Al Quoz is not a place where one generally meets visionaries, but this is where I am introduced to Franka Soeria and Özlem Sahin, the dynamic duo behind Modest Fashion Week.
The idea was born from the desire to offer women greater choice when it came to dressing up, by drawing attention to emerging modest-wear designers. And the timing could not be better. There has been a global fashion shift away from tight and revealing clothes to looser, more comfortable options. This relaxed silhouette, however, was mainly promoted on the fashion week platforms of Milan, New York, London and Paris, which already enjoy high-profile media coverage.
In contrast, modest fashion designers – who have always created clothes that cover the body, rather than expose it – were going largely unnoticed. Despite a huge market for demure clothing, these designers struggled to get media attention. Until recently, that is. Thanks to Soeria and Sahin’s efforts, lesser known modest wear designers are getting the recognition they deserve.
“We spoke to many people and realised there is so much talent, but no central platform to bring everyone together with the media,” Sahin explains. “It is no good if a designer is shining [in one place], but no one hears about it. We said: ‘Why don’t we gather everyone at one event, create a platform and ask the community for support?’ For example, before us, a designer from Sweden was only known in Scandinavia, so we thought this one is very interesting, let’s have her in our show, and she became famous. Or the designer in Germany who was struggling for five years, so we had an exhibition, the media saw it, and now she is one of the German faces of modest fashion and is always on TV. This just proves that when you [bring the right people together] and they know about each other, a new star is born.”
Soeria and Sahin, who come from very different backgrounds, met in Istanbul. Originally from Indonesia, Soeria worked in fashion journalism, while Sahin, who is Turkish, has a background in industrial engineering. Despite this disparity, when the two crossed paths on a project, they realised they worked well together and decided to start their own company. The result was ThinkFashion, a consultancy firm specialising in marketing, production and events, which was originally set up to combine the fashion skills of Turkey with the marketing know-how of Indonesia.
"Indonesia is very professional when it comes to fashion weeks and runway shows. But when I moved to Turkey, it wasn't the same," says Soeria. "Turkey is good in production but not in branding. While Indonesia is good in branding, but not in production."
The pair set out to balance the two strengths; however, they quickly realised that there was a much bigger gap in the market. Although mainstream fashion enjoys the support of innumerable official bodies and fashion week events across the world, nothing of the kind existed for modest fashion. "The idea was to create a global platform for the market," Sahin explains. "When we checked the numbers, Turkey is the biggest modest market, with 60 per cent of women wearing hijab, and Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population [about 225 million], so we know there are consumers and a market for this, but why was there was no unifying body? We wanted to bring all the elements of the industry together – from designers and buyers to influencers and the media – and create a collaboration."
ThinkFashion hosted its first event, Istanbul Modest Fashion Week, in May 2016, which showcased the best of modest designers from multiple countries. Its rapturous reception prompted the pair to expand to London, and they hosted London Modest Fashion Week in April this year. For its third event, ThinkFashion is looking to Dubai. On December 8 and 9, Burj Park will host Dubai Modest Fashion Week, and present 40 fashion shows and 50 booths, featuring designers from more than 20 countries, including the UAE’s Twisted Roots and Miella, Anotah from Kuwait, Huw Roman from Japan and Aere from Malaysia.
"After we did Istanbul, many cities asked us to come and show. So we did London and that went really well. And then we thought about the Middle East and we realised that Dubai is one of the most recognised [cities]. It is the perfect area; it is international, open and it shares our view that modesty is a choice, so we don't have to work hard to explain what we are trying to do. We get contacted by a lot of countries but with some there is a big challenge to try and explain modest women," says Soeria.
She adds: “Why does the modest fashion industry even exist? Because women used to go to western brands, see a beautiful skirt, but one with a big slit in it that they needed to alter. So modest fashion exists because of necessity, because of function. Now we go to all the big brands and we are happy to see the choice of long trousers and dresses without a slit. But in the past, it was pretty hard.”
The duo is quick to point out that despite this much-welcome attention from leading brands and fashion events, Modest Fashion Week is important in its own right. “Right now there is a tendency for modest fashion to want to be in mainstream fashion. Which is good, but we also need our own platform, to showcase the right identity. So for us, design guidelines are important. For example, we don’t allow sleeveless tops with the hijab. We don’t like to put leggings as trousers; designers can use them, but must put them under something. Also, we say no to showing the midriff. Why? Because otherwise it is confusing. There are events calling themselves modest, yet showing midriffs, and the media contacts me and asks: ‘Is this modest fashion?’ And I tell them, of course not. So we have to do this the right way, or people will think it is just a trend,” says Soeira.
So what can visitors expect to see at Modest Fashion Week in Dubai? Well, modest model of the moment, Halima Aden, for a start, who will be at the event for both days. Now the most recognisable hijab-wearing model in the world, Halima is old friends with Soeria. “I knew Halima before she joined IMG, and invited her to London. After that, her success really went crazy. But she is coming to Dubai for two days. She was telling us, this is my priority, to come to Dubai Modest Fashion Week, because she knows the importance of this fashion week. We love her, she is more than an influencer, she is supporting people, and is so lovely,” says Soeria.
The choice of Burj Park as a location is no coincidence, either. As Sahin explains: “We really wanted to have the Burj Khalifa in the background, because we want people to see the photos and immediately understand where it is. Every year, we want to do an event in Dubai because modest fashion is very important here. Mainstream fashion has its own capitals, like London, New York and Paris, but in modest fashion it is different. The capitals are Istanbul, Dubai and Jakarta.”
The two-day event will also feature talks and workshops, with international and regional names discussing what it means to be modest. As well as having a space to showcase their work, designers can also look forward to the Emerging Modest Designer Award, which Modest Fashion Week has set up in conjunction with the UAE-based luxury shopping portal The Modist. “We hope that, through our event, everyone will learn who is who, as this is about finding new talent and opportunities, and expanding the industry. The Emerging Modest Designer Award is about supporting the designers and brands, because for so many designers it is not easy to create a collection and to cover the costs,” Soeria points out.
The winning designer will be awarded funding, a free show at the next Dubai event, editorial coverage and an opportunity to sell his or her collection online, so it is unsurprising that hundreds of designers have entered the competition. "The standard is really good. These are the designers who are really pushing the industry forward. We call them 'emerging' but some of the participants are already there; all they need is support as they are still struggling, which shows how fragile the industry is."
Accordingly, ThinkFashion not only stages fashion shows but also acts as a consultancy to labels hoping to expand. It helps small brands from Canada, Lebanon, Indonesia and Dubai, among others, by offering business advice on logistics, branding, promotion and marketing. "We are always thinking about how we can create partnerships and support small labels. How can they collaborate with buyers, for example? If you look at the numbers, the GCC is the right place and Dubai is a key market."
Modest Fashion Week will be held on December 8 and 9 at Burj Park. Register for the free- to-attend event at www.dubaimodestfashionweek.com