It started with a skirt. Four years ago, Aicha Chtourou was a college student who loved fashion, but had a hard time actually taking part in the trends. As a Muslim who chooses to wear a hijab and dress conservatively, it was hard to find clothes that were both full-coverage and stylish. When she shopped at stores like H&M and Zara, she had to enlist her mom, Hong Tiang, a professional seamstress, to alter her purchases, adding lining to sheer shirts, sewing up revealing slits and lengthening hemlines.
Finally, when Chtourou was having trouble finding the perfect chiffon maxi skirt, she thought: What if she designed her own? She sought her mom’s help, and several prototypes later, she had multiple skirts that complemented her wardrobe. It wasn’t long before friends and family members began asking if they could buy skirts of their own. The duo realized there was a serious void in the market. “We figured out I wasn’t the only one with this problem,” says Chtourou. “We thought, why not create a line that’s based on inclusivity? It started for friends and it became something bigger.”
In 2016, three years after that first skirt, Chtourou and Tiang officially launched Mode-ste. The brand offers floor-length zippered skirts, floral wrap jackets, Millennial Pink–hued turtleneck tunics with matching cropped trousers, as well as more traditional garments like hijab and abaya, the loose dresses worn by women in the Middle East.
Chtourou and Tiang are a relatively small mother-daughter operation, but they’re at the forefront of a multi-billion dollar industry.
Luxury brands have started tapping into skyrocketing retail growth in the Arab world by expanding into “modest fashion”—the catchall term for clothing that is fashion-conscious with a focus on keeping women relatively covered. In 2014, DKNY launched a collection for Ramadan, the first of its kind. Tommy Hilfiger, Oscar de la Renta and Dolce & Gabbana quickly followed suit. And the trend has trickled down to more affordable retailers, too. Uniqlo, Zara and Mango have all released modest fashion collections. By 2021, the most recent State of the Global Islamic Economy Report estimates the modest dressing industry will be worth more than $368 billion.
In Canada, where the Toronto-based International Modest Fashion & Design Festival takes place on Aug. 26, the slice of the market is driven largely by young designers, shop owners, social media stars and community organizers re-interpreting modesty for the new vanguard of young modest fashionistas. Search #modestfashion or #hijabfashion on Instagram, and you’ll find perfectly coiffed twentysomethings with baseball caps over hijabs, intricately tied headscarves and pleated skirts styled with leather jackets.
One of those women is Eman Bare, the Regina-raised and Toronto-based designer and CBC journalist who makes modest clothing for the working woman. Think lush velvet turbans, structured capes and tailored trousers, all ethically produced by women in North America, Morocco, Somalia and Malaysia. “My motto is to design clothing to make all women feel powerful,” she says.
Bare considers her collection modest simply because she designs with coverage in mind, and she notes that the term isn’t exclusive to Muslim women. Christian and Orthodox Jewish women are also rejecting the idea that modest or religious clothes must be unstylish, and modest fashion is attracting non-religious customers as well: The Frock NYC, a minimalist label run by two Orthodox Jewish sisters in Brooklyn, is a Vogue favourite, and Liz Roy, the Christian modest fashion blogger behind Downtown Demure, has over 20,000 followers on Instagram. Chtourou agrees, saying only around 60 percent of Mode-ste’s current customer base is Muslim.
“We’re not here to judge anyone or say, ‘This is the right way to dress,’” she says. “Our goal is to expand the fashion bubble and cater to those with a modest aesthetic and make it accessible to the masses.”
Here are 10 of our favourite picks—from rompers to trousers and scarves—from Canadian designers.