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How Muslim Fashion Went Mainstream

Dec 4 2015 1:20 PM
How Muslim Fashion Went Mainstream

From the cover of 'Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Culture'

In her new book, 'Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures,' cultural studies professor Reina Lewis charts the rise of hijabi style. We spoke to her about how Muslim women are changing the fashion landscape.

"In 2013 the market for Muslim fashion was estimated at $266 billion; it's estimated that by 2019 it will be $488 billion for the entire Muslim spend on clothing and footwear," Reina Lewis informs me.

A professor of cultural studies at the London College of Fashion, Lewis is behind Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures, a 386-page book that explores the coexistence of the hijab and Western consumerism, the numbers that inform this developing market, and the visibility of Muslim women within fashion's traditionally veil-free landscape.

This year, we've already witnessed the Muslim designer Hana Tajima collaborate with Uniqlo and the hijab-wearing model Mariah Idrissi appear in a major campaign for H&M. With over 50,000 Instagram followers between them, the two women are prime examples of what Lewis sees as a significant and inevitable development within a typically exclusive industry; that is, mainstream fashion is starting to wake up to hijabi style. We got Lewis on the phone to talk us through it.

Nadia Azmy, a Egyptian-American fashion blogger interviewed for 'Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Culture'. Photo courtesy of Nadia Azmy

Broadly: What motivated you to write the book?
My previous work had been on, what we called in the old days women and race, particularly Western imperial cultures and relationships with the Middle East, and what we might call the 'Muslim world.' After 9/11 and then again in Britain in 2005 (after the London bombs), I could see that security was really framing popular views of Muslims, and at the same time I could look out the window and see all these cool young hijabis. While many of these women may still be wearing clothes that are sometimes called 'ethnic fashion,' mostly they were dressing from the high street.

Every time you picked up a newspaper, there was a picture of a woman in what was taken to be 'Muslim dress,' so a hijab or a face veil, illustrating a story that was often nothing to do with Muslim women. But when you picked up the media, they were absent. So I could see these two things were happening, and I could see that this was a new subculture and community that was emerging.

Muslim women have been buying fashionable clothes for centuries.

And what were your intentions for the title?
I hoped to challenge those stereotypes about Muslim women and Muslims generally about being somehow outside of modernity, with modernity understood as Western, and use fashion as a conduit for saying these young people are just like everybody else. They have often specific issues and experiences to do with their religion, but actually they're participating in fashion and consumer culture just like their peer group.

You note that the book was one of the most complicated projects you've researched. How so?
Well, in the past I wrote about dead people and their books and dead people and their paintings, so now I was talking to live human subjects. And I was writing about fashion, which is fast-paced, in an academic book, which is excruciatingly slow to produce.

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The other thing was that the form of fashion mediation changed; I started out looking at Muslim lifestyle magazines in print, in the mid-2000s. When I speak to people [in the book]—editors, stylists—they are talking in their present, they don't know the magazine is going to go bust in two years. But also, blogs started. And at that point, if [bloggers] got critical comments in the comments string, they could moderate it.

By the time social media like YouTube had developed, the volume of commentary was so difficult that people couldn't keep up with moderating, so I was also having to track the different social media platforms and communication technologies that were coming online, not just to describe them, but to analyze the ways in which those technological changes, like the advent of cheap smartphones, altered the way people consumed fashion.

Different headscarf styles in Turkey. Photo courtesy of Reina Lewis

How forthcoming were the people you approached?
It took time to build relationships, but I expected it to. I was pleased that getting access to Muslim designers, entrepreneurs, journalists, editors, and so on, was—in the bigger scheme of things—relatively easy. A lot of Muslim women would want to know, "Are you hostile to the hijab?" Which is not surprising, and I would always say, "No, I'm not hostile to the hijab, neither am I promoting it; this is happening [and] I think it deserves respectful and serious attention."

The group who was really hard to get access to were the HR and ER [employee relations] directors for the high street fashion retail brands. That was really hard; their job is to protect the brand [and] a lot of people said no. I think talking about something to do with Muslims was alarming to some, in the same way that some of the bloggers and the fashion editors [I spoke to] said when they wanted to call in product for a shoot it was very hard—sometimes because they were a small magazine, but sometimes they were quite sure it was because brands had an aversive reaction [and] they were anxious about being associated with something Muslim.

If you're a trend forecaster and you wander around Oxford Street it's not hard to see that there's something going on.

What role do you think the Internet has played in developing this market?
It's been essential, because on the whole, most of the cohort of Muslim women I've spoken to—a particular demographic—they're buying clothes from the high street, but they are also buying products from modest fashion brands, either Muslim or other faith groups. The Internet allows any niche market to develop and flourish. You can start a brand from your dining room or bedroom with far less overheads.

The other thing is, the early brands often had links on their websites to discussions about hijab or related issues, and the blogosphere for Muslim fashion and modest fashion across the faiths grew up at the same time. So the Internet allowed commerce and commentary to develop and the two supported each other.

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You've discussed previously 2015 as 'the year the mainstream woke up to Muslim consumers.' Why now?
I think partly because bloggers have been very proactive about putting their voices out there and showing how fashionable a lot of Muslim women are. Muslim women have been buying fashionable clothes for centuries. What's new now is that there are Muslim women who are dressing with religion or religious identity in mind through mainstream fashion. I've said for years the mainstream fashion industry is missing a trick.

The other factor is that there is a growing field of professional marketing concerned with Islamic branding and marketing to Muslims. This field initially was concerned with food and finance—food because brands that are not emerging from Muslim companies want to get halal certificated to reach those consumers, and finance because people want sharia compliant mortgages, etc.

To some extent also, the critical mass of fashionable young Muslim women is beginning to catch the eye. If you're a trend forecaster and you wander around Oxford Street it's not hard to see that there's something going on.

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