Modest Collections: A Faux Pas of the Past?

Image: By Sadeem

The modest fashion industry is a billion-dollar market, and one that western brands have strived to tap into, often through the release of ‘modest collections’. But in a year that has highlighted the vast inequalities and lack of diversity and inclusivity within the fashion industry, Saja Elmishri investigates whether modest fashion collections may actually be doing more harm than good.

Haute Couture and high street fashion brands alike have tried to tap into the billion-dollar modest fashion industry. But many in the Muslim “target audience,” although welcoming of the effort for diversity, say brands all too frequently fall short. In an age of identity politics, others have gone further.

Some modest-fashion wearers have criticised designers for so-called “white washing” – a means of co-opting diverse cultures in a way that leaves out the original producers. The feelings are heightened by the fact that fast-fashion is underpaying and harming garment workers to the detriment of many in the Global South, while others have called out a lack of representation among models. 

There are also inconsistencies in the way modest fashion is represented. The white gaze has always held the standard of what is acceptable; on one hand, the idea of being covered is seen to be oppressive; on the other, when high street fashion brands want to cash in on the Muslim pound – the spending power of Muslim consumers – it is encouraged. For example, musicians like Billie Eilish have been praised for dressing modestly, while many Muslim women are charged with being oppressed. An inconsistency that has not gone unnoticed.

In most Abrahamic religions, dressing modestly is a prerequisite. But for Muslim women, ensuring they are covered is a significant part of their daily lifestyle, identity and faith. Commonly, modest dressing means covering arms, legs and sometimes hair. But many don’t want to sacrifice on the expression of fashion, while still being able to preserve their values along the way. The fact that this market is lucrative, worth some £226 billion globally according to The Muslim Council of Britain, is why western brands are trying to break in. However, they need to respect the underlying culture, say designers, if they are to be truly welcomed.

“Brands who want to launch modest collections in the Middle East have to be faithful to the values of the women here – for instance, there have been brands who have launched so-called ‘modest’ collections that included dresses with high slits, with the model wearing a hijab. That kind of insensitivity and incongruence should be avoided. Brands should be truly invested in understanding what being modest means and not just see it as another commercial venture,” Manuel Arnaut, editor-in-chief Vogue Arabia, tells us.

If western markets want to cash in on the modesty fashion market, it is crucial that they start by addressing cultural appropriateness, which is important to the value-based consumer and shopper.  Those in wealthy Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates spend higher than their global peers, on average – therefore opening up a potential for brands to engage with this region, but only if they get the market right.

Images: By Sadeem, Jesús Baez Photography

According to the Little Black Book, a communications agency, more than 85% of  Muslim women feel ignored by high street fashion brands, with many stating that western brands simply do not cater to their needs. Simply put, modest clothing requires items to be loose fitted and not revealing the person’s body.

“I think of modest fashion as clothing that covers the elbows (often to the wrists) and the knees (often to the ankles). It is loose-fitting, non-transparent, without plunging necklines, and often includes a head covering as well,” says Hafsa Lodi, a Dubai-based fashion and lifestyle journalist and author of Modesty: A Fashion Paradox.

“Western brands are missing the point of modest collections – you have to learn how to work with those cultures, we need that connectivity that relationships matter,” adds Priscilla Von Sorella, CEO and fashion designer of luxury brand VON SORELLA, who also called out western brands for failing to launch adequate modest collections and for not ingratiating with the cultures. “If people only go to European schools, live in the same areas, they will not have any idea about the culture that they are wanting to target.”

While some Muslim shoppers are excited to be included in a space that hasn’t been available to them before, others still feel offline they are secondary customers and the design of the clothes still doesn’t meet their needs of modesty.

“A modest customer wants a variety of options that are styled differently, they’re women like any other western woman,” says Noorin Khamisani, a fashion educator in Dubai. When asked about why brands get modest collections wrong, Khamisani argues: “because there is no representation in that brand, you need to have someone in house that understands what modest fashion is and its requirements.”

Representation appears to be key, particularly during the design stage. “It is important to work with women from the demographic that you’re trying to target that can help design, advise or market your modest fashion collections,” agrees Lodi, “but also include women from different backgrounds and races that have their unique perspective.”

Judy Daghestani, founder of LFHM – a cultural insight and brand development consultancy based in Dubai – adds that brands need to recognise that there are many different consumer segments within the Middle Eastern market: “That is the biggest challenge for western brands, to recognise that and to look at several sub-Middle Eastern shoppers.

“They [western brands] need to understand the culture of these different consumer segments,” she explains. “You need to be in that place you are wanting to target, you need to have someone on the ground that can tell you about the sales figure otherwise you’re not going to know what that customer actually wants, but if the brand has the right structure, they can definitely make it work”.

Images: By Sadeem, Jesús Baez Photography

When asked if a modest collection should be exclusively designed for modest wearers, Daghestani says: “It doesn’t have to be a completely new collection, it’s about being considerate. For example, if you have a short sleeve or long sleeve version, then send the long sleeve version to the UAE in that region.”

Consideration of “sustainability and diversity” is also important Lodi says, adding “having pretty clothes with cool photography on Instagram is no longer enough to take your brand to a global level.”

According to Fintech Times, 58% in the Middle East considers responsible investing as important to them. Middle Eastern shoppers are going deeper into seeking sustainable supply chains, fair wages, and business models that are ethical to reflect their values as conscious consumers – this is something that brands need to consider before embarking on launching collections. Particularly if they want to target Millennials and Gen-Z (more than half of the Middle East are millennials), as according to Sourcing Journal, 58% of Gen Z considers “a brand’s purpose, values and mission” to be an important factor and key to buying decision making. Therefore, how a brand operates is just as important as the final look – a concept illustrated by SADEEM, a Pret-a-Couture fashion brand established by Saudi designer Sadeem Alshehail, which has ethical practices and sustainability built into the brand DNA, showcasing how style and beliefs can go hand in hand.

It is reported that Middle Eastern millennials demonstrate more brand loyalty than any other region, according to the World Economic Forum, which offers a real marketing opportunity for brands to meet the needs of consumers based in the Arab region. As the fashion industry vows to become more inclusive, it is important that the stigma that is associated with modest clothing is removed and instead we create a sustainable future that is inclusive for everyone.

“Modest fashion can be appealing to every woman regardless of race and religious beliefs and this is something that western brands need to understand,” said Khamisani. “Stop viewing modesty as a separate entity of fashion and include pieces in your main collection that are inclusive.”

Modest collections should be a faux pas of the past – brands need to stop viewing modest women differently to any other women. Although she may don a headscarf or prefer a floor-length skirt, she is as interested in fashion as anyone else.