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Photo: Maria Alia

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Modest Fashion Is Everywhere — for Good and Bad

With dedicated bloggers and the new Net-a-Porter-like Modist, dressing demurely is going mainstream.

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When Liz Roy started Downtown Demure, she had no desire to post photos of herself online, let alone make her blog into a serious venture. The idea for the site came to her soon after she converted to Christianity four years ago. As part of her conversion, she purged her closet of tight, revealing dresses and picked up pieces that covered her at least between her chest and knees. To help the transition, she started a Tumblr to catalogue inspirations for modest dress — only to find that more women were looking for the same thing.

Liz Roy, in fashionably modest clothing.
Photo: Liz Roy

Even though Roy’s parents are culturally Christian, they did not understand Roy’s choice to embrace a much stricter code of religion. Nor did her friends, who were mostly secular. It didn’t help that, for Roy, it was important to use visible evidence to demonstrate her religious beliefs. “Clothing is the easiest way to tell people who you are and what you value,” she explains. “But I also decided to create a blog to explain to people around me what I was doing.”

With their Orthodox Jewish faith, Chaya Chanin and Simi Polonsky stood out even more. The sisters grew up on Congee Beach in Sydney, Australia — where the local dress code was “wear nothing.” “We were seven children and the seven of us were always covered up,” Chanin tells me. “Even when it was boiling outside and everyone was wearing bikinis.”

To battle the stigma that was associated with their dress code, Chanin and Polonsky went to markets to find vintage items they could customize to fit their needs. “Over time, we became really good at it,” Polonsky said. “We gained a reputation for having a great sense of style, even as modest dressers.” Nowadays, the sisters run a successful New York-based clothing line called The Frock, which combines their clean and modern aesthetic with their convictions of modesty.

A Reuters and DinarStandard report projects that the market for modest fashion will grow to $484 billion by 2019. Following such numbers, the fashion industry has been paying more and more attention to this previously ignored customer base. Brands have been courting Muslim shoppers especially: The Islamic economy is growing at nearly double the global rate. Dolce & Gabbana launched a line of hijabs and abayas in 2015, Uniqlo introduced a line with Japanese-Muslim designer Hana Tajima, and last September, Indonesian designer Anniesa Hasibuan sent a whole collection down the New York Fashion Week runway with only hijab-wearing models. The pace picked up in recent weeks: Vogue Arabia launched its first-ever print issue with half-Palestinian Gigi Hadid on the cover, hijab-wearing model Halima Aden graced the runways of Max Mara and Yeezy, and London saw its first modest fashion week. The media has added to the hype: Outlets like CNN, Bloomberg, and The Guardian all hailed the rise of modest fashion.

The latest addition to this soaring sector is The Modist, the first luxury e-tailer to cater to modest fashion only. Its launch on International Women’s Day (March 8th) wasn’t a coincidence: According to its founder, Ghizlan Guenez, The Modist’s mission is “to empower a woman’s freedom of choice and to acknowledge how similar women across the world are, despite our diverse backgrounds, cultures, and lifestyles.”

But what’s most innovative about The Modist is exactly how it doesn’t look that different from sites like Moda Operandi and Net-a-Porter (in fact, its COO is the former Net-a-Porter marketing director). The sleek interface makes it easy to navigate through wardrobe staples by Rachel Comey and A.L.C. and more adventurous pieces by Dorateymur, Ellery, and Stella Jean. The price ranges from $85 for a simple Mimya trouser to an embellished Alberta Ferretti dress priced at nearly $8,000. Like Net-a-Porter, it produces an in-house magazine, The Mod, which features articles like “A New Era of Empowerment.” But above all, its biggest similarity is its broad appeal: The Modist is aiming to be a fashion destination, whether it’s for those who can shop its pieces or those who can only afford to scroll through.

To simply say that the modest fashion industry is rising would be incorrect — women from many religions and backgrounds have chosen to cover up for a long time, whether doing so was labeled “modest” or not. Also, the fashion industry itself has long catered to covered women — when haute couture was struggling culturally and financially in the 1970s, it was the Arab clients who upheld the industry with their oil money. According to Reuters, that trend continued on, with buyers from the Middle East still dominating the market. The only difference between then and now is that fashion no longer serves its modest clients under wraps — instead, the mainstream industry is openly using modesty as a marketing tool.

But many small entrepreneurs were working in the modest fashion market before the mainstream started to pay attention. Arshiya Kherani, for example, laid the groundwork for a modest activewear line two years ago already. Kherani is Muslim and a runner, and when the bandana she used to cover her hair fell off in the middle of a half-marathon, she was embarrassed — and inspired. Kherani says she’s surprised that it’s taken so long for the sector to recognize her clientele. “I’ve been wearing a hijab for so long and dressing modestly even longer,” she says. “This is something I've been thinking about since my childhood.”

Photo: Maria Alia

After a successful Kickstarter campaign and rounds of meticulous testing, the first batch of Kherani’s Sukoon products are almost ready to be sent out to its backers. But just this month, Nike announced that it will release a hijab for female athletes. “I received a lot of messages from people after the Nike news came out,” Kherani tells me. She says that Nike jumping into the market is only motivating her more. “I've been wearing the hijab for close to 10 years. It is impossible for me to have a 10-minute conversation with anybody and for them to understand what I think about when getting dressed in the morning.”

Chanin believes that bigger brands will only make their small business stronger. “If you’re just one little designer, just a few people will see you,” she says. “With bigger retailers doing it, the audience automatically grows, and they’ll look for niche and indie designers too.”

Polonsky, however, has a small worry. “When people think about modest fashion, most people think about the hijab,” she says. “But the rise of social media and modest fashion has shown that the modest dressing woman comes from all types of backgrounds and faiths.”

For better or worse, it’s precisely the increased political hostility toward Muslims that has driven the fashion industry’s attention to the sector. The controversial ban on burkinis by French coastal towns seems a long time ago compared to the recent travel bans imposed by the Trump administration. This spring’s New York Fashion Week came only a few weeks after the first travel ban caused widespread chaos at the nation’s airports — and it’s not a coincidence that its runways featured Planned Parenthood pins, #TiedTogether bandanas, and thriving Muslim women like Halima Aden and Anniesa Hasibuan. It’s encouraging to see fashion come together in times of crisis, but it’s also hard to ignore the fashion industry’s inherent financial interests in doing so.

Halima Aden on the fall 2017 Max Mara runway in Milan.
Photo: Miguel Medina/Getty Images

For Roy, the attention pushed by the political climate is both a blessing and a curse. She says she’s happy with the mainstream’s embrace of modest dressing, but she also wishes that there were more diverse coverage of the sector. “Right now, the focus is mostly on Muslim women,” she says. In fact, the whole reason why Roy started posting photos of herself is because there aren’t that many black women represented in modest fashion. “I want people to know that there are many other types of women who practice modest fashion as fervently, but are not as covered,” she told me. Beyond that, Roy is also worried about the focus of the industry on the luxury sector. “As much as I love The Modist, I wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

Fashion blogger Maria Alia is just happy that something like The Modist even exists. Growing up, Alia only saw Western models in fashion magazines. Even when she started her blog four years ago, there were less than a handful of girls like her in the scene. “Almost everything I wear is not created specifically for a Muslim girl,” Alia says. “It usually takes browsing hundreds of different websites to hunt for one specific piece. It’s very frustrating.”

Ready, set, #vacation! #findyoursukoon

A post shared by Sukoon Active (@sukoonactive) on

Though Alia was part of a group of influencers The Modist employed to promote its launch, she says she truly believes in The Modist mission. “High fashion is where it always starts,” Alia says. “After that, it will trickle down to the more accessible retail world.” However, Alia is worried about the inherent fashion cycle embedded in the business. “One of my biggest worries is, is this just going to be a trend?” she says. “Is it no longer going to be on the table after this?”

Fashion as a commercial industry can only follow the demands of its customers. The business doesn’t distinguish between one group or another, as long as there are consumers willing to buy its products. But in a time when certain religious freedoms are threatened by the country’s policies, the fashion industry is providing a space in which all customers are welcome.

Fashion, however, is inherently political. The industry can offer the products from which shoppers choose, but what is worn and in what way is up for the consumer to decide. Roy is already hopeful about what women are choosing these days. “We’re moving away from an era of ostentatious and revealing clothing,” she says. “I love that women are opening up to the idea that a conservative dress code can also being empowering.”

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