High style, High growth: The booming industry of modest fashion

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Modest fashion is no longer just having a moment—it has proven its staying power and become a wardrobe staple season after season. According to the State of the Global Islamic Economy 2020/21 Report, the industry currently stands at a global value of US$277 billion, with the figure expected to rise to US$311 billion by 2024.

That growth can be attributed to the 1.8 billion Muslims living today, who will account for 31 percent of the world’s population by 2050. Two-thirds of them are aged below 30 years old, making them the youngest consumer segment. The numbers indicate a wealth of still untapped potential, with commercial opportunities both for and beyond members of the Islam faith.

Where in the past modest fashion was linked to a strict code of clothing, it has now been reclaimed by a burgeoning movement of women who are proud of their religion and are reframing the narrative that conservative is not mutually exclusive from chic. The ensemble has since expanded from the hijab and abaya to include almost every modern attire that is loose-fitting and less revealing. The philosophy is experiencing increasing practice as more ladies find empowerment in modesty and dressing for themselves instead of the male gaze.

This reality is not lost on retailers scrambling for their own slice of the pie. Fast fashions brands such as Uniqlo and Mango regularly launch Aidilfitri collections, as do the higher-end Dolce & Gabbana and DKNY. Major marketplaces Asos and Net-a-Porter publish annual curations of modestwear. Meanwhile, Adidas and Nike have made sports hijabs and full coverage swimsuits a common sight on their store shelves.

Representation has also benefitted. 2017 saw Vogue feature a hijab-clad woman on their magazine cover for the first time, whereas H&M charted similar history by putting one in an advertising campaign. On the catwalk, modest models are enjoying high demand, with Mariah Idrissi, Rawdah Mohamed, Aminah Ali, Billy Marsal, Feriel Moulai, and Ikram Abdi Omar among those leading the charge.

But navigating the landscape takes more than simply sticking a logo on a halal item of clothing and calling it a day. In 2019, Banana Republic courted controversy when it promoted its new line of hijabs by having them modelled by a woman in a short-sleeved shirt and slit dress. Extensive research is not enough; cultural sensitivity must come into the picture at the decision-making level.

Some has responded to this challenge by working with established modest designers. Uniqlo’s partnership with Hana Tajima has been one of exemplary success. What began in 2015 as a single collection has spawned best-selling spring/summer, fall/winter, and Ramadan lines every year since. It was a win not only for boosting the mass appeal and accessibility of modest fashion, but a win as well for the Japanese company with the trust that products would fit the needs of their target audiences.

Indeed, Western labels still have a lot of catching up to do. Naturally, their counterparts in primarily Muslim societies have a leg up over the competition in serving the market. Malaysia has no shortage of homegrown brands, yet there remains room for further proliferation. The country is both an artery and hub of Islamic trade, with international buyers eager to widen their shopping radar and who are prone to choosing Muslim-owned businesses.

With so many things going its way, the time is always ripe to venture into modest fashion. Ignoring it would mean missing out on a chunk of US$311 billion and the customers of the future.