Under a lavish tented ceiling on a man-made island in Dubai, over a hundred well-dressed women arrive, some stepping out of Bentleys and Maseratis, for suhoor — a pre-dawn meal during this past holy month of Ramadan — hosted by one of the city’s most prominent hotels. Filing into the room in a glamorous procession, the ladies don festive ensembles of feathered tunics with billowing sleeves, high necklines adorned with jewels, and loose, goddess-like silhouettes. While delightfully varied from one guest to the next, each outfit shares a common thread: modesty.
It's an aesthetic that's finally getting recognition on runways from New York to Tbilisi. Although it certainly isn’t new — modest fashion has a rich and enduring legacy — it is now being embraced by international designers who are becoming more attuned to the needs and interests of their clientele.
Despite the misconception that modest dressing is a singular, oppressive, and misogynist Islamic principle, it is actually an aesthetic that has spanned centuries, continents and cultures of sartorial history. Long before Elizabeth Taylor’s ornate headdresses and the signature Chanel suits of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, there were voluminous and decorated kaftans worn across the Middle East and North Africa — a garment which has maintained its relevance and wearability since at least the 16th century. Muslim women who have adopted more conservative attire do so as an expression of faith based on their own interpretation of religious guidelines, something that the global fashion industry is just beginning to understand and respect.
“It’s not to say that there isn’t a woman that might be being forced to cover, but there’s also a woman who is choosing to cover,” explains Algerian-born Ghizlan Guenez, who founded the e-commerce platform The Modist in 2017 as a luxury style destination dedicated to modest wardrobes. “The issue is that you then start stereotyping a whole religion and a whole population of women [based on one extreme circumstance]. What we try and do at The Modist, and not just through fashion but through the stories we tell, is to break down as much these stereotypes as we can.”
What’s more, the Middle East has one of the world’s youngest and wealthiest populations (they spent £250 billion on luxury fashion in 2016 alone) — which means the buying power and preferences of this demographic will only further shape and motivate the industry. “The fact that modesty is [no longer] overlooked by the big international brands [means] there’s more care in the way that it’s being presented,” says Vogue Arabia’s editor in chief, Manuel Arnaut. “Now, big brands are presenting designs that are more elevated and feel more luxurious.”
Fall/winter 2017 was a landmark fashion month defined by fervent political expression in the form of slogan t-shirts, and one that saw the long-overdue presence of a model of colour in every single NYFW show. It was also a season that welcomed, for the first time, covered models like Halima Aden, who made her catwalk debut for Yeezy Season 5 (followed by MaxMara and Alberta Ferretti). From the moment Aden stepped out, carrying the complex history of a Muslim, refugee-born Somali American, she’s widened the industry's understanding of inclusivity. With each subsequent trailblazing moment, among them a historic burkini-clad shoot for Sports Illustrated, Aden has proved that modesty is not about religion. It’s about freedom of expression.
“It is amazing to see the impact of the modest movement across the globe,” says Arnaut. Vogue Arabia’s April 2019 cover featuring Aden alongside two other black hijabi models gained universal recognition and has been one of the magazine’s most successful issues in terms of international buzz. The cover was punctuated with the words “My Choice,” to which Arnaut explains: “Your body, your rules.”
Just days prior to Aden’s 2017 Yeezy walk, popular Malaysian singer Yuna Zarai, a protégé of Pharrell whose style trademark is a modern take on covering up, turned heads at Mara Hoffman’s fall show. Walking the runway as part of a presentation-meets-performance that also included the national co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington, Zarai wore a loose-fitting monochrome ensemble and bespoke turban. This kind of visibility encourages women to celebrate their personal choices.
“The perception of modesty before was so demure and considered [to be] something you can’t have fun with,” says Dima Ayad, a Dubai-based designer and founder of her eponymous size-inclusive clothing label. “And then suddenly that misconception is gone and now people have the level of confidence to wear more daring pieces that are also modest.”
That confidence is manifesting itself in the explosive rise of social media stars like Dina Torkia and Leah Vernon, who wear their modesty with pride and have fostered a dynamic online community of like-minded followers. Because of a lack of diversity in both traditional media and retail, these influencers turned to social media to engage with other underrepresented women. Ten years ago, at a time when low-rise jeans and crop tops were all the rage, Torkia was one of the first in the UK to start blogging and sharing modest styling tips, garnering millions of YouTube views and a devoted fanbase. Vernon is a plus-size model and writer whose body-positive activism has amassed legions of fans across social media. She was even honoured as part of the de Young Museum’s Contemporary Muslim Fashions exhibit in San Francisco for her eclectic style.
What’s most exciting about the changing perceptions surrounding modesty and conservative attire is that it’s in part a result of a female-driven movement, with women like Torkia and Vernon at its helm. Dubai has become a hub for pioneers in the space. The Dubai Design District (or D3), for example, is a development of ateliers, offices, and showrooms that opened in 2015. It serves as a home for the creative thinkers, artists, and startups helping to redefine style in the region and beyond.
Also found in D3, just a few floors below Dior and directly across from Burberry, are the offices of Guenez’s The Modist, a movement which serves a global conservative audience, from a faith-oriented luxury shopper in Jeddah to a trend-conscious businesswoman in Dallas. From the tiered ruffles of a Jenny Packham gown to the striking geometry of a JW Anderson tunic shirt, the options are dazzling and abundant. Plus, each item is carefully selected to honour The Modist’s core mission of uniting women everywhere — regardless of age, belief, or ethnicity — based on their shared interest in dressing beautifully. It is yet another way for this online community of women to connect and expand.
“I wanted to reach as many women as I could,” Guenez says of opting for an entirely digital approach to retail.
So far, The Modist has enjoyed not-so-modest success, with impressive year-over-year sales growth — and a promising investment from mega e-tailer Farfetch. With £12 million in Series A funding and the support of Italian business magnate Nicola Bulgari, The Modist represents the beginning of a new and auspicious era of modesty, with innovators like Guenez leading the way.
“We are very authentic and it comes through because we’re connecting with a customer that’s underserved or has been underserved,” Guenez says. ”So it’s even more important to have that authenticity. [It] shows that you truly care for this market and that you’re listening, learning, and implementing.”