Islamic fashion as a phenomenon stemmed from the combination of a set of Islamic practices (in which the need to cover a specific set of body parts is present) and of the rising need and desire to include these specific clothing items in a broader fashion industry. The global growth of “an Islamic consumer sector, which explicitly forges links between religiosity and fashion, encouraging Muslims to be both covered and fashionable, modest and beautiful,” is relatively young: Islamic Fashion as a particular phenomenon started appearing toward the 1980s.
The most recent developments in the field have caused a varied public discourse on a series of different levels, from the political, to the religious, to the cultural. Different positions are taken by different participants in the discussion of the politics and cultures of Islamic fashion.
Islamic Fashion market nowadays presents the rapidly expanding niche that is still relatively empty in a global scale. Big brands are trying to present their collections related to Muslim religious observances, however, without any visible attempts to single-handedly secure the Muslim customers in Western countries leaving the space for the emerging young designers mainly from Muslim states. In the United Arab Emirates, particularly Dubai, are steadily laying the ground to become the Islamic Fashion center with a highly curated Designers District and housing of the leading Islamic brands.
Economics of Islamic fashion
Today the Islamic Fashion market is still in its early development stage; however, according to the numbers provided by the Global Islamic Economy Indicator the dynamics will rapidly change: Muslim consumers spent an estimated $266bn on clothing in 2014, a number that is projected to grow up to $484bn by 2019. Despite the fact that the figures show the purchase of clothing that cannot be translated directly into Islamic fashion the trend clearly proves that the modest fashion industry will be flourishing.
Furthermore, the Pew Research predicts that the global population of Muslims will equal the number of Christians by 2050; hence, the purchasing power of young Muslim customers will steadily grow that presents new opportunities for both young designers and big fashion brands. As for the seasonal profit the famous companies like DKNY, Hilfiger are starting paying more attention to observances like Ramadan when the number of Muslim consumers rockets. However, currently the world-famous designers present their collections whether in Gulf States or online only while omitting the opportunities and growing demand presented in Western countries as it expresses Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, the editor-in-chief of MuslimGirl.net:
“What’s the point of having these Ramadan collections from these huge brands and huge designers if they’re only being made available to people overseas who are already well aware of Ramadan and inclusive of it? Really, it’s here in the U.S. or other Western countries where that kind of visibility would go a long way.” - Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, interview to Fortune, 15 July 2015
Considering the slow realization of emerging capacities by the global brands the niche of Islamic fashion market would be likely occupied by Middle Eastern enterprises and start-ups. As Abdul Rahman Saif Al Ghurair, a member of the Dubai Islamic Economy Development Centre board, said in the interview to Bloomberg:
Dubai, after opening Design District, is on its way to become the Islamic fashion capital as well as the global centre of the Islamic economy even if being challenged by the Turkish Muslim clothing industry.
Politics and culture
Fashion, as all creative and artistic fields, does not exist in a vacuum, it has to relate with the socio-political culture in which it exists, and therefore the way such culture responds to it. Islamic Fashion witnessed a series of commentaries since mid 2014, when DKNY launched its first ever Ramadan fashion line, as many others did such as Tommy Hilfiger, Oscar de la Renta, Mango, UNIQLO, Zara, H&M and Dolce & Gabbana.
Considering the controversial nature of the topic, a plethora of reactions was expected and it was varied in nature and sources. Internal reception was varied, encompassing reactions such as the one by fashion graduate Tabinda-Kauser Ishaq, who designed a ‘poppy hijab’ for Remembrance Day, who welcomed the arrival of mainstream Islam fashion and deemed it “a good move for the business of fashion”, and the one by Mariah Idrissi, the first hijab-wearing model in an H&M ad who said that, "Seeing Dolce & Gabbana launch in this market is definitely a positive thing".
“Today’s fashion industry is about consumerism and objectification - buy, buy, buy and be judged by what you wear. Muslim fashion is teetering between asserting a Muslim woman's right to be beautiful and well-turned out, and buying more stuff than you need, and being judged by your clothes - both of which are the opposite of Islamic values.”
“It is difficult for me to feel excited and grateful for a fashion line that supposedly caters to me and the requirements of my faith, when it feels as though the overwhelming message is that the only desirable Muslim is a wealthy one; that Muslim fashion is acceptable, but only when legitimised by a major western fashion label. And that ultimately western society will always have the monopoly on what is fashionable and relevant.”
On this ethical side of the discourse the argument made by Sabah Haneen Choudhry, a third-year Social Anthropology student at SOAS, was that in 2016, the rise in Islamic fashion must be seen as a political matter:
“My issue is this: why is the hijab ‘acceptable’ only when it's appropriated and managed by major corporations— Western regimes that, in other words, have the power to permit and regulate what is deemed tolerable, capitalisable and not? Why can’t Muslim women decide the parameters of their Islamic identity and sexual morality, without facing harsh scrutiny from within and outside the ‘imagined’ Muslim community?”
The premise of the cultural appropriation side of the discourse, addressed online by different sources, can be summed up by Haris’ words when she states how Dolce & Gabbana’s range “looks like an appropriation of existing traditions without giving them any real recognition.”  As the IFDC (Islamic Fashion and Design Council) noticed, we are witnessing the emergence of a segment they called “Muslim Futurists”: people who choose to live a life they feel is both faithful and modern, and who believe that both of these aspects are their right. It’s the first recognition of a Muslim consumer who wants the best brands, products and services – they want to be fashion-forward, for example, but only when it meets the requirements of their faith.
Public comment came also from outside the Islamic community, a rather controversial statement by former fashion mogul Pierre Bergé, life and business partner of designer Yves Saint Laurent, who accused designers catering to the Islamic audience of taking part in the “enslavement of women”. Bergé’s statement stirred different reactions, particularly regarding this part of his statement:
“"In life you have to chose the side of freedom," said Bergé. "Rather than covering women up, "we must teach [Muslim] women to revolt, to take their clothes off, to learn to live like most of the women in the rest of the world."”
Which, as Julianne Shepherd writes in her article for Jezebel, expresses a rather sexist commentary behind the travesty of feminist defence. Another strong criticism came from French’s minister for women’s rights Laurence Rossignol, who, speaking to BFTV over the decision by fashion companies including Marks & Spencer, H&M and Dolce & Gabbana to produce and promote fashion aimed at Muslims, criticised the fashion labels, saying the clothing was not “socially responsible” and “from a certain point of view … promotes the shutting away of women’s bodies”. When the interviewer suggested certain women made the decision of their own free will to cover themselves, Rossignol replied: “Of course, they are women who make the choice … there were also … American negroes who were in favour of slavery.”
A petition was launched by a French student, Hawa N’Dongo, on change.org calling for Rossignol to be punished:
“It is with anger and exasperation that we have been once again confronted with the verbal violence of a political leader,” wrote N’Dongo. “Asked about the false debate on ‘Islamic fashion’ she came out with scandalous propositions that feed the confusion and stigmatisation of Muslim women and the millions of transported slaves.”
It’s clearly a controversial subject and one that many Muslim women feel strongly about, since it covers a wide variety of issues and problems that have a history of not being addressed and that are only now seeing recognition on a larger, more global scale.
Islamic fashion on the web
The growing popularity of online shopping worldwide among young Muslims has proved that the Internet nowadays is playing crucial role in promoting exclusivist Muslim identities as well as is enabling unexpected convergences and connections between individuals of different backgrounds and between the demands of fashion and faith. Moreover, the Islamic Fashion online stores are promoting ethical commerce as part of their revenue goes to charity. The past decade has seen the diversification and spread of Islamic fashion commerce in Britain, the United States and around the world, both on and off the Web, with some entrepreneurs catering to the higher end of the market.
Partially, the opposition to hijab ban in some countries and limiting regulations for doing sports pushed for transformation of Islamic clothing and spurred the activity on the Internet (fashion blogs, social networks, etc.), notably, contributed to the growth of the wide range of Islamic Fashion e-shops. However, the emergence of online stores alongside the Muslim lifestyle magazines and fashion blogs has risen the wave of criticism related to both the commercialization of religion and veiled religious propaganda. On the other hand, some scholars interpret the matter the other way:
“[...] the entrepreneurs involved in promoting hijab online may be motivated by a mixture of religious, ethical, political and commercial concerns which grow out of their personal experiences of living in a multicultural urban environment and which reflect and respond to the desire expressed by many young Muslim women living in the West to be both fashionable and modest.” - Emma Tarlo, HIJAB ONLINE, 2010
Especially for the Muslim women, hijab has become an important part for their appearance: they are increasingly looking for fashion that doesn't set them apart from the rest of society. With the rapid growth of digital networks and social media users, the need of these “digital platforms” is increasing and the purchasing power of young consumers tends to grow over the years. Apart from the traditional websites as online stores, it’s possible to use social media to market the hijab by saving time and costs, starting from Facebook, to Instagram and Pinterest.
Islamic fashion online stores
Islamic Fashion and Design Council (IFDC) is a platform that provides support, initiatives and programmes to help make the industry more cohesive for Islamic fashion by bringing the industry players together to help them to generate more opportunities.
“This clothing is beautiful, and the beauty is made for every woman.”- Indonesian Fashion Designer Amy Atmanto
Clothing companies and brands are quite fragmented globally. In most OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) countries, local clothing companies that are local culture - driven dominate the market: a special segment of Islamic/modest clothing companies is emerging globally, some of the most established producers and labels understandably come from Muslim-majority countries. However, new labels from other countries - especially those targeting the younger generation of Muslim women - are quickly gaining tractions in their local markets and beyond.
Some of the select ‘niche’ Islamic/Modest clothing companies:
- Alhannah Islamic Clothing (USA), a well known e commerce company in the Muslim community, has provided Muslim consumers with traditional Islamic garments and accessories since 1999. Although their primary market is North America, they have significant sales in almost every country on the globe. They are currently one of the oldest and largest online retailers of Islamic Clothing and accessories.
- Islamic Design House (UK) With “Faith, Fun and Fashion” as its tagline, it is one of the pioneering enterprises in the western hemisphere that are in the business of creating alternatives for Muslim apparels. It has distribution in United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Jordan;
- Hijup (Indonesia) is an Islamic fashion e-commerce service established in 2011. It serves as an online mall offering a wide range of the products from Indonesian Islamic fashion designers. It currently has 85 designers that have joined as tenants;
- Hijabenka is focusing on fashion Muslims, such as hijab, the Muslim fashion, praying clothes, handbags, and other accessories. In addition to selling fashion Muslim for women, the company also has collections for men;
- Shukr (Jordan) has been serving the Muslim consumers, especially those in the West, through its selection of modest fashion since 2001. The company's main retail markets are North America and the UK, but there are substantial retail sales to over 50 countries across the world as well as numerous wholesale customers and franchisee holders;
- Modanisa, a Turkish-based e-commerce platform that is one of the largest players in today's market. Founded in 2012 by Kerim Ture, Modanisa sells Islamic clothing to about 60 countries. More than 200 Islamic fashion brands offer their goods on the platform. Modanisa got into the limelight of media when it held 2 Modest Fashion Weeks, one in Istanbul and another in London, which also got a bit controversial;
- Tekbir (Turkey) is a leading manufacturer of fashion scarves since 1982. It has distribution centers in Europe and Africa (Egypt) as well;
- Balqees (United Arab Emirates) is a high-end abaya brand from Dubai. It is famous for its diamond studded abaya collections. The company's current distribution covers the Middle East, South Asia and South East Asia;
- Armine (Turkey) aims to be the “Armani” for Muslim women through its complete offering of high-end head scarves and Muslim apparels. Its apparel and accessories are sold in 1,400 stores, including in the United States, Netherlands, United Kingdom and Middle East.
- Modest Forever (India), a well known e commerce company sells abayas, hijabs and modest wear across the world. They believe modest wear can be trendy and fashionable at the same time.
- Momin Libas (India) , is a well known islamic clothing e commerce brand for women in India . It currently sells Abayas , Hijab , Maternity Wear and other modest wear clothing . The abayas are available in multiple designs and fabrics with options of customization.
There is undeniably a modest fashion craze that has been going on this past years with big brands in fashion, celebrities and independent entrepreneurs on this movement. This trend is seeing mainstream brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Mango, Zara and DKNY coming up with modest collections they never did before. We are also seeing many celebrities including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian wearing and posting on their social media profiles the Islamic headscarf, the hijab and Beyoncé dressing in an abaya.
It is a continuing growing trend: some women designed their own clothes that suited their needs because the mainstream market could not provide it, these personalities on Instagram and several blogging sites started getting attention. They became the icons people looked up to for fashion inspiration:
“Young hijabi Instagrammers like Maryam Asadullah, Sobia Masood and many other social media personalities have made a huge impact in the modest fashion industry. These personalities created a trend whereby they shared their stylish modest outfits, tips and tutorials while other people admired their style thus gaining them big followership. They were able to provide what the mainstream fashion industry was not giving them and the modest wearer. This inspired and helped many other young people who were following them. More and more people started sharing their modest styles on social media and it became a buzz that changed the view of modest fashion”.
Asadullah is just one of many fashion-forward hijab-clad Muslim women showcasing their personal style on the popular photo-sharing social media site. These Instagrammers fill a gap that mainstream media has still to cover: inspiration and advice for women who want to maintain religious standards of modesty without sacrificing personal style. Fashion vlogger, designer and co-owner of Vela Scarves Marwa Atik is another example of Muslim women taking charge of their religious and fashion identity. Since the fashion industry hasn't been marketed much towards Muslim women, Atik took it upon herself to edit existing scarfs and create designs for her friends from her garage, until the weight and volume of her work became too much, and her sister decided to step in.
Vela Scarves is a scarf fashion line based out of California, U.S.A., started up by Atik in 2009 and officially launched in 2010 with partner and sister Tasneem Atik Sabri. This brand focuses on hijab styles for Muslim women, with "empowerment, modern flair, and individual style" in mind. Social media has made it possible for users around the globe to contribute to the fashion industry, and is now serving as a platform to introduce Islamic fashion to the world. Vela has a 104,000 following on Instagram, and a 7,500 following on Youtube, allowing the company a large platform for advertising and selling their scarves local and worldwide.
Fashion hijab appendages such as Islamic fashion is also greatly increased its sales through social networking. Social media is acting as a catalyst in making the fashion industry more accepting to couture that isn't Western-centric. In September 2015, Swedish brand H&M was the first of international fashion retailers to feature a Muslim model wearing a hijab in a video designed to encourage consumers to recycle their clothes.
Social media's ability to provide a platform to anybody and everybody can contribute to the global discussions has led to an industry, that mainly focused and represented a very specific lifestyle, to adapt its marketing strategy to accommodate the increasing of diverse cultures.
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