Forget the cleavage! Covering up is the new fashion craze

Fashion is undergoing a conservative revolution

12 November 2017 - 00:00 By GILLIAN ANSTEY
Ikram Yussuf models a pantsuit by Joburg designer Faida Chikwatu.
Ikram Yussuf models a pantsuit by Joburg designer Faida Chikwatu.
Image: Alon Skuy

The "modest revolution", as it was dubbed by Bloomberg News in March, is a fashion trend unlikely to be adopted by the Kardashians. But, whether covering up for religious reasons or personal preference, women of the "more is more" dress code have an abundance of choice thanks to designers who believe that demure does not have to mean dowdy.

And some of the leaders of the chaste movement are young designers in South Africa.

Last month three Durban designers scored big with their modest ranges. Aaliya Randeree and Kathija Khan, both 22, won awards at the Durban University of Technology final-year fashion show; and 27-year-old Sabiha Badsha of the Haya Collective was selected as one of 12 fashion entrepreneurs, chosen from 400 applicants, for the Threads business incubator programme.

South African fashion designer Gideon - one of those celebrities known exclusively by his first name - sees a growing trend of young Muslim women who are embracing modest wear "but bringing in a current fashion trend, like Frida Kahlo, embellished flowers", he says.

"Modest doesn't mean you don't have any personality or fashion sense. You can still be modest but you can do it in a trendy way."

And modest dressing is going mainstream. With the Guardian reporting that global spend for Muslim fashion is set to be $484-billion (R6.9-trillion) by 2019, it is not surprising that top brands such as DKNY, Mango, Zara and Tommy Hilfiger have released Ramadan collections.

A blue outfit by fashion blogger Saufeeya Goodson who hails from North Carolina and lives in Dubai.
A blue outfit by fashion blogger Saufeeya Goodson who hails from North Carolina and lives in Dubai.
Image: Supplied

In February, more than 3,000 mostly Muslim young women attended London Modest Fashion Week at the Saatchi Gallery, which featured clothes by more than 40 international designers, ranging from traditional abaya tunics to burkinis and jumpsuits. And in the same month, New York Fashion Week featured Somali-born and hijab-wearing model Halima Aden on the runway in Kanye West's collection.

Is modest fashion only for a niche religious market? Some believe not. Khan, who won "most innovative range" at the Durban University of Technology for her designs inspired by the 2016 Olympic bronze medallist and hijab-wearing fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, says the impact of Muslim fashion Instagrammers such as Nabilah Kariem (54,000 followers) and Aqeelah Harron-Ally (38,000 followers), both of Cape Town, and Dina Torkia ( 1.3-million followers) of the UK, is not only on those of the same religion.

"Whether you are Christian, Jewish or you don't even have a religion, when you see these pictures on Instagram you are still inspired by them because they look so beautiful," says Khan.

It's time for retailers to take notice

Romanna Bint-Abubaker, the founder and CEO of modest clothing range Haute Elan, told the Guardian: "A quarter of the world's population are going to be Muslim by 2030. 60% of that population will be under 30 by 2030, so it's time for retailers to take notice that they exist."

She says her range, which has won her an internship with South African designer Gavin Rajah, "is not about 'contemporary modesty' but rather a visual and metaphorical depiction of what Muslim women are.

The concealing and layering of garments depict modesty and demureness while also emphasising power and potency. It demonstrates the beauty of women without having to reveal the self."

Says classmate Randeree: "For a lot of women, just because your head is not covered doesn't mean you don't dress modestly. Modest wear is not only for religious people. A lot of people just don't feel comfortable wearing sleeveless or short dresses and I wanted to cater for the wider market."

Badsha says her website has Jewish and Hindu clients and points out that with Kim Kardashian and Kendall Jenner having been spotted in kimonos, casual, loose-fitting outfits have become popular - and upped their sales of abayas, the traditional robes Haya Collective has modernised in terms of fabric and colours.

Faida Chikwatu, 22, who won best ready-to-wear collection for her final-year range at Lisof School of Fashion in Johannesburg last year, says: "There are people out there who are fashion forward who are not afraid of wearing modest clothing. I hear people saying they are tired of seeing Kim Kardashian's boobs and skin."

Although Chikwatu's own style is modest, she is happy to design skimpy dresses, too.

She is not the only nonexclusive modest designer.

An outfit by Indonesian designer Anniesa Hasibuan during New York Fashion Week in February.
An outfit by Indonesian designer Anniesa Hasibuan during New York Fashion Week in February.
Image: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

 Lisof graduate Gina Mendelowitz, 22, whose label is Gina Maxine, ventured into a modest range two months ago. "The modest girls I know are all Jewish. They like to go to a Jewish girl; it feels like common ground.

"I dress for the environment. When I am in a kosher restaurant I feel more comfortable dressed modestly. [The other night] I was at First Thursday in Rosebank and I wore a little black top ... a lot of my clients are not modest; they have a couple of modest occasions they need to dress for.

"Some might say if I am not modest, how can I make modest clothes, but it's like saying how can a man design women's clothes. I saw a gap in the market ... It's a fun challenge, how can I make a trend modest?''

Khumo Theko, research assistant at the Johannesburg-based trends analysis company Flux Trends, says: "Generation M, or young millennial Muslim females, are pushing a positive perspective of the religion through the way they live and streamlining that through modern communication.

"Lots of Muslim bloggers are giving style tips on how to be fashionable and still modest, and so they have capitalised on platforms such as Instagram, YouTube and Facebook to connect with their peers."