Remona Aly
Sunday 21 October 2018 de Young Museum

The Rise of the Modest Fashion Stylist

The oft-quoted Islamic saying “God is beautiful and loves beauty” has become a mantra in the fast-growing Muslim fashion world. As designer visions diversify and retail choices expand, consumers are increasingly turning to stylists for guidance on modish modesty.

A Google search of modest styling produces nearly thirty million results. You’ll find YouTube videos on how to style a multi-pieced modest outfit; how to laser-cut an abaya to transform a conservative gown into a stylish statement; experimental urban Mipsterz (Muslim hipsters) skateboarding to hip-hop; beauticians offering hijab-styling and makeup packages for elegant Muslim brides—the spectrum is very broad, with an aesthetic range that spans the world and crosses generations.

As dressing modestly has increasingly come to be associated with dressing fashionably, a growing need has emerged for professional styling services with specialist know-how. Inevitably, this need has created opportunities for Muslims in the fashion industry, who can offer insight, authenticity, and life-faith experience. As the demand for modest wear increases, including women who don’t necessarily identify in terms of faith, non-Muslim stylists are also responding by up-skilling to meet consumer need.

Although often associated with online influencers, modest Muslim styling began in the era of print lifestyle magazines. In 2003, British Bengali Shapla Halim became a fashion stylist for the UK’s first Muslim lifestyle magazine, emel. Like nothing else on the market, emel—with its dedicated fashion pageswas glossy, confident, and experimental, reflecting the diverse tastes, cultural heritage, and contours of its British Muslim audience by featuring such trends as Middle Eastern kaftans, layered dresses over jeans, and Indo-Pakistani–inspired designs.

“Having fashion pages in a Muslim magazine, let alone using a stylist, was revolutionary back then,” reflects Shapla. “I’d previously worked for Asian Woman and Asian Bride magazines, where the premise was to be provocative, alluring, and sexy. It didn’t sit well with me as a Muslim. But at emel, I could be free to experiment. I modelled the clothes myself in the first issue. I was finding myself as a stylist and as a Muslim, it was a natural progression and harmony.” The practically uncharted ground in modest fashion gave Halim free rein. There were of course certain boundaries—and some criticism—but this only formed part of the wider, more complex story. “I never wanted to limit the definition of fashion for Muslims,” says Halima. ”I wanted to inspire people to be creative, expressive, stylish. For me, fashion is a story that keeps changing.”

The story has remained fluid, dynamic, and unpredictable. Today, the existence of social media allows influencers to style thousands of women all over the world, women they’d never meet whose wardrobes are shaped by their blogs and the lenses of their mobile phones. Muslim modest fashion influencers have been early adopters at every phase of digital fashion mediation, from pioneering bloggers like British Lebanese Jana Kossaibati, who launched Hijab Style in 2007, to Dina Torkia, the British Egyptian YouTuber who has attracted millions of hits for her styling tutorials and lifestyle pages.

“Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest—these are the places where women can be empowered,” says Ghizlan Guenez, the Algerian-born founder and CEO of The Modist, a luxury e-commerce modest fashion venture. “Social media has played a significant role in bringing women together globally—they are congregating into a fashion community online who exchange style ideas—so a Malaysian fashionista can be inspired by a trendy student in London, or a New Yorker might be influenced by fashionable women in Dubai. They’re making sartorial choices wherever they are and those choices are informed by an online community of stylish women who want to combine their faith values with fashion.”

The diversity of modest fashion means that stylists must be able to respond to myriad tastes and religious interpretations—a no-brainer for San Francisco personal stylist Saba Ali. With a steady rise in Muslim—and non-Muslim—modest dressers seeking her services, her clients have to be confident, “that I’m not going to clone them into looking like me. My job is to take who they are and make it better—edit their look and make it more current.” The stylist’s role goes beyond simply putting together an outfit. “You become a confidante, shrink, life coach,” says Ali. “When you’re standing in someone’s closet, you learn all kinds of things about their lives, from insecurities to relationships to childhood secrets. Styling work is gratifying in that sense, because it means I get to help people be better versions of themselves.” Many of Ali’s clients had been disappointed by stylists in mainstream stores who conflated their modest needs with “overly conservative, boring, muted, grandma-like clothes.” She puts this down to lack of personal experience: “You have to really know the inner and outer workings of a modest woman’s lifestyle to be able to help them.”

While Ali can draw on the insights of her own immersion in Muslim cultures, others are learning on the job. In the flagship London store of a major British retailer, one of the store’s personal shoppers, , has built up a loyal clientele of Muslim modest dressers. Neither Muslim nor a modest dresser herself, Helen is swiftly gaining personal recommendations for her open approach and cultural sensitivity. Now literate in many different modest fashion sensibilities, Helen has become the go-to stylist for cool cover-up options—whether it’s shells to wear under low-cut floral jumpsuits, kimono dresses over jeans, or feminist Females of the Future T-shirts with oversized jackets. One of her loyal clients, a 32-year-old teacher, relates: “I go to see Helen pretty often, sometimes with up to three other friends at the same time—some of us wear headscarves, some don’t. We can perform our prayers behind the outfit rails that Helen has put together for us. She even suggests which of my hijabs could match with an outfit. It’s a safe space, and I trust Helen—she understands each of our needs.”

If some were concerned that the mainstream interest in catering to Muslim modest fashion consumers might threaten the market share of pioneers in the modest fashion niche market, will the same be true for modest fashion stylists? Having benefited myself from the modest know-how of non-Muslim stylists in British stores, I remain optimistic that the transition of modest fashion into the mainstream may offer benefits in style, business, and creativity for all concerned.

This article is featured in a special exhibition catalogue, ‘Contemporary Muslim Fashions’ and is produced by De Young Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. To order a copy click here