Photo: Screenshot from M&S
Marks & Spencer's move to bring the burkini to its UK shelves is viewed by industry leaders within the UK’s modest fashion sector as marking the arrival of modest sportswear into the mainstream retail segment.
M&S stocks two styles of the full-length swimwear. The company explains that the 49.50 pounds ($72) suit ‘covers the whole body with the exception of the face, hands and feet, without compromising on style’.
M&S has sold the three-piece sets for the past three years in Dubai and Libya but now the burkinis are available from the store’s website in the UK and at the company’s flagship store in Marble Arch, Central London.
The announcement is the latest in a slew of developments highlighting the growth of the overall modest wear sector, aimed primarily at Muslim women and also at other females who want to cover up for health or body image reasons.
Tahir Mirza, founder & CEO of the Muslim Lifestyle Expo, said the modest fashion sector represents an enormous untapped business opportunity.
“There is a growing Muslim population that is increasingly affluent, brand-loyal and is demanding better quality,” said Mirza. He added that Western brands are missing a trick when it comes to tapping new markets – “modest fashion opens a door for new brands to come in.”
Jessica Robinson, regional commercial director of British modest wear company Shorso predicted an imminent turnaround in the sector: “In the next few years we could see the majority of high street retailers offering modest clothing.”
Robinson explained that there is a rising demand for modest sportswear, particularly in schools where girls prefer to wear modest sportswear when participating in swimming.
Midlands-founded Shorso has been a pioneer in the UK’s modest sportswear industry and successfully clinched a deal in 2015 to supply British department store House of Fraser with sports hijabs.
Robinson said Shorso’s online sales have been consistently strong since its launch in 2013. She told Salaam Gateway that she plans to launch her first bricks and mortar store “in the next few years”.
Modest fashion store Aab is similarly expanding and has just launched its second bricks and mortar store in Bradford, UK, following its East London outlet launch in March 2015 that saw more than 2,000 shoppers flock to see hijabi blogger Dina Torkia open the store.
Aab’s Bradford store is the first modest wear shop to reside in a mainstream UK shopping mall. The company’s commercial director Altaf Alim said of the new 2,200 square feet store: “We’re right there next to H&M and Next. We have taken modest fashion to the mainstream high street setting.”
Big-name labels such as Mango, Uniqlo and DKNY have also released collections to coincide with Ramadan. Meanwhile, H&M has featured a hijab-wearing model in its advertising for the first time.
Aab’s Alim said there are a number of factors fuelling the growth of the modest fashion industry. The primary driver is demographics – the average age in Muslim-majority countries is about 30 years, compared to the Western average of 44 years.
In another sign of the growing relevance of the Muslim community, Pew Research Center projects that 29 percent of the global population will be Muslim by 2030, from around 22 percent currently.
NEW BRITISH MUSLIM IDENTITY
Mirza said the new British Muslim identity that is emerging is focused on lifestyle choices compatible with Islamic beliefs and ethical thinking, at the same time also seeking modern products and services.
“The modern Muslim is engrossed in consumerism – that’s why they are buying a western style product. Muslims want to honour their religion but they also have much more contemporary tastes.”
“Companies like Aab have grasped a unique way of branding their clothing. They didn’t go for ‘minaret style’ marketing – they went for westernised fun because it works,” added Mirza.
Companies will need to update and create designs that appeal to both Muslims and non-Muslims if they want to become mainstream, advised Mirza.
Alim agreed that successful brands must target a consumer choice rather than a religion. “A large part of our customer base is Muslims, but I think it’s important to state that we are offering an alternative fashion choice to the consumer that wants something different.
“We don’t label ourselves as a religious fashion brand. As we evolved and have physical stores we have a lot of non-Muslims coming in and loving the product for what it is. Brands have to be careful of projecting that the products are only for Muslims,” said Alim.
MORE CHOICE FOR ACTIVE WEAR
In line with the recent M&S announcement, Alim predicts growth for the active sportswear segment as modest fashion designers muscle in market share traditionally held by upmarket retailers such as Lulu Lemon and Sweaty Betty.
“Aab is known for its natural fibres and premium quality, so I think sportswear is a big opportunity for us. You only have to look at the wider trends of what’s happening in fashion and it makes sense for us to do it. I’m sure others will be following suit,” Alim said.
Zahra Pedersen, founder of the UK’s first Muslim personal training company Healthy Hijabs, said that her clients are demanding more choice for active wear.
Pedersen said her clients shy away from “jiggling their bits in the gym” and prefer to take a modest approach. “It’s not just Muslim women, some women have confidence issues and prefer to be more covered up.
“I hope the country will start stocking more modest sportswear options. There is such a need for it.”
A spokesperson for Marks & Spencer said: “M&S provides a wide range of quality swimwear offering our customers lots of choice. We have sold this item for a number of years and it is popular with our customers internationally.”
© SalaamGateway.com 2016