An ankle-length cream coat, crafted from a Chanel-esque light tweed fabric and featuring rows of delicate pearl trim, exudes romance, confidence and luxury. Its turn on the runway is followed by a gold lurex duster jacket with a white tassel-adorned belt, and then a shimmering metallic overcoat with exaggerated lapels. Closing the show is Halima Aden, dressed in a silky black maxi skirt and cropped sequined blazer.
Aden and the other models are covered from neck to ankle, and their heads are wrapped in elegant turban-hijabs. The designs, marketed as "affordable luxury", are from the Ramadan collection of Refka – the in-house label by leading global modestwear website Modanisa – and were showcased on the catwalk at Modanisa's Istanbul Modest Fashion Week last weekend.
While Refka’s collection will certainly resonate with glamour-seekers during the holy month, it’s become evident that modestwear is relevant year-round and to a growing global consumer base – not just Muslims or Middle Easterners. According to a report released last month by retail analytics company Edited, modestwear has seen a 15 per cent increase in growth in the West since 2017.
In the UK, sales of headscarves have increased by 381 per cent, maxi dresses by 20 per cent, longline coats by 21 per cent and high-neck blouses by 15 per cent. Modesty has become a buzzword headlining stories in major fashion publications; hijab-wearing models are now part of mainstream fashion weeks; and "modest fashion blogger" is a descriptor used on the Instagram bios of thousands of social media influencers across the globe.
Modest fashion is also expanding alongside the mainstream retail industry, within subcategories including athleisure, swimwear, bridalwear and more. At the crux of the movement is an e-tail machine churning out orders for modest-fashion consumers worldwide – many of whom take to social media to post their stylish buys, further spreading awareness of and interest in covered-up clothing.
While plenty of modestwear platforms have emerged over the past half-decade, Modanisa, which has almost a five-year lead, has been catering to this segment since before wrist-length sleeves and chin-high necklines began trending as "modestwear" on international runways. The site is a platform for more than 800 relevant brands, offers 70,000 curated products and will open offices in Dubai and London this year.
The company also hosts or sponsors several modest fashion weeks around the world, including the first Dubai Modest Fashion Week in 2017. The sheer number of these events is a testament to the lucrative market that this retail division appeals to. These showcases are also proving that covered-up clothing isn't the only cause being championed within the faith-influenced movement. London label Till We Cover, which took part in last weekend's event, for instance, is starting to embrace sustainability – a goal that wasn't always a part of the brand's ethos, explains designer Ruby Aslam.
“I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t. I think it was more about realising that you’re contributing to the waste pile,” she says. Aslam plans to introduce more organic athleisure garments into her range, as well as recycled garments. “I want to be in a position where customers may have had Till We Cover for maybe a year or so, and they come back, and for a nominal amount we buy back and recreate that stock. We then upcycle that garment – we call it closing the loop,” she explains.
Aslam isn’t the only modestwear designer concerned with sustainability. Dubai designer Rabia Z sent her models in fashion-forward conservative cuts, and carrying signs such as “Ethical is the new normal”; “Green is the new black”; and “Green vibes only”. The collection, titled Basics Reimagined, was created in collaboration with Modanisa using eco-friendly textiles.
While the majority of modestwear brands have to pick from a pool of mainstream models, most of whom are Caucasian, to represent their designs, one off-white ensemble with a voluminous organza cape, from the Rabia Z collection, was modelled by up-and-coming model Feriel Moulai. The Algerian was reportedly the first hijab-wearing model to walk at Paris Fashion Week when she was recruited by French brand Koche last September. “Paris Fashion Week was a huge thing for me, because it was a first time for a girl with hijab, and I was proud because France is not really comfortable with the hijab,” she explains.
The increasing diversity of models participating at major European fashion weeks is enabling this niche of modest models – both on runways and on social media – to flourish, too. Still, Moulai says that while her family has been overwhelmingly supportive, she’s faced some resistance from community members in Brussels (where she has lived since age three) and on social media, both Muslim and non-Muslim, about covering her hair. “They say this is too much. You’re in Europe, not Arabia; you don’t have to wear this,” she says, noting that it’s her personal choice to do so.
For the movers and shakers making waves in the modest fashion world, faith is a prime motivator, inspiring women to build businesses that resonate with their religious and cultural interpretations. Such is the case with Aslam as well. The line of the letter “T” in the logo of Till We Cover features a subtle arrow, and the designer explains that this is indicative of a deeper meaning behind the brand’s name.
“I think of it from a personal perspective: one day, I may cover my hair. It’s a journey, and everyone’s journey is so personal,” she says. But the majority of her customers, she reveals, are non-Muslims, or “not of faith”, as she describes them.
Modest fashion, it turns out, is far from an exclusively Muslim movement: women of diverse faiths, along with those who ascribe to no religious beliefs at all, are finding that covering your body, rather than showing it off, can be empowering. Though it's been deemed the world's most popular Islamic apparel website by Reuters, and "the Net-a-Porter of Muslim fashion" by Who What Wear, even Modanisa refrains from branding itself as an Islamic or religious website, instead letting the garments speak for themselves in order to appeal to a wide range of customers and style preferences.
“We know Modanisa predominantly, but not exclusively, caters to modestly dressed Muslim ladies,” says Kerim Ture, the website’s founder and chief executive. “They shop with us because they want choice and style; religion doesn’t need to come into it.”
Aden, who has designed her first hijab collection, which she debuted in collaboration with Modanisa at the most recent Modest Fashion Week, also emphasises the inclusivity that the movement celebrates. Her collection of head pieces, she says, need not hold any religious connotations; they're fashion accessories, in the same way hats are. "It's for every woman who wants to experiment with a turban – not just those who wear hijabs. I want it open for anyone who wants to try it."
Modesty, it seems, is no passing fad, nor can it be boxed away as a niche retail category for a particular religious group. With an abundance of opportunity and thriving pool of talent, the movement has gained momentum, conquering everything from environmental concerns to Orientalist stereotypes along the way.