Are brands exploiting the modest fashion trend?

The rise of modest fashion has arguably changed the representation of Muslims in Western popular culture, but the convergence of ideology and corporatisation raises important questions for the industry

Halima Aden has just become the first model to wear a hijab and burkini for a photoshoot in US-based magazine Sports Illustrated Swimsuit.

The spread, in one of America’s largest sports magazines that has an estimated two million subscribers, was among one of the most high profile for the Somali-American model. As a result, it generated a positive response from various figures, with many marking it as a step forward for the representation of Muslims in the West.

Fashion can only do a certain amount, but one of the things that fashion and its impact on public discussion can do is be a conduit for much wider discussion

As Ms Aden said in an Instagram post: “Being in Sports Illustrated is so much bigger than me. It’s sending a message to my community and the world that women of all different backgrounds, looks, upbringings can stand together and be celebrated. This is a moment, that’s for sure.”

Ms Aden’s spread is one of the latest representations of hijabi models in ad campaigns, runways and photoshoots, and comes amid a wider moment currently occurring in the Western fashion industry, the so-called modest fashion revolution.

Questions arise as modest fashion trend gains momentum 

From high end to high street, the past few years has seen retailers such as Macy’s, Gap, Dolce & Gabbana and Nike adding modest clothing – garments that cover more of the body – to their lines. The fashion, the coverage and the financial interest, including a recent investment by Goldman Sachs into Turkey-based online retailer Modanisa, has led to a boom in the industry.

Yet as it’s grown, so have the discussions around representation, inclusion and the corporatisation of elements of the Muslim identity.

Reina Lewis, professor of culture at the London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London, and author of Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures, has been researching modest fashion since the mid-2000s. She has long predicted that fashion would be the latest industry to combine ideology and commerciality.

“It is a new phase of commodification of the components of identity, and we have seen this intersect between religious, ethnic and racial identities before, for example with kosher food,” she says. “Muslim-led fashion brands have also contributed to this growth because they helped build a niche market for cross-faith modest fashion which demonstrated to the global fashion brand that this was a viable market.

“In addition, there are the Islamic branding and marketing professionals who have been building specialisms, which have effectively constructed Muslims as a global consumer segment. Initially that activity was focused on food, for example halal certification food, and then finance, such as Sharia-compliant mortgages. Fashion was always going to be the third in the sequence after food and finance.”

Is an opportunistic fashion scene corporatising modest fashion?

US-based journalist Shamira Ibrahim, who writes on culture, politics and identity for publications including The Washington Post, The Atlantic and VICE, says that while there has been some progress in terms of representation and inclusion, brands can sometimes seem to be opportunistic.

Brands are trying to assign some moral value to what they are putting out. And sometimes that is a little specious because they are trying to assert some sort of value to the product ‚while the people they are trying to represent are dealing with real things day-to-day and there’s not a lot of specific effort, socially, to stand with that,” says Ms Ibrahim.

Professor Lewis says despite some benefits amid a corporatisation of components of identity, disadvantages are also arising.

“I do feel that people in the majority culture, which in the UK could be Christian, secularish and white, or Muslim in Saudi, find it very hard to understand how much people from minority cultures may feel excluded if they are disenfranchised from the dominant cultural forms,” she says.

“So that could mean black people never seeing themselves on TV or not being able to go shopping because consumer cultures like fashion and shopping are predominant cultural forms now. Being able to participate in that is another form of inclusion, but it comes at a price because it’s about spending money and not everyone has this money to spend. It means that activities people might have experienced as being outside the market now become part of the market. There are parallels between the corporatisation of Gay Pride and the shift from community to corporate.”

Halima Aden signing an issue of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, after becoming the first model to wear a hijab and a burkini in the US magazine

Fashion brands should be pioneering inclusivity

As the modest fashion trend continues to grow and models such as Ms Aden and Muslim sisters Bella and Gigi Hadid adorn ad campaigns and catwalks, discussions around inclusivity and representation of Muslim women are likely to continue filling column inches.

It’s something Professor Lewis thinks is encouraging. “In a way, more inclusivity widens the frame for how Muslims are ‘seen, understood, perceived’. Fashion can only do a certain amount, but one of the things that fashion and its impact on public discussion can do is be a conduit for much wider discussion,” she says.

For Ms Ibrahim, meanwhile, a step forward in the discussion would see brands play a bigger role in inclusivity in a socio-economic context.

She concludes: “When it comes to fashion, we have to realise that the same hijab or burkini that Halima Aden is being praised for is still a brave choice for women in a public space because of the social culture we are dealing with today.

“As opposed to just tapping a brand to some sort of positive progress and leaving it at that, fashion brands meshing themselves with Muslim inclusiveness could give hijabi women space to actually speak towards those things or put out a press statement which says we don’t stand with this when something happens towards the community. These are some of the things that we really have to work on.”