The rise of 'modest' fashion

Updated 8th March 2017
Credit: Courtesy The Modist
The rise of 'modest' fashion
Modest dressing is a global cultural movement on the rise. A search of the word modest on Instagram opens a treasure trove of evidence. Sensitive layering, long silhouettes, raised necklines -- so far, over half a million people have hashtagged the term modest fashion below their photos, and multiple spin-offs (modest dressing, modesty movement, modest style) are widely in use.
At a glance, modest dressing appears to refer to a trend seen predominantly among young Muslims, though on closer inspection the movement includes women of many different faiths, and sometimes has nothing to do with religion at all.
Trend analysts have dubbed what they interpret as a new wave of feminism the "pluri-empowerment" factor, says Iza Dezon, a trend forecaster at Peclers Paris.
"An empowered woman is no longer subject to a specific definition, nor must she live by a specific set of values," she explains. "We're seeing the opening up of what empowerment means, allowing women to create their own definitions."
The modest movement has been gaining steam for a few years now and the hijab has become a recognized symbol. In 2014 DKNY launched a bespoke modest fashion collection. In 2016, Dolce & Gabbana released a line of luxury hijabs and abayas.
In the same year, H&M featured a Muslim model wearing a hijab in a video to promote their sustainable fashion line. Last November, Halima Aden was the first beauty pageant contestant in history to wear a hijab at the Miss Minnesota USA competition.
Last month, Aden was invited to Milan to walk the Max Mara and Alberta Feretti catwalk in her hijab, having also been cast by Kanye West for his Yeezy show in New York a few weeks earlier. This week, Nike announced the launch of their first "pro hijab."
From the styling of Emma Watson in a recent Vanity Fair issue to reports that President Donald Trump might have suggested that "women should dress like women," female sartorial choices continue to ignite debate, and calls for the freedom to wear whatever a woman wants without judgment are becoming louder. The fashion industry is attuning to this.
"Many brands showed collections this season that were clearly designed with a degree of inclusivity in mind," says Elizabeth Paton, European style correspondent for The New York Times. "Balmain, for example, known for its barely-there creations, with a huge following in the Middle East, this season had lots of high necks and low hemlines."
This comes as no surprise to Paton. "All luxury brands are being forced to think more strategically about how to appeal to observant women, with numerous religious backgrounds. They can't ignore the growing chorus of voices globally demanding more choice."
This month, supermodel Gigi Hadid features on the cover of the newly launched Vogue Arabia in a diamond encrusted hijab. Hadid posted the cover image on her Instagram, with a caption praising the magazine.
"Being half-Palestinian, it means the world to me to be on the first ever cover(s) of @voguearabia," wrote Hadid. " I hope that this magazine will show another layer of the fashion industry's desire to continue to accept, celebrate and incorporate all people & customs and make everyone feel like they have fashion moments they can relate to... and learn and grow in doing so."
The current climate couldn't be better for Ghizlan Guenez's new venture. Launching today, on international women's day, The Modist models itself on the slogan "luxury modest style for extraordinary women."
Guenez wants to fill what she sees as a hole in the luxury market. The Modist site will gear itself towards an international, cross-cultural, group of women of all ages, who want to express themselves through fashion while leaving something to the imagination.
Guenez, who spent 14 years working in private equity before changing tack was inspired to address the needs of the women she saw around her. "Our woman might be a banker who wants a power suit or the piece that will take her from morning to evening, that's elegant and not too exposing.
"She might also be a mother attending her daughter's wedding, or a university student in Dubai who's trendy, but dressed modestly for cultural reasons."
It was after witnessing the frustration of women around her first hand that Guenez first conceived The Modist.
"The women I grew up with are modern and fashionable, but happen to dress this way. My mother, my cousins... they'd have to go from one store to another looking for pieces that could work for them. I realised there had to be a solution."
Like most fashion e-commerce sites today the business has an editorial component -- The Mod.
"On the editorial side, we will create fashion that not only inspires, but also empowers our woman," says creative director and former Harper's Bazaar Arabia Fashion Director Sally Matthews, "providing an intimate glimpse into the lives, wardrobes and worlds of other women who are making a difference across the globe."
The Modist launches with 75 contemporary luxury ready-to-wear and accessories designers including Peter Pilotto, Marni, and Phillip Lim.
"There are so many brands I have enjoyed re-interpreting" says Sasha Sarokin, former buying manager at Net-a-Porter who will head up the buying department. "Take Marni for example. They're so good at shape and proportion, and playing out print and color. I wear Marni, so does my mother, so it was a natural aha! moment, and they totally got it."
London print expert Mary Katrantzou's collection will be available on The Modist too. "My collections have never been about being physically revealing, but rather, revealing the aesthetic and personality of our women," reflects Katrantzou.
"I want every woman to feel confident and uplifted in my clothes." She is looking forward to further engaging with her already strong international client base.
"Women from key markets such as the Middle East are attracted to our use of bold color, embellishment and standout evening-wear pieces... I always look for imagery that can transcend boundaries for women, regardless of geographic location."
The market potential within the modest fashion sector is vast, and projected to reach a value of $484 billion by 2019, according to The Modist's own research.
Chief operating officer Lisa Bridgett was immediately drawn to being part of what she calls a "global sisterhood," of strong, experienced, intelligent women from diverse backgrounds working in London and Dubai working on The Modist. "It was the most easily explicable concept, and it resonated almost instantaneously with me."
Guenez has seized the moment with her message of inclusiveness. "At a moment when much is being made of our differences, it's an amazing moment to launch. Talking about how much we all have in common as women is our raison d'être."
Guenez was particularly inspired by the diverse participation in January's Women's Marches worldwide. "We've seen a lot of good come out of social media recently. If it hadn't been for social media, how would we have been called to action? How would we have known to go to the Women's March at all?"
Social media will be a priority for Guenez who sees Instagram and Facebook's democratized international dialogue as the foundations of the modest dressing movement.
"The girl in Jakarta is connecting with the girl in New York every day, as part of a bubbling global fashion dialogue," says Guenez.
"A big percentage of the women we'll be speaking to are in Asia and the Middle East, where they're involved in what we call 'social media on steroids' -- everything happens there. We want to participate in this dialogue, and we want to further it."