How Fashion Brands Are (Finally) Catering More To Muslim Consumers

Photo: Courtesy of Dolce & Gabanna.
You'd think that Muslim women somehow just started focusing on their sartorial choices, considering leading designers and international brands have only very recently recognized the significance of this crucial consumer group. How puzzling, then, that the fashion industry would likely “collapse without their patronage,” as Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell wrote in The Atlantic earlier this year.

That patronage equates to a substantial amount of spending: According to the 2015-2016 State of the Global Islamic Economy Report, Muslim consumers spend an estimated $230 billion on clothing, a figure that's estimated to reach $327 billion by 2019. That’s more than the current clothing markets of the U.K. ($107 billion), Germany ($99 billion) and India ($96 billion) combined.

“For years, the mainstream fashion industry [has been] missing a trick," Reina Lewis, professor of cultural studies at London College of Fashion UAL and author of Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures, told Vice's Broadly.

But change is, finally, afoot in terms of the industry being mindful of Muslim customers. As of last week, British retailer Marks & Spencer will stock burkinis (that's a controversial move, though); Dolce & Gabbana has unveiled an abaya collection, and Uniqlo recently released a range of hijabs and more modest clothing designed by British-Japanese designer Hana Tajima. DKNY, Oscar de la Renta, Tommy Hilfiger, and Mango have also designed one-off collections around Ramadan.
Photo: Courtesy of Marks & Spencer.

Muslim fashion is apparently one of the industry’s fastest growing sectors, estimated to be worth more than $177 billion by 2020. With 29% of the global population projected to be Muslim by 2030, according to Al Jazeera, the importance of appealing to this demographic is clear.

And the fashion aesthetic is about far more than just wearing (or not wearing) a hijab, but about facilitating a modest way of dressing, and that isn't always easy to access in Western stores. “Mainstream fashion tends to be more geared towards something that is a very sexualized version of what beauty is," Uniqlo’s modest clothing designer, Hana Tajima, told Dazed.

As a result of demand without much supply, a growing number of Muslim designers have been starting their own labels and portals, such as Modanisa, a Net-a-Porter type website for women who want to dress modestly. These endeavors are often quite successful.

“There’s a growing Muslim middle class who love brands and love consumption," Shelina Janmohamed, cofounder of Ogilvy-Noor, the world’s first Islamic Branding agency, told Refinery29. "They’re looking for brands to reach out to them, and [the ones that don't] are going to be left behind by the ones that do.”

So it appears they are trying. Uniqlo has been praised for collaborating with a Muslim designer, on its collection for a Muslim audience, and Dolce & Gabbana is the first global luxury brand to create a new product specifically for Muslim consumers. It has even promoted the items as part of its mainstream media presence (as it should!), with abayas featuring heavily on the brand's Instagram account alongside the usual mix of backstage shots and catwalk collections.

Shelina explains that there's been a shift toward understanding, at last, that Muslim women want to see themselves reflected in brand communications, citing H&M’s use of veiled model Mariah Idrissi in one of its 2015 campaigns.

But there's still room for improvement, particularly in terms of how Muslim fashion is marketed. “When the advertisement first came out everyone said, 'OMG, you’re the first Muslim model in hijab!’ And I was like, ‘Really?’" Idrissi told Refinery29. "It’s a bit shocking that it’s never happened until 2015.”
Photo: Courtesy of Uniqlo.
Indeed, the marketing is arguably just as important as the designs themselves in catering to a Muslim demographic. “You can compare it to catering to plus-size women. What is almost more important than separate ranges is actual representation of women who aren’t a size 6… Having a range is just one small part of it,” Nafisa Bakkar, cofounder of amaliah.co.uk, a curated platform for Muslim fashion-seekers, told Refinery29.

It’s not abnormal that fashion brands are targeting different demographics. As Susan Sabet, founder and editor of Pashion, an Arabic- and English-language fashion magazine, explains: “This is just a continuation of the data-driven marketing strategies implemented before in key luxury markets, such as Japan, India, and China. Now, it’s the Middle East’s turn.” It’s only logical that brands go where the money is.

With global trends spreading ever more quickly these days, fashion is becoming a melting pot of its own; influences come in from — and go back out to — the whole world. And this globalization of style is a crucial step in moving us away from the beauty standard that idealizes a hyper-sexualized, size 0, mainly white image in favor of a more inclusive one. Reaching out to Muslim consumers is a piece of that progress that — overdue as it may be — is a welcome change.

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