Dulce by Safiya is modesty that’s a la mode

Urban undertones and inspiring messages of inclusivity characterise Dubai brand Dulce by Safiya. We meet the progressive designer whose label mixes Islamic tradition with practicality


Safiya Abdallah, founder and designer of Dulce by Safiya. 

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

Reporter: HAFSA LODI
Section: aC
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A glittering beanie may not be the first thing you picture when it comes to modest fashion, but it's one of Safiya Abdallah's bestselling products. The Dubai designer's autumn/winter 2018 collection fuses elements of hip-hop with hijab-friendly fashion. With names such as Rose-gold, Chrome and 24-K, Abdallah's beanies are glamorous substitutes to the traditional hijab, and the designer says they're as practical as they are stylish.

“The hardest thing [when you cover] is you don’t want to look like a cone-head with a jersey scarf. And if you have kids and you’re chasing them, you don’t want to always have a turban that you have to keep tightening. And this material is just amazing; it’s non-slip, it grips your hair and you don’t have to pin anything. You just put your hair into a bun, throw it on and it stays on all day,” explains Abdallah.

Her brand, Dulce by Safiya, features a number of hood-inspired designs, ­providing hijab-wearing women with alternative ways to cover their hair. “I felt that a hood was a way to inconspicuously cover your hair for people who live in the West. I guess I’ve walked across this bridge, where I’m bordered by both worlds, all my life, and I wanted to create things for people in the middle.”

Born to a north African father and Mexican mother and raised in southern California, Abdallah studied at LA's Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising before switching to study psychology. After getting married, having three kids, starting to wear the hijab and moving to Dubai, she decided to return to her fashion-design calling. "When I moved here, I noticed how accessible it was to get to a tailor, to get to fabric stores. Everything was right there – it was like a candy land for me," she says.

Beanies aside, other pieces from Dulce by Safiya's latest collection include gold-­sequined trenches, iridescent ­hoodie-dresses, luxe oversized blazers and glittering metallic corsets layered over turtlenecks. "I noticed in Dubai there are so many events all the time, and there was this need for something in between – women who don't necessarily want to wear a dress can wear [what is] literally a glam tracksuit to a party and still feel dressed up," says the designer.

Abdallah says that when she launched her label, she wasn’t comfortable with marketing it as a purely modest-fashion brand, largely due to the “fashion policing” that takes place on social media from Muslim followers, who often criticise Muslim fashion bloggers’ outfits, deeming them immodest, or even un-Islamic.

“There is a lot of negativity on social media, and it’s not right. I feel like it just drives people further away from Islam,” she explains. “I never wanted to actually call myself a modest-fashion brand because I was always worried if I didn’t fulfil the requirements of this person or that person, I would be judged for that. Because people on social media can be anonymous, they can say what they want and tear you down, and I never wanted to be part of the negativity.”

Instead, Abdallah describes her label as “modest-inclusive”, so that she can reach a wider audience while still remaining true to her design aesthetic. After all, although the brand is based in the UAE, Abdallah reveals that the majority of her orders come from the United States, and about 30 per cent of her clients are non-Muslim. “The reason I call myself modest-­inclusive is if somebody wants a different fit to how I’ve made something, I will cater to their needs, because at the end of the day, they’re paying for it.

“I’m not creating plunging necklines or anything, but I’ll alter things. For me, I believe to each their own.”

“I tried to home in on the fact that the word modest has so many meanings. This was to promote women supporting women – it wasn’t like your hijab isn’t hijab enough, or you took off your hijab, you’re not one of us any more. In our culture, sometimes we outcast people the second they’re not following the book to our standards, and this campaign was about saying: ‘I stand with everybody.’”

Abdallah teamed up with international influencers to market the campaign, and says she tries to reach out to women who share her own values – women such as Muslim hijabi rapper Neelam Hakeem, who lives in California. "When I first started following her a year ago, I saw that she was so active, talking about important matters; she wasn't just a pretty face posting in her hijab. She talks about real things that matter and she spreads awareness," says Abdallah.

Earlier this year, one of the rapper's Instagram videos went viral, reposted by the likes of P Diddy and Will Smith. In it, she wears a white hooded ensemble created by Abdallah. A shoot from September shows Neelam sporting another hooded dress from the label's autumn/winter collection.

“I sent her some stuff and she just wore it. She posts about the brand, and tags me and speaks so highly of me, which is such an honour, because she gets so many free things sent to her all the time,” says Abdallah. “So now when she has a big project, we’re always in touch.”

Abdallah says she's noticed a spike in her brand's following since its launch three years ago, adding that it was difficult to create a name for herself in a market so saturated with competitors.

“Until you create an aura and an aesthetic around your brand, people are just not interested. They want to jump on a train that’s already in motion,” she says.


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