'Faith Fashion Fusion: Muslim Women’s Style in Australia' exhibition

The modest fashion revolution has arrived, and its projected rise is set to alter mainstream fashion for good.

Curator Gylnis Jones at the exhibition in KL

What used to sit on the fringes of the industry — Hijab Couture — is no longer an afterthought; it is a growing force that is taking the world by storm. Its influence on the mainstream is causing a stir in the business of global fashion. For non-Muslims who are in the dark about modest fashion, it refers to apparel that conceals rather than flaunts and accentuates a woman’s body and is targeted at contemporary style-seeking women who want to dress modestly to reflect their faith. Largely linked to Islam, modest or Muslimah wear can be distilled to mean lowered hemlines, high necklines, long sleeves and the absence of sheerness or transparency.

A glance at the retail floor of local Uniqlo stores today leads one to the Hana Tajima modest-wear line — a collaboration between Japan’s leading fast-fashion brand and the progressive British-Japanese Muslim fashion designer. Making its debut in 2015 and targeted initially at the Southeast Asian market, the successful capsule collection has since been launched in the US and the UK.

DKNY and Mango have also jumped on the high street modest style bandwagon with the launch of Ramadan and Eid collections. Following suit is H&M, which featured its first hijab-clad model — Mariah Idrissi — and Debenhams, partnering modest-wear brand Aab to sell apparel such as kimonos and hijabs catering for Muslim women.

Making headlines during New York fashion week in February, Somali-American model Halima Aden became the first hijab-wearing model to walk on an international runway and to be signed to IMG. For her debut, Aden counted Kanye West’s Yeezy, Max Mara and Alberta Ferretti among her high-fashion appearances, before crowning her eventful season as the cover girl for top magazines Vogue Arabia, Allure and CR Fashion Book.

Not to be left out, luxury fashion houses wasted no time in forging strategic alliances with the Muslimah market. Italian label Dolce & Gabbana leads the way by including high-end hijab and abaya pieces among its offerings. London’s fashion week calendar saw the addition of its inaugural modest fashion week — sponsored by online fashion market Haute Elan in February — which featured more than 40 designers from around the world, including Malaysian Syomirizwa Gupta. Making an indelible mark on the digital space and bridging the gap between faith-based modesty and contemporary fashion, luxury e-commerce platform The Modist was launched with considerable fanfare this year on International Women’s Day.

Perhaps what brought the rise of modest fashion to a crescendo in March was the hoo-ha surrounding its endorsement by Nike, specifically the unveiling of the sportswear giant’s Pro Hijab for Muslim athletes, set to retail next spring. Truth be told, appropriate athletic wear for women professing the Islamic faith has been addressed before this. Australian-Lebanese Aheda Zanetti’s invention of the burqini (also burkini) — a light swimsuit for women that covers the entire body except the face, hands and feet — in 2004 is a fine example.

Modest wear street style marrying faith and fashion

The Sydney-based fashion designer was in Kuala Lumpur recently for the launch of the first international stop of Faith, Fashion, Fusion: Muslim Women’s Style in Australia — a travelling exhibition developed by the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney. “Before that, I don’t think there was any modest swimwear or sportswear,” she says. “In Australia, there were Muslim fashion imports from Syria and Jordan, but they were the old, traditional style of clothing. We wanted to adapt our modest attire to the easy, carefree Australian lifestyle and to make sure that hijab-wearing Muslim girls could participate in sporting activities like swimming.”

What has catapulted modest fashion from its almost outsider status just a year ago into the stratospheric heights it now occupies? First and foremost, theguardian.com says global Muslim expenditure on fashion is set to rise to US$484 billion by 2019, and the Islamic economy is growing at nearly double the global rate, according to Reuters and DinarStandard, a research and advisory firm. The increase in the Muslim population worldwide — Pew Research Center estimates that 30% of the world’s population will be Muslims by 2050, compared with the current figure of around 24% — is causing retailers to take stock and realign their business to tap the shifting spending power arising from burgeoning Muslim communities globally.

Secondly, the advent of social media has contributed much to the expanding influence and acceptance of modest fashion. Romanna Bint-Abubaker and Ghizlan Guenez, founders and CEOs of Haute Elan and The Modist respectively, credit the access granted by online platforms with narrowing the distance among Muslim women from different corners of the world. Mipsters — or Muslim hipsters, described by theguardian.com as urban, tech-savvy millennials who are confident in their faith and fashion choices — are brought together through the sharing of their modest-wear street style.

One of Malaysia’s most popular Mipsters is Datin Vivy Yusof, co-founder of FashionValet, a homegrown e-commerce platform, and Muslimah lifestyle brand dUCk. The poster girl of Malaysia’s Generation M, Vivy is not only a modest fashion authority, boasting 1.3 million followers on Instagram, Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia has included her on its 2017 roll call of honourees.

The e-commerce and retail player — having decided to don the hijab a few years ago — tells Forbes.com that there is a misconception that Muslim women are oppressed. With a skyrocketing modest-wear market, estimated to be worth US$368 billion by 2021 according to Forbes.com — a more conservative figure than theguardian.com’s — savvy entrepreneurs like Vivy are poised to wield major business and financial clout in the coming years.

Though modest wear has steadily gained prominence on the local fashion scene over the last decade, it has long been established in Muslim-majority regions like the Middle East. However, it is only making waves now in Europe, North America and Australia. Silver-haired Glynis Jones, curator of Faith, Fashion, Fusion: Muslim Women’s Style in Australia, says she was intrigued by the burqini when it was worn by Mecca Laalaa Hadid — the first Muslim woman surf lifesaver in Australia — in 2006. This took Jones on a journey where she discovered Zanetti and an emerging modest-wear market in Australia.

“I wanted to curate an exhibition about the business of modest fashion, so I met up with members of the Muslim community to ask where they shop,” Jones says. “This led me to a whole group of fashion designers who were working in modest wear, like Zanetti. Their impetus was seeing that there were no designs that mixed their faith with fashion, so they started designing for themselves and their business was naturally built from that.”

Religion never lacks controversy. Alhough award-winning Muslim author, activist and cultural commentator Samina Ali expounds lucidly on why the hijab — scarf or veil to shield the Muslim woman’s head and chest when in the company of non-family members — is not mandated by the Quran on TEDx Talks: What does the Quran say about a Muslim’s woman’s hijab, hijabi women such as Vivy and Zanetti declare otherwise.

“I am proud of who I am and I choose to be who I am. It is my choice to wear the hijab. I truly believed that [the burqini] was going to break down barriers, enable integration and keep us [Muslim women] as equals,” says Zanetti. She adds that it is not just Muslim women who are buying modest fashion but women from other faiths, such as Judaism, Mormonism, Roman Catholicism and Buddhism, who come from places as disparate as the Middle East, Israel and Japan.


I am proud of who I am and I choose to be who I am. It is my choice to wear the hijab. I truly believed that [the burqini] was going to break down barriers, enable integration and keep us [Muslim women] as equals


On another level, fashion’s more inclusive state of mind — embracing cultural diversity in recent seasons — and the current natural fashion cycle favouring less body-revealing silhouettes have also propelled modest wear forward. Despite that, the (Western) fashion industry and media are still prone to objectifying the female body, be it via revealing designs or provocative campaigns. Whether the rise of hijabi style communities is one driven by religion, culture, commerce or even gender politics, a woman’s style choice is ultimately a personal one and so she should have absolute liberty to decide freely, without fear or favour, on the expression of her belief or faith system.

Zanetti’s response to the comment that Western fashion objectifies women and that not every woman wants to dress in a tight, short dress says it all. “Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. It is a choice you make. You can wear your burkini on the top and your skimpy little shorts underneath. Who cares? Why do people think they have the right to decide what we wear, be it the Taliban, French politicians or my mum and dad?”

Faith, Fashion, Fusion: Muslim Women’s Style in Australia is on at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia until Jan 28, 2018. It is supported by the Australian government through its high commission in Kuala Lumpur, the Australian-Asean Council and LendLease Projects (M) Sdn Bhd.

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