When Eman Idil Bare was a little girl, Eid celebrations offered the rare occasions for her outfits to be as “extra” as she wanted them to be.
“It was the few times of the year where my parents’ budget didn’t really exist,” the young Canadian designer, journalist and aspiring lawyer says from her dorm in New York. “My mom would just let me go to Fabricland and pick whatever I wanted. One year, I was seven years old and I saw this dress and I made my Mom buy it for me. I started adding all sorts of bows and lace to it. Looking back 20 years later, I looked ridiculous,” she laughs.
Bare says it is that creativity and excitement that led her to pursue fashion. She launched her collection, Al-Nisa, in 2018 at New York Fashion Week. Bare often designs exclusive Eid outfits for her friends and family, she says, and isn’t surprised that mainstream fashion retailers such as Oscar de la Renta have begun offering specialty collections around Muslim holidays. These include Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, which marks the end of the annual pilgrimage known as the Hajj, expected to fall on Aug. 12 this year. The collections often feature luxury caftans, tunics and pants, as well as maxi dresses and skirts.
The modest-fashion industry has ballooned in recent years and is estimated to reach US$373-billion by 2022, according to Thomson Reuters’s State of the Global Islamic Economy Report. While several cultures and religions value modest clothing that covers more of the body, fashion retailers such as DKNY, Aldo and Uniqlo are starting to specifically target the lucrative Muslim modest-fashion market.
For instance, this year marks the second time the Swedish retailer H&M released a limited-edition capsule collection in time for Eid al-Fitr. The pieces for women and children were inspired by the Middle East and included embroidered dresses that could be layered over pants, and kimonos made with shimmering fabrics and brocade embellishments, says Maria Ostblom, head of womenswear design.
“Traditionally, there has been a very static understanding of what a hijabi woman looks like,” says Saba Alvi, a University of Ottawa professor of education with a focus on inclusive and anti-racism education who has been researching this field since 2013. But with the growth of Instagram, YouTube and other social-media platforms, Muslim women are now “vogueing the veil.” It’s a term Alvi coined to describe the emergence of a new subculture of modest fashion. She noted the existence at one point of more than 400,000 videos on YouTube that feature women sharing fashion tips on wearing the hijab.
It’s no surprise, then, that large retailers are capitalizing on this market, she says.
But designer Nagat Bahumaid in Toronto says she’s skeptical of some of the efforts she’s seen to date, including a widely mocked make-up tutorial last year by MAC Cosmetics aimed at those waking up for suhoor, the predawn meal taken during Ramadan. “Who on Earth wears makeup at that time?” she says with a chuckle. “If they want to reach the Muslim community, collaborating with Muslim influencers and designers would go a long way for them," she adds.
But because of the potential for an intolerant backlash from the public, “a lot of companies are trying to capitalize on this trend without saying out loud that they support it,” she suggests. Bahumaid points to the decision by French retailer Decathlon to cancel plans to sell a sports hijab after a public outcry in France in February.
The University of Ottawa’s Alvi points to J.Crew as an example of how to do it right. The brand teamed up earlier this year with Haute Hijab, a company that sells high-end scarves.
Alia Khan, founder and chairwoman of the Dubai-based Islamic Fashion Design Council, notes that this trend includes an emerging segment of Muslim men looking for traditional attire that features loose-fitting pants, long coats and dress shirts that drop to the knees.
Her advice for anyone looking to tap into this burgeoning market? “I would say to the retailers: Do your due diligence. You need to understand the mindset of the consumer, and if you get it wrong, you’ll miss out on a huge opportunity,” she says. “This is a very loyal consumer market; they’re committed to this way of life and if you win them over, you’ll have this client base for a lifetime.”