Why Halima Aden’s return to modelling sends an important message about modest fashion

Instead of big brands' surface-deep efforts to enter the industry, smaller Muslim labels are coming out on top

Halima Aden has been named as the global brand ambassador for Turkish modest fashion e-commerce platform, Modanisa. If you keep up to date with modest fashion news – or mainstream fashion industry goings on in general, for that matter – you might recall Aden announcing that she was “stepping down” from modelling last year.

In a series of Instagram stories last November, she declared that her hijab hadn’t been respected by fashion brands, using examples such as the American Eagle campaign that pictured jeans draped over her head. She cited a lack of Muslim stylists as a glaring gap in the industry, and implied that she was “quitting” the world of fashion until further notice.

But it seems like that notice period is up – Aden is back in action, partnering with a platform that specialises in modest wear, rather than working for another Western brand jumping on the bandwagon and earning diversity points for recruiting a black, hijabi model.

The worldwide modest fashion movement has been both celebrated and contested. When it first started “trending”, it posed a threat to smaller brands that had been catering to the community for years, but now could not compete with the accessibility and convenience of high-street labels.

Big brands and their budgets outshined these independent labels, and fans have had mixed feelings about this global style movement – happy that their style preferences were finally being validated and that there was greater choice available in stores, but wary about being tokenised and seeing Muslim-owned brands being stifled by the new competition.

But with the glamour of “exclusive” capsules by brands such as Michael Kors, DKNY, H&M, Mango and more wearing off, perhaps there’s a lesson to be learnt – that fashion targeting modesty-seeking Muslim women is most effective, genuine and long-lasting, when it is rooted in their own countries and cultures.

While modesty cannot be “claimed” by any particular faith or culture, Muslim consumers, their perceived spending power and the influx of popular hijabi bloggers on Instagram, are what catapulted this aesthetic into the mainstream in recent years.

Yet the mass appeal of any trend eventually wanes; this summer’s style trends ranged from cycling shorts to halter bralettes and “midriff flossing”. The Western fashion world’s indulgence of modesty was surface-deep, and we really shouldn’t expect anything more. Such is the cyclical nature of fashion.

Modesty might look vogue-ish when spotlighted in the window displays of Zara, but for the most part, Western retailers have no lasting commitment to these styles.

Sometimes, the insincerity is glaring – such as when Banana Republic launched hijabs but styled them on models with short sleeves and skirts with high slits. Other times, it’s masked under the charade of inclusivity, with the recruitment of Muslim women of colour such as Aden for catwalks and campaigns.

“I’m choosing to only work with brands that I really love and believe in,” wrote Aden in an Instagram caption last week. And on Monday, Modanisa announced that Aden, who they described as a “former fashion model”, would be the brand’s first-ever global ambassador, in a statement titled “I’m coming home”.

In choosing to return to a modest fashion platform headquartered in a Muslim country, perhaps Aden recognises that those truly invested in this retail category are not the big fashion players in the Western world, but the brands that centre the ideals of modesty in their very cores. “I’m so excited to be working with Modanisa… they share my faith and values, and fully respect my choices as a Muslim woman,” she said.

Western retailers, designers, stylists and photographers may still lack a deeper understanding of the psyche of the modest fashion consumer: who she dresses for, what drives her decisions to cover up and how she wants to be portrayed.

Aden's decisions to both reject the Western retail industry that catapulted her to fame, but ultimately misunderstood her approach, and sign a two-year deal with Modanisa, perhaps signify a greater understanding about this industry: that mainstream brands might make a few quick bucks, but it’s the labels and platforms that were founded to authentically serve these consumers that will triumph in the long run.

Updated: September 9th 2021, 10:11 AM
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