Meet the young designers, bloggers and fashion brands who are trying to shake up Islamic fashion and modest clothing.
The controversy over the burkini raged in France this summer when mayors in seaside towns banned the full-body swimsuit often worn by Muslim women. Although it was eventually overturned by the country’s top administrative court, that wasn’t before the French Prime Minister had supported the mayors’ decision to stop ‘the affirmation of political Islam in the public space’.
There was trouble even before, in March, when one journalist in an interview with the minister for women argued that the hijab could be liberating for those who wear it. The politician replied: ‘There were also negros who were in favour of slavery.’
Some people do not consider her make-up or her veil Islamic enough; others don’t like the fact that she is veiled at all. Either way, Benouali does not care.
But while politicians and the media got themselves worked up, designers, bloggers and fashionistas were busy subverting the debate around modest fashion (or ‘Islamic fashion’ as French politicians put it).
It’s a growing trend. There was the first ever NYFW collection with hijabs this year and the inaugural Modest Istanbul Fashion week shone a light on modest fashion designers from all over the world. British retailer Marks & Spencer and Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana announced their new modest fashion lines.
So what do young creatives in the modest fashion space really think?
The fashionista and blogger Zohra Benouali (aka Zozoliina) celebrated the overturning of the burkini ban by posting a picture of herself in a bukini with a big smile on her face in Marseille, south of France. In another, she sticks out her tongue.
She admits that she struggles with people’s stereotypes of modest fashion. ‘I don’t buy modest fashion lines only, I buy from New Look or Zara like every other girl and I make my own style out of it.’ She often gets criticised on both sides.
Some people do not consider her make-up or her veil Islamic enough; others don’t like the fact that she is veiled at all. Either way, Benouali does not care. For her new job, she went into the interview without her veil ‘to avoid any issue with my employer’. When she got the job, she started wearing her hijab or turban again.
For her, modest fashion encompasses such a variety of clothes that you cannot put a label on it. ‘That is what is great about it, you can reinvent the codes as you like to make it go with your own style.’ It doesn’t even have to be a religious. ‘Modest fashion is more about how you see yourself and how modest you want to appear in the front of other people,’ she explains. ‘For Muslims it is more important but some non-Muslim girls also like this kind of style.’
His inspiration came from young Somalian fashionistas on the streets of London and the caftans his grandmother used to make in Morocco.
Abayas have always been a passion for Abdelhafid, a 25-year-old designer. Two years ago, he started his own line of these cloak-like robes that women wear in the Gulf countries on top of their clothes. He mes from a small country suburb but now sells his clothes in le Marais in Paris. It’s a smart neighbourhood which is also known as a gay area. ‘I did not have the financial means to study fashion so I started at the bottom as a salesman and then took part in the preparations of fashion shows.’
He transformed the usually black and austere abaya into fashionable long draping robes. His inspiration came from young Somalian fashionistas on the streets of London and the caftans his grandmother used to make in Morocco. The abaya was designed to cover clothes and women’s bodies according to Islamic rules, but Hafid has transformed it into a whole new garment. ‘What I like about the abaya, is that it follows the movement of the body, it is both classy and sexy’.
He does not see himself as a ‘modest fashion designer’ but has clients from all backgrounds, from Paris to Dubai. His marketing strategy is mostly based on Instagram and social media. He finds linking modest fashion with religion a problem in France. ‘You have some bloggers who pretend they speak for everyone but they speak a lot about religion in their blogs so therefore it makes it more an example of communitarianism than openness,’ he argues. He prefers to follow English bloggers who are more professional and try to create a new style with their clothes.
For her, the more global and reachable modest fashion gets, the more it’ll ease the debate in France about the veil.
Anlya, who is a student in marketing and consulting but also works as a model and blogger for modest fashion brands, feels the same way. Like Zohra, she likes to buy clothes from the high street and adapt them to her style. ‘I think if you want to be a modest or Islamic fashion brand and label yourself, you must also go with the ethics of your belief.’
This of course can be inspiring but, for her, the more global and reachable modest fashion gets, the more it’ll ease the debate in France about the veil. ‘I am half French and half from the Comoros Islands. It is a constant challenge to feel at ease in France and I think fashion is a way to show you embrace different cultures.’
But for others modest fashion can be really tricky, especially giving the current context. ‘It is quite dangerous to label yourself as an Islamic fashion designer only,’ Cecilia El Ali tells me in her workshop also located in le Marais in Paris. ‘The modest fashion business is really a flourishing one but at the same time, you can lose clients who will see the clothes as an adhesion to a religion.’ This French and Lebanese 28-year-old woman likes to play with her long and curly blond hair to show off her product: a turban.
I am also proud of having non-Muslims as customers.
With her brand Païna Pulz, Cecilia has chosen, like Hafid, to take advantage of the possibilities one product could offer. Bamboo, jersey, cotton, wool, velvet, silk turbans are piled in her small office where she creates new styles daily. When she demonstrates how to wear them, either with your hair loose or tied up with a clip, she shows they can worn by every women. ‘I am proud that women who can not wear the hijab at work in France can substitute it with a turban which is more accepted and I am also proud of having non-Muslims as customers,’ she says.
When she launched her line, she was criticised: ‘Some women would tell me it did not fit the Islamic requirements for the veil because it did not cover their neck, others from extreme right parties would just label it as something “orientalistic” and a way to cover the head of the women so therefore “Islamic”,’ she says smiling.
She knows that when it comes to modest fashion, you can’t please everyone. So she stays true to her principles.
‘I am glad Muslim women feel more comfortable in France wearing the turban but I have not created the brand for this use only, they are headgears like beanies or hat.’
Similarly Fatima N’Dongo, a French and Senegalese designer did not emphasise her Muslim roots when she created her turban line. Fatima was inspired from women in Brazil who wore turbans to affirm their African roots. Like Cecilia, her clients are from various backgrounds. ‘It works as well with trendy hipsters as with more conservative people.’
Modest fashion in France is far broader and more complicated than the politicians think.
Modest fashion in France is far broader and more complicated than the politicians think. Distancing modest fashion from religion is a way to make more people interested. It’s a way to encourage others to accept that it is a woman’s choice to cover herself or to experiment with her wardrobe to create new styles. For Mohamed and Ahmed, two French men of Egyptian backgrounds, modest fashion can be a way to reconcile people with Muslims in France.
‘The more they will see how mainstream modest fashion can be, the more it will ease the relationship people have with veiled women,’ Ahmed said.
Both Muslims, the two men were inspired by the difficulty their wives experienced to find clothes they liked and how they had to buy many pieces just to complete an outfit. They decided to create Ana, a brand which means ‘I am’ in Arabic but is also a common girl name in France: there isn’t a cultural or language barrier. ‘Of course our inspiration came from Muslim women like the hijabistas in England or in the United states who redefined fashion in their own way. But our idea was more to create a concept out of it rather than a category of clothes for a category of people only.’
By creating Ana, sourcing clothes in Turkey, Middle East and Egypt, Mohamed and Ahmed are doing what mainstream brands like Mango and H&M used to do in some of their collections without putting the ‘modest’ label on it. These are modest fashion clothes – long shirts and dresses but with minimalistic patterns – which are appealing to modest girls as much as hipsters or curvy women.
‘I think that with all the biased debates and the controversies about Islam in France,’ Ahmed explains, ‘the clothes could be a real way to break the barriers and look at those women as normal people.’ The priority was to make it a brand that could exist in France for every fashion-conscious woman and a brand that was not attached to any religion.
‘The story behind the brand is really about how you see modesty and your body. Women who like miniskirts or crop tops are free to buy in all the shops here, why would women who prefer long shirts or leggings or a long dress not have the same range of choices?’ Mohamed said.
He remembers that when they shot the pictures of the line with models, people would look at them, smiling. They would look more curious than disgusted. ‘I think modest fashion is like every other trends in fashion, you can mix cultures with it, you can create whatever you like from it.’