The 3 Designers/Boutique Owners that are Making Waves in the Modest Fashion Industry
Ayana Ife’s sporty metallic tunics, distressed cropped pants, and long-sleeved tulle and silk ball gowns hit the runway at Project Runway’s finale last year. These beautiful garments were also the first fully modest collection the show has seen, and earned Ife high marks from judges Heidi Klum and Jessica Alba. Though Ife’s collection didn’t win first place, her well-received conservative clothing proved that modest clothing can, most definitely, be fashionable.
Ayana is not the first modest designer to garner mainstream attention. I spoke with several modest designers and boutique owners who are bridging the gap between conservative and couture.
When the Swedish Police Force called for a practical hijab for its Muslim female employees, Iman Aldebe had an idea. She created a stretchy, yet protective covering for women to wear under their police hats.
Stockholm-based Aldebe, who actually studied law and journalism in college, used this opportunity to turn her design hobby into a brand. She now has three lines: “Happy Turbans”, which sells affordable headpieces, “Iman Aldebe Haute,” a couture collection of intricate luxury pieces, and “Religious Work Wear,” a line of headpieces inspired by the first police hijab she made.
Aldebe’s designs have a luxurious feel in textures like velvet and silk. The clothing incorporates hijabs in unique ways, attaching hoods to garments like a fitted maxi dress and a chic satin blouse. The turbans feature edgy, unconventional extras like gold tassels, a clear plastic visor, and giant flowers, and one is even comprised solely of metal chains.
Aldebe, who has an edgy and adventurous aesthetic, designs for the woman who “isn’t afraid to stand out but still could be comfy in her clothes.”Aldebe said her designs are more than just clothing; they advocate equal rights in the Muslim community. “When I lost my brother suddenly in December 2014 it was clear for me to use my voice through my fashion for those who can’t,” she said. “To help to make women more visible around our world, and use my brand to actually do that.”
In 2015, Aldebe designed an all-white collection for women, which rebelled against the all-white uniform traditionally sported by men in Gulf countries. To fully immerse herself into the process, Aldebe wore solely black and white while designing the collection. “My dream was to create a brand that Muslims and non Muslims could wear in their own way, so that it would reduce prejudice around the Muslim women,” Aldebe said. “And it worked.”
With its assortment of asymmetrical button-down blouses, maxi dresses with sheer panels, and colorful tulle tutus, Neïcy seems like an average stylish online boutique. But there is one difference—the models sport hijabs.
Toronto-based Mihami Shash got the idea to start Neïcy after discovering that her Muslim best friend, who wears a hijab, couldn’t find modest clothing to suit her trend-driven, yet conservative style.
Mihami is inspired by fast-fashion retailers, but said that many of their garments provide too much exposure for Muslim ideals. For example, a pretty chiffon blouse from Zara may appear demure, but the slightest bit of sheerness or a keyhole back is inappropriate. “We love Zara, we love H&M, we love all those brands, but they’re not completely working with us,” Mihami said.
To choose Neïcy’s clothing range, Mihami visits various trade shows like the Las Vegas-based MAGIC and Toronto’s International Modest Fashion Festival. This way, she can spot trends and designers within the mainstream and modest markets.
Mihami has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. She studied business of intercultural communication in France, and previously ran a successful fashion photography studio in Toronto that boasted clients like Winnie Harlow. “I think when you’re an entrepreneur, you don’t choose it, it’s there,” she said.
Though Mihami practices Islam every day of the week, she encourages people of all cultures and religions to wear her clothing. She admires when mainstream fashion figures and bloggers style Neïcy clothing in non-conservative ways. “I love it, it makes me really happy, because that means my clothes are stylish,” she said. “I’m in no place to define anybody’s style or modesty.”
Azura Shafawi’s previous occupation was a town planner, a job where she could design and sketch, but couldn’t pursue her true creative passion. “I love drawing, I love design,” she said. “But still, fashion is my passion.” Malaysia-based Shafawi left her former profession in 2008, and opened up her first clothing store in 2009, noting that at the time there were hardly any stores for women to find fashionable garments, let alone modest options.
Ummiriaz International, sold online and in the Malaysia store, now features six collections of modest looks to suit a wide range of styles. Denim layered dresses, monochromatic pantsuits, striped tunics and maxi skirts, silk blouses with puffy sleeves, and lace-trimmed headscarves are just some of the offerings.
She looks at textile trends each season and chooses her favorites to incorporate into her designs. Her current collection uses lace and silk charmeuse fabrics, along with embellishments like beads, sequins and rhinestones. “Before I come up with a certain concept of design or a certain color, I will study the behavior of my prospect fabric color,” she said.
Many pieces also combine fabrics for an eclectic look that you won’t see on traditional modest clothing. “There is a fashion element in the design,” Shafawi said, and cites DKNY and Prada as her favorite designers.
The Ummiriaz brand is not only a creative outlet for Shafawi, but also an expanding business. In fact, Shafawi is working on a collaboration that will be sold in Turkey. The details haven’t been publicly announced yet, but we can expect to see chic trench coats and monochromatic suits within the upcoming months.
Shafawi’s long-term goal is to create clothing that is well known and accepted in communities all around the world. “I’m hoping that everyone out there can wear my collections and appreciate that it’s from a Muslim designer,” she said. “I believe fashion itself can build togetherness among people.”
What Mihami, Iman and Azura are proving is that unconventional aesthetics are acceptable within the modest fashion industry, and that mainstream fashion and modest fashion have officially crossed paths. “It’s a misconception that modesty is always hijabis,” Mihami said. “I think modesty is a state of mind.”
These women have all incorporated a bit of avant-garde thinking to create unique, beautiful designs and businesses. For this industry to keep growing, the mainstream fashion industry needs to accept modest designers, and modest designers should appeal to a diverse audience. In other words, open-mindedness is the key to acceptance.
“For modest design there’s no such thing as saying no to others,” Shafawi said. “We are equal. Everyone is free to wear what they want.”
By Hayley Lind