Why these women are taking the modest fashion movement in a new direction online

Aggregator platforms, spanning from the UAE to the US, are springing up to serve this diverse demographic

Modernest launched in the UAE in September and offers modest fashion from brands such as Mango, Massimo Dutti, Karl Lagerfeld and Zara
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There’s a new home-grown modestwear platform on the block, and it’s making a lot of noise on social media – a platform where modest fashion is flourishing. Incubated by the Chalhoub Greenhouse, Modernest is locally headquartered and centres on modern modestwear, supplying the latest threads from labels such as Mango, Massimo Dutti, Karl Lagerfeld, Zara, Riva and more.

The brand is the brainchild of Musfira Suleman, who lives in Dubai and saw a gap in the industry for a one-stop shop for clothing that is at once conservative, chic and contemporary.

“It all came crashing down during the pandemic when I wasn’t able to mix and match pieces and try them on before buying a modest outfit,” Suleman tells The National. “I decided to take matters into my own hands and drafted a business plan for a concept that all women who prefer to dress modestly can see themselves fitting into.”

Modest fashion has cemented itself as an industry fuelled by tremendous demand and significant spending power; its value is estimated to reach $311 billion by 2024, according to the 2020-2021 State of the Global Islamic Economy Report.

While the market is growing day by day with new clothing labels, there’s another niche that now has increased traction: following the business model of fashion aggregators, new digital platforms are sidestepping the hassle of stocking inventory and the pressure of manufacturing.

“We aggregate modest pieces from various platforms in addition to having an assortment of foreign brands, and we’ve partnered with several local brands to leverage the ‘from the region, for the region’ proposition,” explains Suleman.

Focus on styling rather than stocking

On the other side of the globe, New Yorker Liza Sakhaie also recently launched an online platform focusing on modestwear, after realising that consumers like her weren’t being served by the industry, even though modesty has been a buzzword for some time now.

“Whether it was for faith, work, comfort, body image or even safety-related reasons, data showed that midi skirts were replacing miniskirts and turtlenecks were outdoing V-necks. And yet, retailers still haven’t caught up. The actual experience of shopping for modest clothing hasn’t changed,” she says.

Sakhaie conceptualised a solution while working for Bloomingdale’s. “At the time, I was working on the experiential retail marketing team, conceiving ideas to capture customers in innovative and interactive ways, and yet, in my own modest shopping experience, it felt like no one was doing much to try to capture me,” she explains. Understanding that creating modest looks from mainstream brands could be challenging and time-consuming, she launched The Reflective, a website anchoring a shoppable, modesty-themed newsletter.

“We have a team of thoughtful ‘buyers’ selecting high-fashion, elevated finds from across the web so you don’t have to do the hard work any more,” says Sakhaie. “We used the newsletter as the foundation for our marketplace, testing different styles, products, price ranges and modesty standards to inform our marketplace curation strategy.” The Reflective’s marketplace directs visitors to the websites of brands such as Never Fully Dressed and The Frock NYC, and e-tailers like The Outnet and Shopbop.

Styling and curating are central to both Modernest and The Reflective. “Consumers want to be able to see the pieces on real women with real sizes, worn in their own unique ways,” says Suleman, who calls her site’s diverse crew of influencers The Modernest Squad. Regional hijab-wearing bloggers Yaman Alrifai, Aisha Alaqeel and Mariam Sheikh are among the brand’s ambassadors, and each puts her distinctive touch on outfits from Modernest’s offerings.

Modest fashion for all

This approach of curating looks rather than simply listing and selling pages of fashion items targets the modern, multitasking, digital-savvy woman. “She wants to look put-together and remain on trend, but doesn’t have the time to scroll through hundreds of e-com sites and the budget to spend on a personal stylist,” says Sakhaie.

While limited-edition modest fashion collections by brands have been popular in the past (often tied to Ramadan) both Suleman and Sakhaie cater to the year-round demand for modestwear. Another common point between both entrepreneurs is their decision to leave religion out of the conversation. “Despite religion being the most common reason [for dressing modestly], I believe there are women out there who have other motives but are overlooked,” says Suleman.

While the State of the Global Islamic Economy Report said one of the challenges of this market was that “there is no fixed definition or set of standards that regulate modest fashion”, catering to diverse interpretations of modesty actually helps to attract a wider audience – particularly women of faith groups who follow different guidelines. Many Jewish women, for example, avoid trousers and wear only skirts and dresses, while traditional hijab headscarves are more prevalent among Muslims, even though there is an element of veiling in Jewish traditions. Sakhaie says she saw the opportunity to help build an “interfaith” community, uniting women of different backgrounds across their “mutual core values”.

“There is so much dividing our world today and I saw modesty as a unique opportunity to bring women together rather than continuing to segment them into different groups,” she says.

Plus, the “religious” connotations linked with covering up are partly to blame for modesty being deemed unfashionable for so many years. “Us ‘modest dressers’ are used to being outsiders, looked at as archaic, stuck in the past or antifeminist,” says Sakhaie. “We want to break the stereotypes around modesty and support women who choose to take on a modest dress code, with ‘choose’ being the key word.”

Celebrating the collective

The modest fashion movement has given rise to numerous designers, models and entrepreneurs specialising in this realm, but while the market may seem saturated, both Suleman and Sakhaie believe this is only the beginning of a global fashion reckoning. “We expect more brands, influencers and leaders to pop up in the space. We don’t see these brands as competition. Rather we hope to use our audience and platform to amplify their voices,” explains Sakhaie.

Suleman says mainstream modesty still needs to shed some of its stereotypical, cultural stereotypes. “I believe the market isn’t even halfway there to its true potential. Today, the biggest challenge lies in brands often limiting the term ‘modest fashion’ to abayas, kaftans and tunics, when in fact there is so much more that can be explored,” she says.

Modest fashion enterprises such as The Modist, which closed during the pandemic, set the bar high for online modestwear and have been inspirational for both entrepreneurs. Moving forward, they envision the future of this market to be driven by affordability and accessibility, promoted through social media with the help of style-savvy ambassadors who can sell modest fashion to their diverse audiences.

“The answer lies in community building and connecting with consumers at various touchpoints rather than a traditional e-commerce model,” says Suleman. “I believe that advocates of modest fashion are trying to make the best out of the limited resources that we have. With our combined effort, sooner or later, we are going to get where we are supposed to be – and when we do, it is going to be revolutionary.”

Updated: November 08, 2021, 10:31 AM