Modest wear going mainstream and becoming more stylish as women choose to cover up and Muslim spending power grows

In places such as Singapore there didn’t use to be much choice of modest wear. Now specialist retailers, mass-market chains and online retailers offer a much wider range of clothing, and modest fashion has become a style choice

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2018, 9:47am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2018, 9:47am

When Shireen Ikhsan decided to wear the hijab, or headscarf, a decade ago, she experienced a fashion emergency of sorts.

The co-founder of Selera Rasa Nasi Lemak and the Crave restaurant chain in Singapore recalls having a hard time finding appropriately modest, yet stylish outfits to wear.

“There weren’t many nice long-sleeved tops at that time and most modest clothing was found in Geylang or Joo Chiat, where our Malay community liked to shop. It was frustrating sometimes,” she says. “I basically just wore plain tops, as I didn’t know how else to dress.”

Today, Ikhsan’s Instagram feed tells a different story. Her #ootd pictures showcase her flair for dressing modestly, her traditional baju kurung (short jackets) and kebaya (light tunics) in trendy shades of mint green and millennial pink interspersed with outfits comprising oversized shirts and sweaters artfully thrown over maxi skirts.

Instagram posts by Shireen Ikhsan

These days, she shops at a mix of Muslim-centric retailers such as Fashion Valet, as well as at mainstream fast-fashion brands such as Zara, which she says offer a wider variety of modest clothing – stylish kaftans, long blouses and maxi dresses – than they did even a few years ago.

Times have certainly changed in Singapore for “hijabistas”, with retailers and fashion designers alike offering stylish designs that fulfil the criteria for modest clothing to which many Muslim women adhere.

One of Singapore’s most notable designers, Priscilla Shunmugam, recently launched her second annual Hari Raya collection for her label Ong Shunmugam, featuring modern interpretations of traditional Malay clothing.

Online retailers including Zalora and Lazada now have sections for Muslim wear on their sites. The former even has a “Zaloraya” section featuring festive modest wear for Hari Raya Puasa, the festival marking in the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan which this year falls on June 15.

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It is no coincidence that the market for modest wear in Singapore is growing at a time when the world has recognised the economic potential of the Muslim market. According to a study by Thomson Reuters, Muslims spent US$243 billion on clothing in 2015, a figure expected to increase to more than US$368 billion by 2021.

To capture the hearts – and wallets – of Muslim shoppers, international brands ranging from luxury labels Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci to mass-market brands Nike and Marks & Spencer have in the past few years begun producing collections to appeal to this community.

In Singapore, modest style is catching on. “While not as ubiquitous as in Malaysia and Indonesia, modest wear in Singapore has shown great potential,” says Christopher Daguimol, Zalora’s group director of public relations and social media.

Wearing something modest is no longer considered frumpy or boring, it is just a sort of cut or style
Nida Shay

With a combined population of more than 300 million people, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia make up the online retailer’s largest regional market for modest wear, he adds.

In 2014, Zalora launched its private label Zalia. It became the first modest wear label to have a catwalk show at Singapore Fashion Week the following year. In 2017, fashion week organisers dedicated an entire day to shows by modest wear designers from Asia and the Middle East, including Indonesia’s Dian Pelangi, Malaysian couturier Jovian Mandagie, and Bangladeshi label La Reve.

The event was seen as a launch pad for Singapore-based modest wear labels such as Nida Shay and Kaifiyyah. Nida Shay, born in Abu Dhabi and trained in Paris, saw sales of her eponymous label

increase by 60 per cent after showing in Singapore – her customers including Malaysian royalty – and says the focus on modest style was timely.

“There’s been a lot more conversation happening around modest wear being a huge market which will only grow further in years to come,” Shay says.

Such events are also a good way to reach out to different demographics. “Modest wear is fashionable and not for a particular race or faith. It is simply a style of fashion and it can be worn in lots of different ways by women from all over the world,” says Shay, who has clients in Europe, Canada, China and Korea.

“Wearing something modest is no longer considered frumpy or boring, it is just a sort of cut or style,” she adds.

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One modest collection that has been particularly successful is Uniqlo’s collaboration with British-Japanese Muslim fashion designer Hana Tajima. Its sixth collection launches this summer. It debuted in 2015 in just four countries – Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand – but is now available in 15 markets globally.

“[The collection] aims to cater for women of all ages in diverse individual and cultural settings,” says Elizabeth Yap, assistant manager of marketing and public relations for Uniqlo in Singapore.

Indeed, more women in Singapore are beginning to adopt modest styles just because they like them. Vintage fashion blogger and digital specialist Uli Chan, who often incorporates vintage and pre-worn pieces in her daily outfits, says: “It’s just a style of dressing that I happened to adopt. I guess … my preferred styles simply tend to cover more surfaces of the body to create dramatic silhouettes.

“I gravitate towards flowy dresses and skirts, as they’re more comfortable and flattering for my body shape. I also notice that I feel more confident and at ease dressing modestly, as I barely have to worry about any unwanted exposure,” she says.

“Of course, I believe this is a personal choice and we are free to dress how we want to feel and to be perceived.”