Modest fashion takes a turn on Italian runways

In a collaboration with the Islamic Fashion & Design Council, Torino Fashion Week introduced a modest wear category

Front row at the Al Nisa runway show. Courtesy Al Nisa Designs
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While the big-ticket haute couture shows were underway in Paris last week, with luxury labels like Chanel, Atelier Versace and Giambattista Valli parading their coveted, and at times, skin-baring wares on the catwalks, designs of a different sort were being celebrated on runways elsewhere in Europe.

It may not be Paris or Milan, but Torino (also referred to as Turin) is a cultural hotspot in its own right – the city is home to galleries, museums and opera houses, and was the first capital of Italy. Last week, the city played host to Torino Fashion Week, and was the first time that an Italian fashion week incorporated a segment dedicated solely to modest wear. In partnership with the Dubai-headquartered Islamic Fashion & Design Council (IFDC), brands from all over the world, including Canada, Malaysia, Indonesia, Oman, Bahrain, Turkey and South Africa, were selected by the IFDC to show their collections in Torino, giving many labels unprecedented exposure to clients, buyers and press. There was also an awards ceremony to recognise the top three modest-wear brands taking part.

It's no secret that modesty has become a buzzword in the fashion industry. This year, there has been an increased modest-wear focus from global e-tailors like Net-a-porter and Shopbop during Ramadan, and the advent of platforms dedicated to modest dressing, like At the same time, a hijab-wearing model in America, Halima Aden, has earned international acclaim, plus a Vogue Arabia cover, and the modest fashion blogger movement, spearheaded by personalities like Kuwait's Ascia Al Faraj, is gaining momentum.


IFDC is working to establish modest wear as a mainstream retail category, and helps introduce brands to international markets. As part of its partnership with Torino Fashion Week, the organisation invited the popular Arab filmmaker Ala Hamdan to Torino, and she was responsible for awarding the top three modest fashion designers with branding packages to help boost their exposure through films and social media. Hailing from Australia, the United States and South Africa, the three award recipients are not merely home-grown modest wear labels – they all have wider aspirations, incorporating charitable, environmental and religious motivators, in their brands’ DNA. Here's an introduction to each.

Ilham A Ismail

Australian-based fashion designer Ilham Ismail was the recipient of the first-place award. Having graduated from the University of Technology in Sydney, Ismail combines shiny gold textures with monochrome tones, and has a very specific client in mind. “I target Muslim woman living in Western countries who want to keep up with contemporary trends whilst still adhering to their modest dress code,” she says.

Shimmering mosaic-style patterns feature on Ismail’s latest designs, which range from wide-leg trousers to shirt-dresses and tunics. But Ismail maintains that her purpose as a designer goes deeper than just glamour. “My collection is inspired by the coexistence between Muslims and Christians after Australia’s first terrorist attack a couple of years ago,” she says. “The collection brings Islamic art from mosques and gold from churches, combined with calligraphy, which spells words [realting to] peace."

Ismail notes that she and her award-giver, Hamdan, share similar visions, especially when it comes to helping the less fortunate. Hamdan is a public speaker about topics like human rights and female empowerment, and has worked on projects with the United Nations and Save the Children, while Ismail donates a portion of her own sales to charities.

While this wasn’t Ismail’s first runway show, it was her first in Europe. “By coming to Torino, I’ve accomplished spreading my message of coexistence and peace up north of the globe,” she says. “Coming all the way from Australia, we’ve been united with other amazing Muslim designers from all over the world. We’ve made new friendships and as a group we delivered a message about how powerful us Muslim woman really are."

Al Nisa Designs

In second place was Al Nisa Designs, a Los Angeles-based brand headed by African American Muslim Carmen Muhammad. Having designed clothing in the United States for over 20 years, her client list includes personalities like Makaziwe Mandela, the daughter of former South African president Nelson Mandela.

Upon converting to Islam as a teenager, Muhammad found it challenging to find clothing that was both contemporary and covered. She started making her own clothes, and hoped that by showing that you could dress modestly, with style, she could encourage others to be more open-minded about the religion.

Specialising in mono-toned suit sets for women, Al Nisa’s signature long tunic-and-flared trouser pairings are offered in hues of heather grey, black, peach, teal, red, fuschia and more. A Torino Fashion Week highlight was the sight of Muhammad’s eye-catching entourage in the front row, dressed in matching head-to-toe utilitarian outfits in millennial pink.

Only one month prior to the show, Muhammad launched an online campaign to raise funds for her collection. “To be able to be a part of something so historical is truly a humbling event,” she wrote. “ I pray that I’m worthy of this great blessing and opportunity. I want to thank you in advance for your prayers, love and support. I have less than 15 days to do it. Your donation, even if it’s $1 will be greatly appreciated.”

The designer pulled off the challenge with panache. In addition to winning an award from Hamdan, she was also a recipient of the LVMH honourary brand award. “I am beyond speechless,” she shared on Instagram.

Bulbulia Threads

Third-place winner Tasleem Bulbulia is the founder of Bulbulia Threads, and this was also her first European showcase. “It has been a roller coaster ride. As with most events, there are highs and lows, anxiety and stress, but it's all worth it in the end when you see your collection on the catwalk,” she tells us.

“I come from South Africa with a mixed heritage from India and Indonesia, and this is evident in my aesthetic,” she explains. Indeed, the designer’s knack for combining multicultural influences is clear in her designs. Her collection features a medley of red and orange shades, in vibrant prints and regal jacquards. Silhouettes range from drop-crotch harem trousers and full maxi-skirts to dramatic high-low tops and coats with fluted sleeves.

“I love bold colours and authentic craftsmanship, but interpreted in a contemporary way,” says Bulbulia. “I also try to be sustainable and usually build my ranges from the off-cuts of fabrics from previous garments. These become the basis of the range and I build around it. I try not to be wasteful and extravagant with the fabrics and to have respect for the environment.”

The designer hopes that her award will help her to expand outside of South Africa, and to reach an audience she would not have had access to prior to participating at Torino Fashion Week.

“It’s important to break the stereotype and current perception of what it means to dress modestly,” she says. “I hope to continue doing fashion weeks globally as a champion of modest fashion.”