Covering up is cool: Why modest fashion is booming among women

Women's rise to power has encouraged them to conceal rather than reveal, but they still want to look chic

25 August 2019 - 00:11 By Lisa Witepski
The African Crane from the Spirited Collection.
The African Crane from the Spirited Collection.
Image: Marnus Meyer

Around the world, modest fashion has mushroomed into a $250bn industry - and signs are that the local scene is following suit.

It might be a steadily growing industry, but for many, modest fashion remains something of a mystery.

"There's a misperception out there that dressing modestly equates to being old fashioned, and that modest clothes are unflattering," says Aneeqah Stellenboom, creative director at luxury modest fashion label Phi Casa.

Mishah Effendi of Mishah Designerwear agrees. "It's not about dressing in any old garment that covers you from head to toe, making you look instantly frumpy." What it is, she continues, is a way of dressing that allows you to express your sense of style while still honouring your spiritual and traditional leanings - so, while you may opt for a less clearly defined silhouette or conceal rather than reveal, you'll still look chic and elegant.

It's also a look that an increasing number of women are choosing to embrace. Stellenboom contests the view that it's a trend, as hyped by the media, because women have been covering up for millennia. What's changed is that a growing number of women are choosing more conservative garments, regardless of their religion.

"I think it's driven by women's steady rise to power. We're rejecting the objectifying gaze, and dressing in garments that not only offer more comfort, but which also encourage people to look at us for what we can offer beyond being a sex symbol; clothes that make people want to find out more about us as individuals and what we can add to society," she says.

Whatever the reason, global designers are taking note. Roshan Isaacs, who heads the African chapter of the Council of Modest Fashion, says that the industry is growing.

"Brands like Dolce & Gabbana and DKNY have introduced special ranges for Ramadan; even Macy's has brought the trend mainstream with its Verona Collection, while Debenhams has answered back through its collaboration with Aab and H&M brought out the LTD Collection."

After dusk cloak from the Wanderlust Collection.
After dusk cloak from the Wanderlust Collection.
Image: Marnus Meyer
The Grey Wolf Spirited Collection.
The Grey Wolf Spirited Collection.
Image: Marnus Meyer

Modest Fashion Week, launched in 2016 in Turkey by fashion entrepreneurs Franka Soeria and Ozlem Sahim, has become a global brand, appearing everywhere from Dubai to Indonesia and, most recently, Amsterdam.

Then there are the online retailers clamouring to get in on the action: Modanisa racks up 10 million visits monthly, while The Modist, which was established in 2017 by Algeria-born Ghizlan Guenez, ships to 120 countries - figures which may climb in the wake of an investment by Farfetch, another luxury fashion brand, which was announced in March.

And, all the while, influencers drive demand, showing their millions of followers that covering up is cool. With her 120,000 Instagram followers, local icon Nabilah Kariem may yet reach the lofty heights of her international counterparts, like Maria Alia (boasting 420,000 followers) or Ascia, with her 2.7 million fans. But the South African industry still has some way to go.

It's not that our modest designers aren't getting the aesthetic right. To the contrary, Isaacs says that Bulbulia Threads, established by Tasleem Bulbulia, was featured at both the Asia Islamic Fashion Week in Malaysia and Torino Fashion Week, while Stellenboom's Phi Casa was selected to take part in the Pret-A-Cover Buyers' Lane in Dubai.

The problem is the more simple one of budget. Effendi admits that she'd love to take her label overseas, but since it costs, on average, R120,000 to exhibit for one weekend (excluding flights and accommodation), obtaining overseas exposure is pricey. This is a challenge for designers already grappling with tight margins: "Each of our garments uses up 5m of fabric, with a further 2m for the matching scarf," she says.

While Joburg- and Durban-based consumers, who typically attend several functions each week and try to avoid replicating their look, may be up for the expense, the Western Cape market is less eager to spend - even though this is where SA's largest Muslim population (which accounts for a large portion of spend) is based.

This is where the council tries to help, says Isaacs, partnering with Wesgro to help designers reach out to different markets and fostering an appreciation of what it means to be export-ready.

"SA is unavoidably a little behind fashion trends, but this is an untapped market," Stellenboom says, commenting on the industry's scope for growth.

"Modest fashion is set to boom - and, as more women adopt this way of dressing, adding to our established base of loyal customers, it will gain greater presence in the mainstream."

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