits at pool parties, or leggings under their shorts during gym class, are finding a space where their fashion choices are being validated and accepted. Those who opt for demure, long-sleeved and high-necked evening wear are being deemed fashion-forward and elegant, rather than unstylish and matronly. Women who were previously ostracised for their personal dress codes are seeing themselves reflected on the internet and in magazines; so if it’s a race for revenue that’s driving all of this marketing, so what? Modest fashion, like all segments of retail, is a business. Money comes first, sentimentality second.

Photos: Supplied and courtesy of the author