The Middle East Fashion Market and the Rise of Modest Fashion
Modest fashion first sashayed down the world’s catwalks in 2018, heralding a turning point for the representation of Muslim fashion within the industry. This fast-growing sector already accounts for a substantial market share of the fashion industry, and its expansion looks set to continue. According to the State of the Global Islamic Economy Report 2020/21, the modest fashion industry is valued at $277 billion and is estimated to reach $311 billion by 2024. And yet, luxury fashion brands have been slow to fill this gap in their product offerings and include the modest fashion sector in their collections.
Three years after modest fashion made its catwalk debut, what are the issues behind this lack of representation within the industry? and how can these be resolved?
In 2019, it was reported that the total spend by Muslim consumers was around $2.02 trillion, including food, pharmaceutical, cosmetics, fashion, travel, and media/recreation. This amount has been steadily increasing, with a 3.2% growth rate in 2019 forecast by 2018 reports. In addition, Islamic Finance assets were estimated to be around the $2.88 trillion mark in 2019. In market terms, this translates into a very high buying power of Muslim consumers, which renders the modest fashion market an attractive sector with excellent growth potential.
Although the market was inevitably affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, spending is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels towards the end of 2021. It is estimated that total spending will reach $2.4 trillion by 2024, accompanied by a cumulative annual growth rate of 3.1%. This projected growth rate is very similar to that observed between 2018 and 2019.
And yet, despite the vast untapped potential of this market, the luxury fashion industry has so far failed to measure up when it comes to modest fashion. Despite the available customer base at hand, the current style offerings leave a lot to be desired. Muslim women and their clothing, including hijabs, burkas, niqabs and abayas, are completely underrepresented in the fashion industry. This great divide between demand and supply has led Muslim fashion bloggers to speak up about the urgent need to change the narrative around modest fashion.
It wasn’t until 2016 that Halima Aden made history, becoming the first beauty pageant contestant to wear both a hijab and a burkini, and in doing so she inspired a whole generation of young Muslim women. The following year saw more Muslim contestants wearing a hijab during beauty pageants. Despite this groundbreaking development within the Muslim fashion community, brands were still hesitant when it came to taking the plunge and offering consumers a comprehensive modest fashion range.
Back in 2017, Ghizlan Guenez launched The Modist, a luxury e-commerce platform, as a solution to the lacklustre product offerings for modest clothing. Following on from this, modest clothing began to be featured on the catwalks and became something of a fashion buzzword. However, Alia Khan, founder of the Islamic Fashion Council, was highly sceptical of this trend at the time. As she commented:
Brands may be done with it after a couple of seasons, but this audience is not done with dressing modestly.
It soon became clear that the movement was more about jumping on the bandwagon to make a profit rather than being the product of a real shift in values and practices.
Why has the luxury fashion sector failed to respond to such a serious lack of supply to a high level of demand within the market?
One of the key factors appears to be a poor understanding of this target market. A lack of genuine interest and sense of caring about the needs of the modest fashion customer has created a void of trust between brands and Muslim consumers, who perceive company campaigns as cynical sales tactics that are based purely on making profits, with a total disregard for their target market. The young affluent Muslim generation, or ‘Generation M’ as they are known, are demanding more from the companies they buy from and will actively seek out brands that align with their values.
Secondly, there is currently very little research around the sector. If companies want to successfully branch out into the modest clothing market, they need to work hard at fully understanding their customer base. Brands need to actively listen to and learn from their customers, providing solutions that are based on the needs and desires of the market itself.
Additionally, there is a commonly held misconception that modest clothing is only for Muslim women. This is simply not true. Many non-Muslim women enjoy dressing modestly as well. However, the modest fashion styles for these two groups will not necessarily be the same. For example, in general, women who dress modestly but do not follow the Islamic faith are unlikely to wear traditional Muslim garments such as hijabs.
So, taking into account these two very different elements of the market, brands need to recognise the different demographics of the sector to offer a more diverse and extensive range that is designed with the needs of its potential customers in mind, rather than any pre held concepts or notions of the creators. When it comes to modest fashion, it isn’t a case of one style fits all. Instead, many factors come into play. In the same way that the Western fashion consumer may choose to rock various looks on the same week, so too may Muslim fashion consumers and it is imperative that any modest fashion collection reflects this fact.
So, what positive changes can luxury fashion brands implement when it comes to serving the modest fashion market? With over 90% of Muslims stating that their religion affects their purchasing decisions, undoubtedly, companies need to incorporate these values and beliefs into their offerings. The definition of “Halal” has progressed to encompass issues of ethics and sustainability. To be authentic to Muslim consumers, companies will have to ensure clothing is sourced sustainably and place more importance on where their materials come from.
Incorporating more inclusive teams and working with Muslim women on marketing campaigns also offers the opportunity for a more authentic and genuine understanding of the Muslim consumer. If those who are working on the projects fit within the target market themselves, then companies will be able to gain a more accurate perspective of the needs and aspirations of that market. From design teams to marketing teams, brands who take an inclusive approach will gain valuable consumer insight into their client’s needs for such key periods on the Muslim calendar as Eid and Ramadan, as well as practical considerations that could affect product desirability.
With the share of the Muslim fashion market only set to increase over the coming years, brands who adopt an inclusive and forward-thinking approach now look set to gain a long-term handle on the market. Those companies who demonstrate a genuine interest in modest fashion, rather than viewing it as a profitable trend can expect to see a substantial and long-term return on their investment, with customer loyalty, an impressive industry standing and high visibility for their brand.