According to the State of the Global Islamic Economy Report 2020-21, halal beauty and modest fashion showed the most resilience in the face of COVID-19, where Muslim spending is projected to grow 8% YoY following a post-pandemic rebound.
Combined with inclusivity in fashion becoming a non-negotiable and the allure of Generation M, this is an untapped market brands can’t afford to ignore.
Religion isn’t the only reason women are opting to cover up. Some are motivated by fashion trends. Floor-skimming dresses, demure necklines and voluminous sleeves are regular runway fixtures season-on-season and are a foundation for subcultures like Cottagecore. For others, it’s a personal preference, where modesty is empowering. With the #MeToo movement now firmly ingrained in our culture, more women are actively dressing for themselves rather than the male gaze.
As demand for modest dressing grows globally, we’ve studied how fashion trends are influenced at western retailers, as well as what opportunities brands can tap into.
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Meet Generation M
Middle-class millennial Muslim consumers, dubbed Generation M, are forecasted to triple to 900 million consumers by 2030, according to Reuters. This demographic is proud of their faith and reframing the narrative around traditional dress so modest is not mutually exclusive from sexy or chic. With the modest fashion segment estimated to be worth $44 bn annually, brands are vying for this cohort's attention by melding Islamic culture with technology and modernity. Sustainability and renewability are core elements of halal, so ethical and environmentally-friendly fashion also need to be incorporated. The tastemakers of this cohort also use their platforms for activism, as well as to educate their followers on their faith and practices. Content creator Blair Imani, journalist Noor Tagouri, beauty YouTuber and creator of hijab-friendly face masks Manal Chinutay and streetwear designer Leena Al Ghouti are just some of the many influencers brands should have on their radar.
Retailers targeting the Generation M consumer need to support their offering with extensive research and cultural sensitivity. Years earlier, Banana Republic was applauded for inclusivity by debuting a hajib range. However, the campaign drew criticism for being showcased on a model paired with a thigh-high slit skirt and a short-sleeved T-shirt, making it critical for cultural and religious representation to be included at a decision-making level within the fashion industry.
Trend shifts in the UAE
With the waves of modest influencers and designers emerging from the Middle East, boundaries are being pushed with colors and patterns introduced to traditional garments – a bold move in contrast to standard black.
The color recognition software in the EDITED Market Intelligence platform shows how hues have evolved in this market. Let's start with analyzing new abayas (long traditional robes) available at 14 of the largest UAE online retailers compared to two years ago. While black still dominates, playful colors like red and pink are increasing - a trend EDITED has monitored over the past few years. Currently, black makes up 52% of the abayas available at these retailers. When compared to the same period two years ago, black was 70%.
Though more demure hues such as grey and neutrals are still prominent, the abaya color wheels reveal an obvious swing into brighter colors, confirming bolder tones are becoming more acceptable within this market. Green makes up 5.2% of products in stock this year vs. 1.2% in 2019, while pink is 5% compared to 2.1%. There is a similar trend in prints, which are rapidly gaining popularity. Patterns make up 24% of the abayas currently in stock compared to 15% two years ago.
There's more growth in another area too – jewelry. Despite COVID disrupting occasionwear categories in Western markets, the number of women's jewelry styles arriving online over the past three months in the UAE is up by 13% YoY. New rings arriving during this time are up 68%, earrings, 15% and necklaces by 3% YoY. This is a powerful category, especially for younger consumers who wear accessories as a statement, and can be an easy way for brands to gain footing in the UAE market at an entry-level.
How is Western retail interpreting modesty?
So who's wearing modesty? Luxury brands have been pioneering the modest fashion movement, capturing spend from the wealthy Middle Eastern consumer. Ecommerce platform The Modist specialized in this area, as well as showcasing up-and-coming Middle Eastern designers. The site closed in 2020, leaving the market open for new players to fill the void. Recently, Farfetch unveiled a collection for Ramadan consisting of tailored suits, kaftans, modest evening gowns and luxe loungewear from Middle Eastern and international designers, including Elle B Zhou, Baruni, Dolce & Gabbana and Stella McCartney. Net-a-Porter also launched an Arabic site featuring bilingual content and shopping available in localized currencies.
Despite luxuy's significant stake in this market, fast fashion retailers are clocking the missed opportunities and making modest dressing more accessible. Uniqlo has collaborated on a range with visual artist and designer Hana Tajima since 2016. Tommy Hilfiger launched its first hijab in August. At the end of last year, PrettyLittleThing dipped its toes into this market while brands such as ASOS offer modest dressing shopping edits in a drop-down menu.
Analyzing skirt lengths shows a different breakdown of hemlines at fast fashion brands compared to the luxury market. Designer brands are more heavily invested in midi lengths, which equal 52% of skirts available at luxury brand's own sites. In the mass market, this length is 36% of skirts, outpaced by the mini at 47%. That's not to say fast fashion consumers are opposed to longer lengths. The evergreen success of the house dress is still apparent, with the number of maxi and midi dresses selling out for the first time since the start of the year up 22% and 91%, respectively.
While hijabi athletes and models are gaining notoriety, modest activewear and swimwear still stand out as an untapped opportunity for Western retailers. Uniqlo x Hana Tajima offers hijabs in its AIRism moisture-wicking, high performance fabric and Nike launched its Pro-Hijab in 2018. The sportswear giant also released its Victory swimwear collection last year, which includes full coverage swimsuits with next to no competition from other pure-play active brands. Venus, Slazenger and Next have also dabbled in a small range of burkinis. However, these items are yet to be a mainstay of swimwear assortments.
Fall 2021 influences
Analyzing the Fall 2021 runway shows, modest elements were prevalent across all cities, playing into the overarching theme of regencycore. Designers tapped into royal and debutante influences through demure silhouettes like high necklines and full, sweeping skirts - all pointing towards a post-pandemic comeback for these dressier shapes. Covered accessories such as long socks and gloves were also of note here, lending themselves to the Bridgerton-inspired aesthetic while being appropriate for modestwear. Adding another layer of femininity, headscarves were a standout accessory at Dior, Max Mara and Ester Manas.
The bundled up trend also extends itself to the modest consumer with ample opportunities for layering and covering up. Turtleneck sweaters paired with heavyweight wool coats were favored at Balmain and Longchamp, while designers introduced texture with soft-touch blanket scarves. Longline sweater dresses, as seen at Ulla Johnson, add a loungewear component to modest dressing, which is traditionally occasionwear-driven. The slew of balaclavas spied on the runway also provides a winter-friendly alternative to the headscarf.
Hermès and Fendi were among the designers showcasing modest midi and maxi dresses with silky, sparkly and flowy materials of note to align with the delayed party season. Retailers can also look to the runway to update their top-performing house dresses with fall’s core colors including burgundies, chocolate browns, hot pinks, bright whites, pastels and neutrals. Florals, 70s-inspired, animal and checks were the most dominant patterns, while pleats, voluminous sleeves and oversized collars will continue to be defining details. As an alternative to skirts and dresses, wide-leg pants or culottes styled with stockings à la Dries Van Noten and 3.1 Philip Lim are a more directional option.
These looks on the catwalk confirms the continued presence of modest dressing. While this market has grown, there’s still an open space for specialist categories and diversification within assortments – the time to tap into this market is now!
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