Modest Fashion

By Athba AlMaghlouth
EIC of

The Tasteful, The Tacky, and The Tokenistic.

The fashion industry has finally awakened to a $450 billion new customer: the “modest-wear” client, with a-not-so-modest spending power. Initially, eyebrows were raised when it came to catering to the sometimes controversial topic of the “hijab,” but they quickly fell back to place with the rise of their profit margins. Still, the dilemma facing brands jumping onto the modest fashion bandwagon is: how to cater to a market they still know so little about? The result is often a miss – enter Dolce & Gabbana’s Beverly Hills Hotel wallpaper abayas.

Inclusivity is always here to be championed; whether in runway castings, capsule collections, or editorial campaigns. Yet, we cannot ignore the ignorant elephant in the room: tokenism – a brand’s social conscious pat-on-the-back for being “woke,” that comes with a ticked off diversity box in their annual score cards.

Take Victoria’s Secret CMO Ed Razek’s comments last November when, ahead of the VS annual fashion show, he defended the brand’s exclusion of plus-size models, by saying “the show is a fantasy.”

Fast-forward to five months and longer body measuring tapes later, to headlines of 55kg model Barbara Palvin earning her wings as the first “plus-size” VS Angel. Tokenism at its finest – but I digress.

This is no different to capsule collections and sublines targeting the Khaleeji customer, or the modest client at large. Saudi stylist Nora AlEissa comments, “Local designers have lately stepped up their game by adopting a modern approach to traditional staples, while international brands constantly miss the mark by exclusively pulling inspiration from stereotypical oriental tropes without even bothering to understand their significance.”

It’s true that our heritage as Arabs is bicoastal in many ways, but Ramadan collections really can be more than Moroccan chiffon kaftans embellished with micro-sequin silver stars… While Dolce & Gabbana and Carolina Herrera should’ve been applauded for leading the industry into taking the first public steps toward inclusivity, targeted market research would’ve been the way to go when it came to their infamous abaya collections. The result: a 50% reduction to collections that can’t give away! The issue with many brands is not so much the fantasization of the Orient, but the production of a narrative that is so far removed from our own. Book a flight from Khobar, take a transit to Riyadh before heading to Jeddah – and you’ll witness distinctively different style aesthetics from coast to coast.

Other brands, however, present a winning case of how it’s done – enter Max Mara’s latest capsule collection, designed with the first hijabi supermodel, Halima Aden. Her idea of modesty saw the reworking of the brand’s iconic wool camel coat, along with six staple other pieces. Even the regional marketing was astute, utilizing three influential Saudi women, with three various distinctive hijab styles and personalities. Finally, a campaign that resonated with us women – diverse, authentic, and anything but superficial.

Modesty is not a fetish, nor a 5-year update to a marketing strategy. It’s an identity and a spirit of its own. It’s here to be celebrated, not superficially imitated. And now with social media and our celebrity representatives crossing borders and industries, brands have no excuse!

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