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As Sex Ceases to Sell, Modesty Has Its Fashion Moment

The first time Maria Alia wore a hijab was her first day as a freshman at Baker High School in Mobile, Ala. Her father is Sunni Muslim, and all the women in her family wore a head covering, including her Puerto Rican mother. Alia loved clothes, but she never saw anyone who looked like her on style blogs or in magazines. In high fashion, “beautiful” has rarely been depicted as a hijab-wearing Muslim.

Once she started posting selfies to her Instagram account, however, other Muslim girls started reaching out to her, asking for tips. Alia, now 26, has more than 400,000 followers on Instagram, making her one of the platform’s popular “modest fashion” influencers. She’s been hired by Tiffany, Giorgio Armani, H&M, and other brands, often wearing a headscarf printed in a riot of colors or patterns. Sometimes she’ll wear a long Carolina Herrera dress; other days she’ll pair jeans with Nike M2K Tekno sneakers. She’s one of several online stars who, in the last two years, have turned “modest fashion” into the unlikeliest buzzword since “fanny pack.”

The style is as old as Adam and Eve, but it’s newly cool. “Everyone has their own interpretation of modesty,” Alia says. “But this idea that it’s just a very plain, no adornment, humble way of dressing—that was some other person’s definition.”

In an industry where putting a black model on the cover of a fashion magazine still counts as news, the huge followings of stylish Muslim women such as Alia have given brands the courage to think beyond primarily white, waiflike images and embrace a broader range of bodies and cultures. “Social media formulated a new ‘cool kid’ in society,” says Alia Khan, chairwoman of the Dubai-based Islamic Fashion and Design Council. “Now the modest woman has a community. She no longer has to feel like she is alone.”

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One of the coolest of these new cool kids is Muslim model Halima Aden (780,000 Instagram followers). After she won notice for wearing a hijab and burkini in the Miss Minnesota USA beauty pageant two years ago, she’s appeared on 10 magazine covers, including British Vogue and Allure. “I have women messaging me on social media every day thanking me for essentially, in their eyes, making modest clothing cool,” says Aden, who was born in a Kenyan refugee camp. “I never knew a black, hijab-wearing Muslim woman could be in high fashion. It’s hard to visualize something you haven’t seen before.”

Shoppers were ahead of brands in bucking tradition. Shares of Victoria’s Secret’s parent company, L Brands Inc., have dropped more than 65 percent since 2015 as it continues its air-brushed “What Is Sexy” campaign. Meanwhile, startups such as e-tailer Fashion Nova and Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty collection, are succeeding by emphasizing body “positivity” front and center.

In October a forum at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology defined “modest fashion” as generally “loose-­fitting clothing that ­covers as much of the body as the wearer wishes.” Steven Frumkin, dean of the Baker School for Business and Technology at FIT, says the fresh attention is the result of several factors but suggests it was catalyzed primarily by the new influence and buying power of Muslim women. Consumers worldwide spent $254 billion on Muslim attire in 2016, according to the latest State of the Global Islamic Economy Report. Other reports have estimated that the market could be worth more than $350 billion in two years, ranking behind only the U.S.’s and China’s.

“The total population of Muslim women has always been large, but when that number reaches a critical mass, it becomes significant in the marketplace,” Frumkin says. Other groups have seized on modest, chic clothes as well, whether Orthodox Jewish, Catholic, or women of no particular faith who prefer not to expose much skin. Richard Quinn, a British designer whose fall show was attended by the Queen of England, says the modest moniker used to have negative connotations. “It’s like what people think of when you say ‘ethical’ fashion, ” he says. “What these women like are the classic, big volumes that happen to be covered in an elegant way.”

Retailers are increasingly savvy in appealing directly to these customers. In February, Macy’s Inc. introduced the Verona Collection, a line of “modest” clothing that included long cardigans and colorful hijabs. This summer, ­e-commerce giant Net-a-Porter added a “Modest” button to its site navigation—nestled between “Loungewear” and “Pants”—where fashionistas can browse a precurated selection, including a $1,370 silk-satin Hillier Bartley midi dress and a $4,500 ­floral-print Gucci jacket. That update followed the site’s first Ramadan collection, in April. It featured Elie Saab, Reem Acra, and other Middle Eastern designers, but most of the collection was by internationally renowned labels such as Oscar de la Renta, Mary Katrantzou, and Jenny Packham.

This year, Khan’s Islamic Fashion and Design Council invited regional designers, as well as the likes of Burberry, DKNY, and Dolce & Gabbana, to create collections for the modest set. She argues that this market is easier to break into than China was 20 years ago. “From a brand perspective, you can target it much better,” she says. “You know off the bat things they can’t do—not too tight, no sheer, no plunging necklines. These are simple rules. And the demand currently outweighs the supply.”

Runways this year were full of more-­covered-up options far removed from ­stereotypically dowdy looks. Valentino SpA and the Row have led the way with luxurious fabrics and designs so ornate and layered as to feel gluttonous—demure, yet over the top. Quinn has also had success in Middle Eastern markets thanks to transitional pieces such as printed tops and roll-neck sweaters. “You wouldn’t look at what I do and say, ‘Oh, it’s all covered up,’ ” he says from his London studio. “A woman that isn’t really focused on modesty will still think of it as a desirable piece of clothing.”

The biggest success in this space so far has been online retailer The Modist. (It’s pronounced MODE’-ist, a twist on the French word for fashion.) Founded by Ghizlan Guenez in 2017 after a 13-year career in finance, the company has created clothes with top designers, ranging from floral-­print maxi dresses by Britain’s Erdem to high-neck metallic chiffon blouses from Austria-based Petar Petrov. “There’s a misconception that the style is compromised if you dress in a modest way,” Guenez told me during a visit to New York earlier this year. “But there is a section in every woman’s closet that is modest.”

As such, Guenez says she doesn’t dictate a definition of modesty to her customers. The garments she carries tend to have high necklines, longer hemlines, sleeves, and no sheer or see-through material. “It’s OK for everyone to have a different definition,” says Aden, the model. “I prefer three-quarter to full-length sleeves and, based on how I practice my faith, I wear a turtleneck or a scarf covering my neck and a hijab or turban covering my hair.”

In September, The Modist announced a partnership with the popular youth-oriented e-tailer Farfetch to help it further expand beyond the Middle Eastern market, which at 35 percent of its business is its largest. Next year the site will introduce exclusive collections with Roland Mouret, along with a Ramadan collection of ­caftans.

Some outlets don’t feel the need to make their pitch so specific. Natalie Kingham, fashion and buying director of U.K.-based site, says the company hasn’t updated its site with any specific “modest” branding, but she agrees that change is in the air. “We’ve had good business in the Middle East because we’ve favored that aesthetic all along,” she says. “Covered arms—it’s superchic.”

She points to social, rather than cultural, changes in the perception of modesty. “We bow to certain muses in different seasons,” she says. “This year I saw the warrior woman muse getting more covered up but still ­empowered—a strong shoulder, very sensual. We’re living in uncertain times, so it’s like she has a bit more armor on.”

And that armor is going to stay on for quite some time. “This is wider than women of faith,” says Daniela Karnuts, the designer behind U.K.-based label Safiyaa. She’s been a favorite of Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton, and her clothes are carried by top outlets in the Middle East, including Boutique 1 in Dubai and Harvey Nichols in Riyadh. “Jewish and Muslim clients are looking for the same thing as an ambassador’s wife, who would dress modestly by default,” Karnuts says. “Or a CEO who goes to the World Economic Forum. Forget modesty! A lot of brands are so revealing—women aren’t always comfortable in their own skin that way. A woman is never attractive if she’s not comfortable in her skin.”

Khan relates a story in which her organization was recently working in Italy, where Muslims are the second-largest religious group. They soon started getting requests from Catholics who couldn’t find the right thing to wear to mass. “There are so many similarities in the consumer profile,” she says. “But it is their loyalty that should be most attractive to brands. The majority of these consumers have made modest choices based on the faith they’ve committed to, a decision which is usually for life.”


Reporting by Paula Knight.