Of course, Muslim women have been interested in fashion for years, though leading designers and international brands have only very recently recognised the significance of this crucial consumer group. Indeed, it’s been said that the fashion industry would likely have already “collapsed without their patronage.” And today, that’s all the more accurate. According to the 2015-2016 State of the Global Islamic Economy Report, Muslim consumers spend an estimated $230bn on clothing, estimated to reach $327bn by 2019. That’s more than the current clothing markets of the UK ($107bn), Germany ($99bn) and India ($96bn) combined. Reina Lewis, Professor of Cultural Studies at London College of Fashion UAL and author of Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures recently said: “For years the mainstream fashion industry [has been] missing a trick.” But it's likely it won't for much longer. Last week it was announced that Marks & Spencer would be stocking burkinis in their UK stores, Dolce & Gabbana have unveiled an abaya collection and Uniqlo recently released a range of hijabs and “modest wear” designed by British-Japanese designer Hana Tajima. DKNY, Oscar de la Renta, Tommy Hilfiger and Mango have also designed one-off collections around Ramadan.
‘Muslim Fashion’ is reportedly one of the industry’s fastest growing sectors, estimated to be worth more than £200 billion by 2020. And with 29% of the global population projected to be Muslim by 2030, the importance of appealing to this demographic is clear. ‘Muslim fashion’ is about far more than just wearing (or not wearing) a hijab, but about facilitating a ‘modest’ way of dressing. One that isn’t always easy to access in Western stores. “Mainstream fashion tends to be more geared towards something that is a very sexualised version of what beauty is,” explained Uniqlo’s modest wear designer, Hana Tajima. As a result of demand and not much supply, a growing number of Muslim designers have been starting their own, often massively popular labels and portals such as Modanisa, a Net-a-Porter type website for women who want to dress modestly. Shelina Janmohamed, co-founder of Ogilvy-Noor, the world’s first bespoke Islamic Branding agency explains: “There’s a growing Muslim middle class who love brands and love consumption. They’re looking for brands to reach out to them, and if they don’t, they’re 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 (rather than a non-Muslim designer, designing for a Muslim audience) and Dolce & Gabbana is equally pioneering in that it’s the first time a global luxury brand has created a new product specifically for Muslim consumers, even promoting it as part of their mainstream media presence with abayas featuring heavily on their Instagram account alongside the usual mix of backstage shots and catwalk collections. Shelina explains that it’s this shift to understanding that Muslim women want to be included in brand communications that’s particularly groundbreaking, citing H&M’s use of veiled model Mariah Idrissi in one of their 2015 campaigns. But, as Mariah herself tells us, it’s the marketing side that still needs improvement. “When the advert first came out everyone said: “OMG you’re the first Muslim model in hijab!’ And I was like: ‘really?’ It’s a bit shocking that it’s never happened until 2015.”
Indeed, the importance of 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,” explains Nafisa Bakkar, co-founder of amaliah.co.uk, a curated platform for Muslim fashionistas. It’s not abnormal that fashion brands are targeting different demographics. As Susan Sabet, founder and editor of Pashion Magazine, 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.” And it’s only natural that brands go where the money is. And, with global trends – fashion and otherwise – ever quicker, these days, to spread, fashion is in itself becoming more of a melting pot, taking inspiration from different sources and cultures – the Middle East included – whether consciously or not. Society, and the fashion industry, has played a role in hypersexualising women and establishing revealing clothing on size zero, mainly white models, as the standard. Whatever the motivation, the industry is at least trying to be more inclusive, and that can only be a good thing.