Reina Lewis: Is 2015 the year the mainstream woke up to Muslim fashion?

During my 10 years of research into Muslim fashion and other faith-related modest fashion, women reported feeling ignored by the fashion industry, and sometimes, if Muslim, downright avoided. And now, as my book Muslim Fashion hits the shelves, suddenly 2015 might finally be the year that the mainstream wakes up to this growing market.

This article originally appeared on Huffington Post UK.

With Londoner Mariah Idrissi featured in a hijab on the H&M 'close the loop' recycling campaign video, it seems that everyone wants the Muslim fashionistas. Marketers have woken up to Ramadan as a potential parallel to Christmas - another festival that can be commercialised once brands realise that Muslim women often buy new clothes to wear or to gift at holiday time. Last year, DKNY marketed a capsule collection for Ramadan in its Gulf stores and online in the region. This year saw substantial increases in wider regions, with Ramadan marketing at Hilfiger, Monsoon, Mango in Europe and North America and a Ramadan selection curated at Net-a-Porter.

Often brands start with communications and marketing rather than design, rebadging existing product lines into themed collections aimed at Muslim consumers. One exception was Uniqlo that launched a new line of modest fashion in collaboration with British designer Hana Tajima. 

Prior to this, and often still, the needs of Muslim modest dressers were met initially by designers and creative entrepreneurs - often women - from within faith communities who realised they couldn't get what they, or their daughters needed on the high street, in the mall. The advent of e-commerce online made start-ups easier and a niche market of modest fashion quickly developed, with a vibrant blogosphere emerging alongside. As social media has developed, and aided by the advent of affordable smart phones, designers and bloggers can become tastemakers on an international stage, with visually led platforms like Instagram transcending language barriers.

Combining 'star buys' from niche modest fashion designers, Muslim modest dressers navigate multiple fashion systems each of which is potentially transformed by their crafting of modish modesty. For Muslims of immigrant background, ensembles from so called 'ethnic' or community dress styles may be adapted to incorporate different forms of headcovering: the three piece salwar kameez suit of tunic, trousers and shawl that has provided flexible head or face covering for generations of women is now seen with the addition of scarf or scarves twined into a headwrap. So too, are backless ball gowns from the high street combined with a polo neck and a scarf or turban. But for all the creativity displayed, for a long time women who want to dress modestly have felt neglected and disregarded by the mainstream: neither sought after as consumers nor recognised as style makers.

It's clear from the speed with which news of Mariah Idrissi's appearance in the H&M campaign went global that there is a huge appetite for Muslim women to see themselves represented in the fashion media. As well as images that reflect their reality, Muslim consumers will also want products that meet their needs. With a global Muslim population that is youthful and growing, the Muslim consumer base is recognised as a market segment by the now burgeoning industry in Islamic branding and Muslim marketing. Initially focused on halal food and shariah compliant finance, the sector has turned its attention to fashion and lifestyle. The World Islamic Economic Forum has convened sessions on modest fashion and the Thompson Reuters State of the Global Islamic Economy now features fashion and lifestyle as a key component, estimating the global Muslim spend on apparel - all garments and footwear, not only modest fashion - in 2013 at $266 billion USD. Predicted to rise to $488 billion by 2019, the Muslim shopper for fashion is a force to be reckoned with.

The celebration of Mariah Idrissi as a positive image of a hijabi entered the stratosphere in Britain when popular TV show The Great British Bake Off was won by Bangladeshi-British mother of three Nadiya Jamir Hussain. For a Muslim population accustomed to a welter of negative stereotypes in pop culture and news media, having two fabulous hijabis on the screen at once was unheard of. In a context where media and political attention often focuses on what Muslim wear on their heads rather than what they say or do, the fact that the most of the press about the show focused more on Nadiya's cooking than her covering is undeniably a welcome change. Within the fashion industry itself, I think that the decision to use Mariah as a positive image of hijab as part of fashion sends a similarly remarkable message.

Whilst being cultivated as a segment by consumer culture can be a mixed blessing, it may be that the mainstream fashion industry has heard the call from Muslim modest fashion designers and bloggers and is now ready to join with them in using style to combat stigma.

Professor Reina Lewis' new book, Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures, is out now.

Profile image of Reina Lewis

Reina Lewis

Professor of Cultural Studies

University of the Arts London

London College of Fashion