How Western Brands Get Fashion for Muslim Women All Wrong
The fashion world cheered when Western brands like Dolce & Gabbana and Uniqlo launched hijab collections to cater for Muslim audiences. So why do an increasing number of hijabi fashionistas and designers feel more alienated than ever?
Photo by Didem Tali
Hulya Aslan, 29, always had a thing for fashion and nice clothes since her childhood. Her love of fashion wasn't affected by her decision to wear a hijab during her school years in the slightest. When she was working towards her qualifications to become a fashion editor at the Istanbul Academy of Fashion, she was the only hijabi student.
As she was transitioning into adulthood, the hijabi fashion industry was still in its infancy. The collections were basic and frumpy in 1990s and 2000s, at least until conservative fashion started to take off in Turkey in 2010. She found that it was much harder to dress stylishly as a hijabi woman than her non-hijabi peers.
"It was a nightmare to shop for clothes during those days," she said. "Before the boom in the conservative clothing industry, if a woman wanted to look stylish and put together, she basically had to go to a seamstress and get customized clothes."
But when Turkey eased the headscarf ban that was traditionally imposed in public institutions in 2010, things started to change. As hijabi women became more active in all aspects of social life, there was a greater demand for Islamic fashion items. There was even a new hijabi fashion magazine, Ala. When Aslan took the position of an editor at this magazine, she didn't predict the hijabi fashion renaissance to progress this quick.
"It was as if [hijabi women] were hungry for nice clothes for decades," she said. "We were aware of the demand and the market gap. Many people emerged as fashion designers and established their own businesses." Aslan now also runs her own fashion consultancy, working with the emerging Islamic fashion brands.
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Millions of Muslim women around the world now have more choices than ever about what to wear. Being able to wear the desired clothing items, whilst managing to look stylish and elegant has made thousands of Muslim women like Aslan feel more empowered, confident, and socially included. For many, the Islamic fashion revolution was a rite of passage, which increased the visibility of Muslim women.
"Muslims in Turkey and around the world are getting wealthier," said Cem Ozturk, founder of Touche, an Istanbul-based Islamic fashion brand. He began his career as a designer working on customized orders but had such a massive demand from his customers that he eventually decided to establish his own brand.
"When people enjoy a higher purchasing power, dressing nicer is one of the first things they do. It almost comes as an instinct. Because clothes are such important symbols," he added.
It's not just independent Muslim fashion designers who are aware of the opportunities that the global Muslim demographic pose. In 2015, Fortune described Muslim women as the "next big untapped fashion market." There's money to be made from the youthful (and growing) global Muslim population, which has a higher purchasing power than ever. According to the State of the Global Islamic Economy report of 2014–2015, Muslims have spent $266 billion on clothing in 2013. The figure is expected to reach $484 billion by 2019.
In other words, the Muslim gold rush is here. Unsurprisingly, global brands don't want to miss it. More and more Western fashion companies that traditionally appeal to a secular, Western, and non-Muslim clientele are beginning to embrace Muslim women in their collections. It seems that every week, a new Western brand launches a new collection at this demographic. H&M, UNIQLO, DKNY, Mango have all launched special collections aimed at Muslim women.
Most recently, luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana began to sell hijabs and abayas. The collection features D&G's luxurious touch in the form lace, satin, and floral prints. Its campaign features a fair-skinned and green-eyed white model posing with her mouth ajar. There is no evidence to suggest that she is Muslim. Although the line received positive feedback from the pressand hundreds of social media users, it left many Muslim women feeling excluded and alienated.
"I've worn a hijab for most of my life. But I don't know anyone who would wear anything like that," said Zehra Birisik, a speech therapist and self-confessed Muslim fashionista. She noted that some garments in the D&G line are half-transparent and some of the skirts end around the knees—a no-no for any woman who wants to dress in accordance with Islamic law.
While the essence of the Islamic fashion is arguably about recognizing Muslim women's needs, many Western lines fluff the delivery. What these collections aim to do isn't to celebrate Muslim women, but to make money off them. Some argue that these brands not only do this in a way that ignores the needs of Muslim fashion, but are downright culturally insensitive to boot.
"Hijab is worn to achieve modesty. To me, it's a visual reminder that I see every day that I have to remain modest. How can people achieve modesty when they're wearing a headscarf worth thousands? It's also wastefulness, which has no place in Islam," Birisik explained.
She believes that the collections create the illusion that Muslim women are represented and have a lot of choice in fashion, when the items in these collections actually mock their beliefs. "It's difficult enough to shop as a hijabi woman. But when the market is full of 'Islamic clothes' that misunderstand and misrepresent us, it's frustrating."
Gonul Taban, a hijabi writer, described the D&G collection as "a half-baked effort to sink its teeth into the burgeoning Islamic fashion market" that is "far from revolutionary" on Daily Sabah. "[The D&G collection] is nothing but mediocre," she wrote, "and cannot compare to what the traditional fashion houses currently have on offer."
Moreover, these collections epitomize almost every aspect of textbook cultural appropriation: They reinforce the idea that even Muslim fashion belongs to the Westerners. No proper appreciation is given to the culture of origin, although in the end the act of cultural appropriation receives the appreciation.
As Hulya Aslan, who has consulted for several Islamic fashion brands in Turkey, puts it: "There are currently designers that create world-class collections, but it's the Western brands that take the credit."
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In the international apparel market, some Western brands already enjoy extremely advantaged positions with large marketing budgets. Business reports and market researchers continue to urge companies to explore the Muslim apparel industry, which is still dominated by local companies that might be easier competition. It's entirely possible that in 2019 the lion's share of $484 billion predicted spending of Muslims goes to these companies. In the meantime, independent Muslim fashion houses, which have played an important role in the global acceptance of Islamic fashion, might not be able to cope with the competition and fade away.
For thousands of women like Aslan and Birisik, the emergence of Islamic fashion—and having more fashion options—was a major triumph for acceptance. But now that they are now recognized as a profitable demographic, that victory has been trivialized. Instead, Muslim women are bombarded with the same messages as anybody else: It's okay to be you—as long as you're white, rich, and glamorous and can spend a lot of money.