Home Featured The modesty industry in the modern world

The modesty industry in the modern world

by Luqmaan Rawat

Johannesburg – The Islamic fashion industry began in the 1980s and was created to fulfil the Islamic practices of covering up while also meeting the desire to include specific trends in Islamic wear. While retaining Islamic labels for pieces, elements of the industry have branched into modest brands. As the industry grows, new concerns have arisen that the industry may be losing its way.

There are many brands now that cater to the need for modest wear. One such brand is La Udher. Like others, it was created to fill a gap in the market and provide women with the clothing they desire. Salma Tahseen Kazi, advertising, and marketing specialist, believes that brands like La Udher give the option to everyday women to dress modestly because of how their clothes are designed.

“People that wear the abaya or dress modestly need to dress the way they feel comfortable dressing … All abayas are loose-fitted, modest, free-flow and are not attracting attention where they shouldn’t be attracting attention. It’s not leaving the option open for you to be immodest in any way.”

Modesty in dressing can take on many definitions. In Islam, true modesty in dressing is to conceal one’s figure and beauty. While current trends are focused towards revealing one’s figure and beauty, this task has become challenging. With human nature inclined to follow trends, it has become harder for designers to keep designs without incorporating new styles.

Keeping up with the latest trends

Zakiyya Choonara, founder of Zayyan by Cherrytop, expressed the desire women have, to keep up with the latest fashion, and said her brand has found a way to work around delivering both.

“Every woman wants to wear the latest fashion and be on trend, it’s no different for a Hijabi. Where some brands push it to the limit of “Modest Wear”, being a Hijabi myself and understanding what that means, I think works in our favour. It’s also important to listen to your customer and gauge where the gap in the market is. When it comes to Zayyaan by Cherrytop, our foundation has always stayed the same, we pride ourselves on timeless versatile pieces that can be incorporated into your wardrobe year after year.”

Raeesah Ahmed, founder of Limitless Threads agrees with Choonara, and says it is possible to follow trends and keep customers happy yet also tweak style to keep them modest.

“When you are a part of the fashion industry, you always need to be keeping up with trends, or better yet, creating trends. This is what attracts customers. We, as brands, need to consider that our customers are constantly browsing through social media apps, looking at several styles of modest clothing that’s currently trending around the world, and that is what they are looking for,” says Ahmed who believes brands need to meet their customers’ needs.

“However, this should not compromise the concept of dressing Islamically. While there are certain modest styles which do go against modest dressing, as a brand owner, I enjoy using current trends and tweaking it in a way where it is trendy, yet still maintains the modest aspect.”

Expanding your market

Sometimes following trends can help expand your market, believes Tasmiyah, brand manager of Fairouz Boutique.

“You might want to follow the mainstream trends because you feel like that, just going to expand your market. It might not necessarily appeal to the women who observe modest dressing in a more traditional way but creating a piece that incorporates elements of mainstream fashion might expand your market.”

With businesses wanting to grow, how long can one stay out of the trending market? While the saying goes, “out with the old, in with the new” it is not common for people to give up on old ideas and adapt to new ones. This could cause clients to leave and look elsewhere but Choonara is convinced the latest trends are all about modesty.

“The fashion industry is changing,” says Choonara, “Comfort and confidence take over being pushed into the boundaries of what is stylish. Current fashion trends are also moving toward smart fashion and sustainable fashion. Something that modest fashion has been about all along. Having said that, old styles will never go out of fashion, it will always be there, the comfort of a simple Abaya can never be underestimated.”

The Modesty Wardrobe ‘s founder, Raeesa Essop, says the brand is all about headscarves. With all the changes in modest wear, headscarves too have become trendy. The key is being able to adapt and adopt contemporary trends and materials, she says.

“For the most part, I think trends need to be followed, or at least partially, in order to be current and to continuously retain customers. There is definitely truth to the statement of “there is elegance in simplicity”. And it is true that certain styles and silhouettes will always remain classic and be fashionable, but at the same time, being able to adapt that to newer styles, on-trend colours, updated fabrics etc. can only elevate a brand.”

Maintaining the Islamic dress guidelines

For Ahmed, “Following trends does not mean going against the Islamic dress code.” Modest clothing can follow trends.

“Customers do look for the newest of the new, the best of the best, and modest brands have to constantly follow these trends in order to attract new customers and maintain their current clientele.”

Still, there are many who feel modest wear has, for a long time, been going against Islamic guidelines. The reasons for this include designs lacking modesty, sheer fabrics, and tight-fitting garments. While modesty in Islam is not about standing out, some designs are all about it. According to Choonara, modesty is not just about clothes, and it isn’t defined in the same way all over the world.

“Our brand was created to inspire modesty and bring awareness of how easy it is to transition into Hijab. With the onset of social media, modest wear is interpreted differently globally. It’s human nature to first make judgement on others based on what we’ve been engrained to think. Modest Wear is more than just clothing, it’s a mindset. Our goal is to promote modesty in our thinking, actions, and mannerisms – working from the inside out. Your inside will automatically translate to what you present to the outside.”

Muslims have Islamic guidelines on how to dress. Essop and Ahmed agree that even in the pursuit of creating something beautiful, we need to respect these guidelines. Going against it will create something that may be beautiful but cannot be described as modest.

What is Islamic wear?

An aalimah (a female Islamic teacher) explains Islamic wear in Islam is meant to be unattractive, lose fitting and its purpose is to preserve a woman’s dignity.

“As a general rule a woman who steps out of her home should cover her entire body in loose fitting unattractive garments. This is not to oppress her but to preserve her modesty and dignity like a pearl in an oyster shell, preciously concealed. In all our walks of life keep in mind our final destination, the Aakirah and complete obedience to Allah.”

The designers have all expressed that advertising is of utmost importance in this industry. Understanding that advertising and exposure means the growth of one’s business, the teacher advised to bear in mind the Islamic guidelines.

” The laws of Islam have prohibited the use of animate pictures. Many a time the designs are paraded by models and for this reason one should crop out the entire head. Our object is to display the product, not the model. Then again, the backdrop is vital, bear in mind not to include items or places that Islam have prohibited such as musical instruments or forbidden venues.”

The designs of modest wear have, over time, started to incorporate the trends of the Western world. Some of these trends do not fit in with modesty and instead of concealing, they are revealing. The aalimah emphasised that one should be cognizant of the meaning of “concealed Islamic wear” when designing their clothing.

“These clothes have to cover the shape and appearance making one less attractive, protecting the women from any harm. The clothing we design should befit this so as not to use transparent thin fabric or tight-fitting cuts that despite being clothed we are naked. Then again, the more bling the more “ka-ching” so we attract our buyers with this but anything that glitters should be avoided as this brings most attention.”

While Islamic wear may not be something new, modest wear and Islamic fashion is. Some designers have tried to blend both together to make it one. However, even this blend does not hide the fact that both are different, said the teacher.

“To understand if modest wear and Islamic wear are similar or not let us make a comparison between an individual modestly dressed and an individual completely covered in Islamic garbs. Visually are they alike? … We cannot interpret modest wear as Islamically dressed.”

However, this does not mean that modest wear cannot achieve the true definition of Islamic wear. There are simple ways to do this and be in accordance with Islamic guidelines.

“Darker colours will have to be used. Extending the sleeve and dress length to cover the entire body. Designing with thicker fabric and less fitting cuts. Our hijabs should be draped simply and not see through. Our clothing has to be so camouflaged that we are not noticed in a crowd.”

High production costs

Modest clothing is the option of the day for many Muslim women everywhere, but a harsh reality hits them. Most modest clothes are far too expensive for the average person. This isn’t because retailers want to make a huge profit, rather, as Choonara explained, the price is forced upon them by inflated costs. The pandemic has seen shipping prices and the cost of fabrics soar.

While bigger brands can produce massive quantities and keep their costs down, smaller brands do not have this luxury. The other factor is modest garments use more materials.

“Modest wear garments should be loose fitting and ‘modest’. A typical Abaya uses 3.5metres of fabric compared to one metre to make a T-Shirt. As with all global fashion brands, there are different brands that cater for different budgets and the same goes with modest wear.”

Ahmed agrees with consumers’ concerns that things have become expensive. While she tries to keep things affordable, she too faces price increases.

“There still has been an increase in the modest industry overall. I personally find that one of the main reasons revolves heavily around the price of fabric and the increase, over a period. You require a lot more fabric than you think, and you do not realise how much of your costing goes into the fabric until you sit back and take a look.”

Alternatives to expensive brands do exist but buyers could lose out on quality. Budget-friendly options in the market exist, allowing one to choose modest pieces with less damage to their purses.

“Producers and consumers within the modest fashion industry need to explore these options as well, bearing in mind that you will not be receiving the best quality,” says Ahmed.

Social media in the industry

The success that the modest industry has had with branching out comes down to social media. Advertising and models give people a look into what a product is but there are some concerns. Some view the way abayas are advertised, by using models, as going against Islam. Producers are now caught between showing off their products but also following Islamic guidelines.

The truth is that social media is the easiest way to promote your business. For Tasmiyah, everyone involved in the process, from the brands to those who want to see the posts, must take accountability for themselves. Choonara acknowledges the wrongs but believes that it can be used for good.

“The reality is everybody uses social media which is bombarded by western culture and immorality. This same platform can be used to promote good and hopefully inspire one person to go into Hijab by seeing their favourite model or celebrity wearing a headscarf or modest clothing.”

Consumers need to know what they are buying but Essop knows that having models is a “tough” situation. By ensuring that things are done in a way that limits the harm by “making sure faces are covered, working in an Islamic manner without the use of music, not showing anything un-Islamic in your use of a model,” she feels it should be allowed to use models, but one must still be mindful of everything.

The modest fashion industry is on the rise and its biggest challenge is whether it will remain Islamic as it once started out or allow itself to dilute into something else.

Maryam Mkwanda spoke with Salma Tahseen Kazi about her brand La Udher:

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