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Going Global Montreal company blends Islamic values with high fashion

Montreal company Mode-ste blends Islamic values with high fashion

Young Muslims in multicultural societies have led the charge on updating traditional wardrobes

Aicha Chtourou spent her teen years like many others her age: at the mall.

Her closet was filled with fast-fashion items from shops like H&M and Zara that she'd taken home and had modified by her mother, a master seamstress and Montreal-garment-district veteran. Her mom, Hong Taing, added lining to sheer fabric and extended too-short hemlines, making sure her daughter's latest purchases conformed to Islamic modesty laws that prohibit showing anything but feet, face and hands.

The collaborative process born of necessity eventually led the pair to wonder how many other women were out there trying to reconcile modernity with modesty?

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As it turns out, a lot.

Young Muslims in multicultural societies have led the charge on updating traditional wardrobes. Today, hashtags such as #modestfashion, #hijabilookbook and #themodestymovement on photo-sharing app Instagram are populated by millions of posts from young women modelling creative ways to tie a hijab and sporting sweatshirts, belted abayas (long dresses), stylish trench coats and chiffon tunics paired with patterned tights.

A photo posted by Nour Kaiss Soliman (@nourka92) on

When Ms. Chtourou, now 23, and Ms. Taing founded modest-fashion brand Mode-ste (pronounced as the French word modeste) in 2013, they were slightly ahead of the curve. Now they are reaping the rewards of their good timing: Mode-ste will close out 2016 with sales in the six-figure range. The company is poised to cross the million-dollar mark in 2017, thanks in part to a November appearance on CBC's Dragons' Den, as well as a collaboration with modest-fashion maven Saufeeya Goodson, whose @HijabFashion Instagram page has 2.6 million followers.

"2017 is expected to be the big year," says Danial Agha, Mode-este's director of finance.

As a quarter of the world's population, Muslims have incredible collective buying power; Muslims worldwide spent $243-billion (U.S.) on clothing last year, according to a report on the global Islamic economy. Islam is the fastest growing religion on the planet, and companies that respond to Muslims' needs are growing rapidly alongside it. Even high fashion is trying to capitalize on this market; Dolce & Gabbana released a line of abayas and hijabs earlier this year.

Hong Taing and her daughter Aicha Chtourou, founders of Mode-ste

Mode-ste, for its part, sells affordable maxi dresses, long-sleeved tunics, relaxed-fit trousers and ankle-length pencil skirts, among other items. The company designs and sews its clothing samples in its suburban Montreal office and has them manufactured elsewhere in the city. So far, feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, says Ms. Chtourou. "They love the quality of our garments, the sewing. The fabric as well."

Mode-ste conducts most of its sales online, but does have a few stockists – stores that reached out to them on social media in faraway places like Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, Surrey, B.C. and Kansas City, Mo. Its e-commerce clientele is largely based in Canada and the U.S., although Mode-ste counts customers from Australia to the Middle East to Northern Europe.

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Ms. Chtourou and her husband Bilal Mashhedi, the company's marketing and strategy director, say their brand awareness is largely owed to social media in general, and Instagram in particular. "It helps with international outreach," says Mr. Mashhedi.

The modest-fashion movement on social media has been harnessed by Muslims, but many of its ambassadors and brands including Mode-ste are careful to be inclusive. The company's website features models with and without hijabs, and Mr. Mashhedi and Ms. Chtourou shake their heads at the notion of only marketing to Muslims. "This isn't the way someone would dress [out of obligation]; this is beautiful clothing that any woman can get into and wear if she likes the aesthetic," Mr. Mashhedi says.

Aicha Chtourou and her husband Bilal Mashhedi of Mode-ste

The secularization of modest fashion is a boon to the business. Nour Soliman, a Toronto fashion blogger and entrepreneur with more than 180,000 Instagram followers, says social media has been a powerful tool in globalizing the idea of modest fashion and creating a movement around it that exists outside of religion's confines.

"I think the reason it resonates so strongly with a lot of people, is that it's understood, historically and traditionally, that modesty can't be stylish," she says. "Social media has really changed the conversation."

Ms. Soliman, who runs Muslim social-shopping app Souqina, says she collaborates with any company designing modest clothing, no matter its affiliations. She points to Snoga Athletics, a company founded by an Orthodox Jewish woman in Brooklyn that makes conservative gym wear. Ms. Soliman has modelled Snoga's main staple – ankle-length tights with a skirt overtop – on her Instagram page. That social media has encouraged this kind of interfaith, and even secular, collaboration in fashion design and entrepreneurship is heartening to her. "That's the beauty of fashion – it's a conversation without words."

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