The (high fashion) rise of modesty

Of fashion’s more recent unlikely trends – bicycle shorts, say, or chunky “dad” sneakers – one of the strangest might well be the prairie dress.

A little 1980s Laura Ashley by way of 1890s Laura Ingalls Wilder, the style, worn by fashion influencers and celebrities alike has been put back on the radar by New York fashion designer Batsheva Hay.

Hay, who married Orthodox Jewish fashion photographer Alexei Hay in 2012, started out by making her own modest clothes and has since shown at New York Fashion Week (with actress Christina Ricci walking for the brand in February). In 2018, she was a finalist for the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)/Vogue Fashion Fund award.

Her signature aesthetic of long-hemmed, high-necked, frilled smock dresses fit into what British Vogue last year deemed the global billion-dollar "modest fashion" industry.

While modest dress is predominantly associated with Muslim and Orthodox Jewish communities (and dates back to the 8th century Islamic Empire) anybody paying attention to the runway in the past few years will have noticed a shift toward covering up. It seems that whatever their religious or cultural background, it's a look that lot of women really want to wear.

According to statistics released this month, there has been a 15 per cent increase in demand for modest fashion outside the United Arab Emirates since 2018. Meanwhile there was a 50 per cent increase year-on-year on long-sleeve blouses with a high neckline, and the midi-length hem in skirts and dresses makes up 53 per cent of total skirt styles,  retail analytical company EDITED has found.

The trend has been bubbling away for some time. The New York Times dubbed it “radical dowdiness” in 2017, but it’s all become rather high-end.

There’s been the pussybow blouses at Gucci, floor sweeping dresses at Valentino and buttoned-up shirting at Christian Dior. A calf-length silk skirt from Sydney designer Lee Mathews has been spotted on many a local fashion editor and Kym Ellery’s signature swathes of fabric and swooshing hemlines at her now Paris-based label Ellery have long fitted the modest aesthetic.

Modanisa, a modest fashion e-commerce platform, has launched modest fashion weeks around the world, including in Dubai and London. Then there are the modest fashion influencers, such as Dina Tokio, who has 1.3 million followers on Instagram.

Luxury online retailer Net-a-Porter now has a modest category on its website and Nike has released a high performance hijab range. Somali-American model Halima Aden, who has walked for the likes of Italian fashion label Max Mara and was the first hijab-wearing supermodel to feature on the cover of British Vogue, will launch her own line of headscarves at Istanbul Modest Fashion Week this month.

Sydneysider Tarik Houchar launched Hijab House in 2011 following a dismal shopping trip with his sister after she decided to wear the hijab (the only person in his family to choose to do so).

“The market was dominated by archaic designs that didn’t reflect her personal taste and her identity as a young Muslim living in the West,” says Houchar, whose brand now has a store in the Sydney suburb of Greenacre as well as an online presence. He's planning further expansion.

Houchar says it is an exciting time to be working in the modest fashion industry. “The modest fashion industry is not only growing faster than any other fashion segment, it’s also constantly evolving and changing, making room for new products and ideas on a daily basis."

However, he wants Australian fashion bodies to better recognise modest fashion brands, rather than just applauding other brands for offering the occasional modest style.

“It’s great that mainstream brands are capitalising on modesty and the hijab industry, [but] I find it quite problematic to give them full credit for it,” he says.

“Modest fashion entrepreneurs have been paving the way in the industry for years. And I really want to see modest brands be given the same respect and platform [as] mainstream brands. Unfortunately, institutionally, we’re still quite far away from that point.”

Larissa Marriner, who converted to Islam to marry her husband Neish last year, found it relatively easy to find a modest wedding dress for her ceremony, settling on an ankle length, long-sleeve lace one from Australian label Macgraw. “I read after I chose the dress that the designers are two sisters from Sydney – so I appreciated that local connection,” says Marriner, an Australian who lives in Sydney. She adds that she hasn’t had to overly adapt her wardrobe since converting to Islam.

There’s also a danger of lumping entire communities across the globe into one segment in the excitement for modest fashion, as influential fashion industry website The Business of Fashion noted recently. “By aggressively attempting to reach one particular segment of the Muslim market, brands may inadvertently lose others who don’t personally identify with modesty wear advertising or the style of certain targeted products,” wrote Nathaniel Plummer.

Building a global brand and appealing to women of all backgrounds is something New Zealand fashion designer Maggie Hewitt of Maggie Marilyn has form in. Along with Ellery and Lee Mathews, Maggie Marilyn is stocked on The Modist, a modest fashion website started by Algerian financier Ghizlan Guenez in 2017.

The website stocks a mix of cult, cool and super luxe brands such as Emilia Wickstead (popular with the Duchesses Sussex and Cambridge for her ladylike mid-calf lengths) and Marni, the Italian label often spied on arty-intellectual types. Guenez started the site because she had previously struggled to find clothes that were both modest and fashionable. She says the reaction to the site has exceeded her expectations, saying the luxury fashion market for modest dressers had been entirely "under-served".

"We have been heralded as a platform that is innovative in terms of the concept and positioning, as well as our non-denominational approach to modesty and championing of diversity … We are unapologetic about owning modesty and this space, but also understand luxury fashion and therefore the resonance, I believe, comes from doing both without one happening at the expense of the other," says Guenez.

"The brands have also shown much excitement for The Modist. We are a brand that bridges the gap between them and the global modest market  … [and] bring a new aesthetic to the fore, one that shows brands in a new light and renders them more relevant and exciting to modest dressers whilst respecting their DNA and brand integrity."

Designer Hewitt has carved out a niche for her exuberant, and sustainable, brand – all pink ruffles, silk pyjama sets and high necklines (“more is more,” she says). The Modist has become an important stockist, and the Middle East is also one of her most important markets.

“The big Western retailers are cottoning on to what a big market [modest fashion] is,” she says, noting the various markets her brand is available in each have their own preferences.

For Hewitt, who says she’s personally drawn to the modest aesthetic (“there’s something so alluring about not showing much skin, in a way it’s more empowering”), there is a parallel between her brand’s commitment to sustainability with a transparent supply chain and using recycled materials, and designing pieces for a broad section of women around the world.

“We’ve seen the rise of the conscious consumer and it’s growing so quickly. People buy into brands they’re inspired by … customers email us and challenge us on things we say we’re going to do and brands need to respect how switched on the customer is," she says.

“A person from any background or culture should be able to buy into a designer and luxury brand and feel on trend and beautiful … I feel proud to cater to so many cultures."

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