How mainstream brands are – finally – tapping into modest fashion

 It’s one of apparel’s most enduring categories, but until recently the modest-wear market was almost entirely overlooked by mainstream fashion. With the conversation widening, it’s important for retail to look at the driving forces behind the surge in interest in modest clothing. 

Traditionally, modest wear is apparel that reflects religious or cultural beliefs – demonstrated in full sleeves, ankle-length hemlines, and no cleavage or sheer fabrics. By the end of this year, the annual value of modest fashion is expected to have hit US$484 billion. Although the faith of those practicing modest dress spans Orthodox Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism, the Muslim market will have the biggest impact. 

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Muslim population growth

Fuelled by high fertility rates, Islam is the fastest growing religion worldwide. By 2060 the Muslim population will have grown by 70 per cent, outstripping the wider population growth rate of 32 per cent. With more Muslim women entering the workforce – Saudi Arabia alone saw a 4 per cent increase in the last five years – the shopping power of the segment is soaring dramatically. 

Islam has the youngest median age of any religion, at just 24. The one billion under-30 Muslims today have been instrumental in shifting the attitudes towards modest wear in recent years. Thanks to social media, Australian modest-wear designer Diana Kotb says modest women, “have gained courage, momentum and the power to be unapologetic about who they are, what their values are, and what they want the world to see”. She says they’re “using clothing primarily as a tool to express who they truly are”.

That’s lead to an increasing number of homegrown brands in Asia Pacific, specifically Indonesia, Malaysia and India. Amelia Teh, the head of business intelligence at Omnilytics, a  retail data platform headquartered in Kuala Lumpur, is perfectly placed to understand growth in the APAC region. “In Malaysia, modest wear quickly became modest fashion, fuelled by cultural shifts that impact beyond the religious minority. The market is showing an increasing appreciation for quality craftsmanship, leading to the rise of the ready-to-wear segment.” 

Teh has seen that shift coming from established designers, as well as new brands launching with RTW lines. “Consumers are spoilt for choice and are happy to splurge once a year over the biggest celebration, Eid.” Teh cited May 31 as retailers’ optimal stocking date right before Eid this year.

Moving beyond the abaya

The challenge for these brands is incorporating the high turnover of fashion trends, with the Islamic principles. While Muslim female identity is shifting, there is still a focus on quality, ethics and sustainability – important parts of the halal lifestyle. In fact these values are very in line with the wider Australian market. 

As Kotb says, “The Australian fashion industry needs to nurture local design talents and shine the light on them, so that modest fashion consumers in Australia can relate to them and invest their well-earned money back into the local market as opposed to shopping abroad.” And the styles aren’t worlds apart. “Long gone are the days when the abaya was the only garment for modest women. Today, modest fashion is the same as mainstream fashion, just with a little tweaking!”

Islamic wear is just one niche within modest fashion. Batsheva, the New York label from Batsheva Hay, who is a practitioner of Orthodox Judaism, has garnered attention from fashion magazines globally for its Prairie-style, feminine dresses which sell on Farfetch for from $530 to $788. 

Fashion in the #MeToo era

Fashion has put modesty on a pedestal in recent seasons. Partly that’s the rise in visibility in fashion press and campaign of modest consumers who are driven by their religious beliefs. But there is also an increase in what the UK’s Telegraph is calling “prudecore”, a growing emphasis for many women on understated elegance and decorum.

Conservative dressing has been a key trend on the recent runways, driven by the social and political climate. The #MeToo movement has shifted fashion narrative to dressing for self, rather than for the male gaze. And frivolous outfitting is not what many turn to in times of political uncertainty. For many women comfortable, oversized apparel suits our active lifestyles and aligns us with today’s feminism. 

But brands need to understand the nuances of the market to avoid cultural appropriation. The AW18 runways featured many headscarves fastened beneath chin, lycra hoods and knitted snoods, alluding to hijab head coverings. Designers like Marine Serre, Versace and Marc Jacobs were criticised for fetishing modest wear. 

Gucci’s menswear turban faced backlash when it hit retail in May. Taking a Sikh everyday item – one that symbolises equality –  and creating a $790 fashion item was offensive to some. Acknowledging garment roots and using representative models are components often overlooked by an industry in endless pursuit of headline-worthy newness.  

Designers get onboard

The market also needs sensitive and informed retailers. Enter The Modist. The Dubai-based, multi-brand modest luxury retailer has scored investment from Farfetch and the Chalhoub Group. According to Omnilytics data, its assortment has increased 149 per cent in the last year, while its SEA counterpart, Zalora, has grown just 62 per cent in the same period. 

Though many Middle Eastern and pure modest wear brands are stocked, the majority of the assortment is a carefully edited selection of modest-appropriate apparel from trends brands, including Aussie labels Ellery, Lee Matthews and Michael Lo Sordo. 

The Modist’s median price point of $936.60, outstrips Net-a-Porter’s by 38 per cent  – showing this demographic has refined tastes and is willing to spend, when the narrative is right. 

Its best performers in the last six months, according to Omnilytics data,  have been tank tops and bandeau dresses (for layering), flared tops and kimono dresses. Block colours, lustrous fabrics and bold floral prints are all selling well.

Influencers and star power

Easly on The Modist tapped the network of modest fashion influencers on Instagram, who showcase the wide spectrum of modest wear. Stars like globe-trotting Saudi makeup artist Yara Alnamlah, who pairs high fashion and immaculate beauty with soft muted tones and linens. Then there’s Maria Alia, a NY creative consultant who mixes streetwear with hot fashion brands like Sies Marjan and Tibi. Afghan-Dutch mummy vlogger Ruba Zai has over a million followers on her Instagram under the name of Hijabi Hills and wildly popular hijab tutorials on YouTube. 

In step with the culture

The high-profile launch of Nike’s active hijab was a signal to other international brands to get into gear. Though the hijab was well received, its reviews online of performance aren’t too positive. This highlights the need to speak to, and really listen to, your modest-wear customers.

Asos took a different approach, with 172 items in its modest edit, ranging from $22 headscarves to $440 maxi dresses. What is critical here is filtering by silhouette, identifying “modest” as a product tag and making sure your models reflect your consumers. 

Karishma Kasabia of Melbourne-based sustainable brand Kholo hadn’t anticipated success with modest shoppers as it’s not a primary design focus. “I have an Indian background, so I think it comes naturally to do higher necks, longer sleeves and longer-length skirts,” says Kasabia. 

The brand’s Helena Maxi has been a bestseller: “It’s at the highest price point and has full coverage to the neck. My customers aren’t necessarily choosing it for their beliefs and values, but they like the silhouette of the dress and the luxe factor.”

What’s very important is the way you merchandise existing product to be discoverable and suit the needs of the modest-wear consumer. Although the modest market is an incredibly loyal one, striking out before you are informed is culturally insensitive. As with any market expansion, you must first recognise the diversity and nuances within consumer groups.

This starts at home – look at your business first to see if it is representative. If not, why not? Focus on inclusivity in the team before you can expect to tap into diverse consumer groups.

Katie Smith is a retail and trends strategist, with a deep love of data-led insights and technology. Her research is used by brands and retailers on four continents to build out effective product offerings and connect with their consumers. Contact: katherine.alice.smith@gmail.com.

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