Try as I might to resist them, Instagram influencers do sometimes impact my shopping habits. So, when I saw Rima Zahran, a fashion blogger from Dubai, post an interesting image of a pastel-coloured top emblazoned with the words, "We are all refugees", I immediately clicked on it to learn more.
The design was from California label Seek Refuge, founded by Shazia Ijaz in 2018. The brand’s name is a clever play on words. Not only is “seek refuge” a phrase that’s often used in the Quran, advising Muslims to “seek refuge in the Lord” during times of need, but it also hints to a group of people Ijaz hopes to help through her business: refugees. She donates 10 per cent of profits to the International Rescue Committee’s refugee aid efforts, a figure she aims to increase to 20 per cent by 2022.
Clothes for Generation M
The label caters to a growing population of diverse millennial Muslims who seek to balance faith with fashion, and who have been labelled "Generation M" by author Shelina Janmohamed. "I started Seek Refuge because I wanted to fill a gap in the market for shoppers such as myself – conscious consumers who are looking for fashion-forward ways to reflect their values," explains Ijaz, who worked in product marketing at American e-commerce portal Poshmark, before launching her brand.
Modesty is also engrained in the label’s DNA, as Ijaz works with street-inspired silhouettes to attract both modesty-conscious consumers, as well as those who aren’t particularly seeking modestwear. “Most people don’t associate streetwear with modest fashion since the aesthetics are typically so different, but I found that streetwear’s oversized silhouettes are in perfect sync with the modest fashion [movement],” she explains.
Long-sleeved sweatshirts in peach and grey feature the Arabic letters for "S" and "R" in graffiti-style typography on the front, and on the back, the brand's message: "We are all refugees." Elsewhere, a black hoodie features bell sleeves with white ribbon bows on the cuffs, and the word "nazr" with a line cutting through the text. Ijaz explains that the no nazr design is inspired by cultures that ward off the evil eye. The brand's bestseller is a distressed denim jacket with Arabic script scrawled across the back. "Our refuge jacket has become the brand's flagship design. Since we made it oversized, men love wearing it, too," says Ijaz, who was thrilled to see rapper Lupe Fiasco and comedian Hasan Minhaj sport the design. Modest-fashion model Mariah Idrissi, entrepreneur Marwa Atik of Vela Scarves and hijabi rapper Neelam are other famous faces who have supported the label.
Part of the modestwear movement
Modestwear has been championed by mainstream faces such as model Halima Aden and institutions including de Young Museum in San Francisco, which highlighted modest fashion in an exhibition in 2018, and Seek Refuge is a part of the booming modest-fashion movement pioneered by young Muslims across the globe.
"The industry is growing rapidly, and I don't see that slowing down," says Ijaz. "Muslims are finally being recognised as a powerful economic force, so mainstream brands are now catering to that market. And brands that have yet to take this step are falling behind. I envision that in the next few years, most brands will carry some kind of modest-fashion selection and my hope is that Muslim-owned businesses like Seek Refuge will be asked to help western brands reach a Muslim audience. We're all about appreciation over appropriation."
From the slogan tees at Christian Dior to the angry streets outside fast-fashion stores, fashion and activism are colliding on many fronts. While fashion platforms are embracing everything from racial diversity and inclusive body sizes to sustainability and transparency, political passion and religious drive lie behind Ijaz’s fashion brand. “Our clothes and platform have been built to amplify the voices of refugees, women and Muslims – three groups whose rights are consistently threatened,” reads the brand’s mission statement.
The designer says that post 9/11, Islamophobia is still very much present in the US, and her clothing is an unapologetic protest to statements frequently made by President Trump. "Muslims in America have faced even more discrimination in the past decade, particularly the past four years," she says. "As the oppression of Muslims becomes worse in this country, particularly at the hands of our own government, the activism of our allies becomes that much greater."
The designs are manufactured in small-batch quantities at ethical manufacturing facilities, so tend to sell out quickly. Although based in the US, Ijaz has turned her eye towards expanding in the Middle East. “Keep an eye out for Seek Refuge in your local retailers,” she tells me. Unable to wait, I decide to order a piece from the website, which ships internationally. My pick? The retro refugee T-shirt, in a pretty shade of lilac, decorated with a pixelated illustration of a mosque and the words “Seek refuge” in Arabic and English.
It seems there’s an upside to Instagram influencers, after all. While they may often make Chloe bags and Gucci clothes look dangerously tempting, for once, I feel a sense of fulfilment, rather than frivolity, after being “influenced” to make a fashion purchase.