This article is sponsored by Modanisa. It was first published in the State of the Global Islamic Economy 2019/20 report produced by DinarStandard and supported by the Dubai Islamic Economy Development Centre. The report can be downloaded from here.
How we look matters: it shapes how others perceive us and influences how we think about ourselves. Ten years ago, when the idea of Modanisa was being conceived, wearing a hijab and being fashionable was unthinkable, and finding positive images of visibly Muslim women in Western media virtually impossible. An entrepreneur claiming that modest dressing would become a new multi-billion-dollar sector would probably have lost all credibility.
In 2019, the profile of trendy-looking Muslim women has never been higher, underlining the paradigm shift among these conscious females who not only demand representation, but also ownership of the narrative about themselves.
In January, we witnessed Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib elected to Congress. Over the summer, young jockey Khadijah Mellah raced to victory in a hijab in the Magnolia Cup. In the fashion capitals, a stream of modest-dressing models followed in Halima Aden’s footsteps, gracing catwalks and front covers. Although their personal journeys differ, their triumphs are simultaneously shattering stereotypes.
There are seismic social changes across the Middle East too: from more freedoms for women in Saudi Arabia, to state support for Emirati female entrepreneurs. It’s led to a surge in confident women redefining their place in society as employers, taxpayers, and trailblazers. They are informed and outspoken consumers, all living their lives in accordance with their values and choices.
Running in tandem is the rise of modest fashion. In under a decade, modesty has mushroomed into an industry worth $283 billion. Global hubs in Istanbul, Dubai and Jakarta are generating significant revenues, while stimulating social innovation.
The story of Modanisa.com mirrors this incredible socio-economic transformation. When we launched our pioneering business in 2011, a 55-year-old mother and her 25-year-old daughter were forced to dress almost identically due to the limited options for observant Muslims. Even with an estimated 400 million market, clothing brands ignored them.
Older women had quietly accepted this state of affairs, but not so today’s Generation M, who have no intention of being hemmed in by society’s expectations. While there are tension points to navigate, today’s interconnected Muslim views her faith as a badge of honour not a barrier. She wants to participate fully in modern life and experience new adventures, enjoy a fulfilling career, do sports and take holidays by the sea. She wants more versatility in her wardrobe, reflecting her increased confidence and levels of socialising.
As a business, we had a twin mandate: to fill a major clothing gap and to empower these consumers to express their identities, values and personal tastes in style. Our approach is to truly understand the customer, and address her evolving needs. For example, many of our customers are entering the workforce for the first time, and require apparel options that allow them to operate comfortably and confidently in a professional environment, while upholding modest standards. Unlike other fashion retailers who add modest options as a part of their range, Modanisa is modest from the original intent of our garment design and selection.
Although headquartered in textile-rich Turkey, we initially struggled to convince manufacturers of the huge economic potential. It forced us to create our own ecosystem, establishing private labels and working closely with a small pool of female designers and factories. Within five years, our cottage industry had gone global.
Today Modanisa.com serves customers in 135 countries who can choose from 75,000 items, including shirts, headscarves, burkinis, and wedding dresses, in a host of colours, fabrics and sizes. They are produced by 850 designers and suppliers, 90 percent female-owned small and medium-sized businesses that benefit from Modanisa’s international channels to market.
Like Modanisa’s workforce, most of the thousands of staff in our supply chain are women, helping to increase the number of financially independent females in Turkey. Our brand ambassadors have seen a rise in their personal fortunes too: leading fashion influencers earn six figure salaries, often making them the main breadwinner.
When it comes to the representation of women in management, I’m proud to say Modanisa bucks not only Turkish norms, but also those in the West. Sixty percent of our C-suite directors, and 80 percent of department heads are women, compared to mainstream fashion where, according to a 2017 Business of Fashion report, fewer than 50 percent of leading womenswear brands are designed by women, and only 14 percent have a female in charge.
Boosting the take-up of technology among the financially less-abled has been central to our success too. In our formative years, we helped Turkish consumers embrace the e-commerce revolution by offering ‘cash on delivery’ and ‘free delivery’ to encourage them to at least order online. With the popularity of smart phones and a younger, more tech-savvy customer base, online traffic to Modanisa has grown exponentially; in 2019, we had 200 million unique visitors to the site.
As an internet start-up, our global outlook meant our business evolved faster than many ‘bricks and mortar’ firms. We communicate in five different languages – Turkish, Arabic, English, French and German. We focus heavily on social media, giving us instant reach to consumers worldwide, while allowing us to identify what they want, where and how. It’s a major reason why, for the past three years, Modanisa has been Turkey’s e-commerce export champion, our success serving as a template for others.
Of course, the boom in modest fashion also creates challenges. The world’s major clothing brands and retailers are all taking a closer look at this ‘Muslim’ phenomenon. Currently, we are tapping into 10 percent of the total modest market, a figure likely to expand to 50% in the next few years. Not surprisingly, the mainstream is eager to carve out a huge slice of this lucrative pie.
For the likes of Modanisa, embedded in the halal economy, we have the advantage of knowing our diverse Muslim consumers, their needs and sensitivities. For example, traditional dress codes determine purchasing decisions in Turkey and Malaysia, compared to urban styles sought by modest dressers in Europe and North America. But there is no room for complacency.
We need to double-down to ensure our ecosystems are robust enough to withstand the entry of bigger players. From design to delivery, marketing and after-sales we must match those of the mainstream to compete effectively, and continue to provide customers with appealing, affordable ready-to-wear apparel.
We must also be prepared to meet new consumer expectations in ethical and sustainable fashion. The Islamic world can again play a positive role, combining Koranic codes about waste with modern business practices to be kinder to the environment.
Modest fashion’s impact on the lives of Muslim women cannot be doubted. As the sector matures, its transformative powers will continue to shape society for the better.
© State of the Global Islamic Economy 2019/20