Published in Jul-Aug 2020
Fashion doyenne Coco Chanel said “modesty is the highest elegance” – a philosophy that is reflected in her iconic tweed power suits with conservative hems and necklines. On our desi side of the world, until recently, modest fashion was considered to be an oxymoron of sorts and ‘modest’ in terms of fashion was synonymous with a monotone black abaya. Fast forward to today and a handful of local brands are addressing the wardrobe woes of the modest woman and turning modesty into ‘halal chic’ with breezy jalbayas, jumpsuits, kaftans and floor-grazing dresses. Following this trend, Gul Ahmed and Sapphire recently launched their modest wear lines to cater to the fashionably aware modest goddess who does not want to drown in a piece of black fabric and call it a day.
“Sapphire aspires to be an inclusive brand, and there is a strong and growing audience for contemporary options in modest wear,” says Kulsum Nabeel, Executive Creative Director, Sapphire Retail.
As a growing fashion and lifestyle brand, Sapphire have kept their ear to the ground and delivered prêt wear that is in equal parts affordable and trendy. “We always want to offer more choices to our customers. A significant portion of Pakistani women wear hijabs and abayas, so it made sense to venture into this category and help shape the narrative around it. Wearing modest wear is a distinct and personal lifestyle choice and we wanted to take up the challenge of improving the standards of modest wear in the market,” Nabeel adds.
Gul Ahmed for their part are one of the most well-known legacy brands, with decades-long contributions to Pakistani fashion. “Gul Ahmed are known for their premium fabrics and have become a lifestyle brand. We aim to introduce lines which offer more choices to our customers and cater to all their wardrobe needs,” says the Gul Ahmed team. Gul Ahmed’s modest line is for fashion-savvy modern women aged between 18 and 50 “who want to wear stylish modern abayas that conform to modest values,” they further add.
The new clothing lines by two of Pakistan’s major fashion brands could be a sign that the modest women segment, once seen as too small to consider, has grown big enough to influence market trends. These women want to break away from the black abaya/‘Batman’ stereotype and experiment with sartorial choices. Interestingly, while modest wear lines cater to a specific segment in the market, it has also found a place in the hearts of women in general who love flared dresses and exaggerated silhouettes.
“As the market for modest wear has been largely untapped here in Pakistan, we had to roll out an extensive primary research strategy to understand the needs of these customers and identify their key pain-points,” says Nabeel. Sapphire conducted several focus groups to gather insights about the market and the audience. “We went through rounds of fittings and trials and there was a lot of effort placed into validating our findings. We also looked into the way modest wear brands have done in the Middle East, where the market is most developed.”
Gul Ahmed also came to a similar conclusion; today’s modest woman wants to be fashionable and wants a seat at the fashion table. “In our research, we found that a modern woman who practises modest fashion is looking for elegant styles in different colours and patterns. Gone are the days when abaya meant a black cloak-like garment; contemporary women know how to wear stylish abayas keeping in view the modest values,” says the Gul Ahmed team.
Be they long dresses with cinched waists or belts, embellished kaftans, tailored tops with balloon sleeves or embroidered jalbayas – the modest woman now has a diverse spectrum of chic to choose from. According to Nabeel, Pakistani customers have more of a worldview now than ever before thanks to social media and this has helped improve understanding of different tailoring techniques.
The fact that Gul Ahmed’s range flew off the shelves within a few weeks of their launch shows the depth of the un-catered demand in this segment. Similarly, according to the team at Sapphire, “the response exceeded all our expectations – and we had high expectations, mind you! This was not only reflected in the sales but also in the high number of repeat customers and we expect our modest wear line to do even better in the future.”
In tandem with this trend among fashion brands, smaller online brands too have been making efforts to cater to this market. These home-grown, small-scale businesses, which include Dinara, Lylac by Maheen, Reza Kari and Robes are appearing on Instagram and Facebook and offer customised, tailor-made options in a wide range of colours, fabrics and cuts. It is no coincidence that most of these brands are the brainchild of women who prefer modest wear and felt ignored by mainstream brands. Social media has also played a prominent role in catapulting modest fashionistas. Dubai-based Taim AlFalasi, with over 3.2 million followers and London-based Basma with over 417,000 followers are two examples of how the modest woman does not want to limit herself to a cloak and hijab.
For now, the two brands seem to be taking this opportunity by the horns. “We have so much in the pipeline that I do not want to give it all away just yet. We are trying to introduce more weather-appropriate fabric options, make modest wear more affordable and improve our design and range diversification. We also want to tap into sustainable fashion and offer options in modest wear that reflect that commitment,” says Nabeel.
Today, modest wear is as diverse and limitless as mainstream fashion. If the success of Gul Ahmed and Sapphire’s lines encourages other brands to move into this market, modest women will no longer feel that they are not as fashionable as the next woman.
Taniya Hasan is a content marketer.