KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 4 — When Dewi Dahlia Rani Ismail Hadi, 26, started wearing the hijab four years ago, she didn’t give up being stylish.
Instead of a jubah (a long loose Arabic robe), she began dressing in modest yet stylish clothes like long-sleeved blouses and full-length skirts instead.
The young homemaker — who follows Muslim fashion personalities who wear headscarves, or “hijabis”, like Malaysian Vivy Yusof, Indonesian Indah Nada Puspita and Kuwaiti Ascia on Instagram — said she finds she can still be fashionable while wearing the hijab.
“I feel it’s actually more fun because I get to play with more things — hijab, tops, accessories,” Dewi Dahlia told Malay Mail Online in a recent interview.
And what was she wearing that day? A long-sleeved chiffon top and trousers, with a hijab draped loosely over her head, all in pastel teal and dusty pink.
Dewi Dahlia said she spends between RM70 and RM200 a month on clothes, with maxi dresses, maxi skirts and cardigans now comprising her wardrobe staples, a change from the sleeveless dresses, short-sleeved tops and short skirts that she used to wear.
She said she considered modest dressing, according to her Islamic faith, to mean covering the head, neck, the arm, and the whole leg.
As more Malaysian women wear the hijab and change their wardrobes accordingly, modest fashion is fast becoming a lucrative industry in the country. According to Moslema In Style co-founder Emy Yuzliza Yahya, some five million Muslim women in the country cover their heads and dress modestly.
“In our database, we have 500 hijab and Muslim fashion brands,” Emy Yuzliza, whose company organises Islamic fashion shows, told Malay Mail Online.
International financial wire service Bloomberg reported last April that Muslim consumers globally are estimated to spend US$484 billion on Islamic clothing and footwear by 2019, up 82 per cent from 2013, citing the State of the Global Islamic Economy 2014-2015 report by Thomson Reuters Corp and New York-based researcher Dinar Standard.
The current Islamic fashion trend in Malaysia, according to Emy Yuzliza, is prints and jubahs (a long loose Arabic robe). She expects next year’s trend to feature more blouses and trousers.
Emy Yuzliza — who is organising the Moslema In Style Fashion Forward 2015 fashion show in Kuala Lumpur in November that will feature Islamic fashion designers from the UK, Europe, Turkey, Middle East, Brunei, Egypt and Indonesia — noted that Indonesian fashion is two years ahead of Malaysia, with the neighbouring country’s Islamic fashion trend comprising jackets, trousers and skirts worn over jeans.
“Malaysia is more simple and modest,” she said.
Modest fashion not just for Muslims
Modest fashion also appeals to non-Muslims who prefer comfortable clothes that do not “expose the skin unnecessarily”, according to aere founder Raja Nadia Sabrina, a popular fashion blogger who has over 109,000 followers on Instagram and receives 700 hits on her blog daily.
“To me, when I design aere pieces, the most important aspect is that it must be comfortable, practical, versatile and of course stylish,” Raja Nadia told Malay Mail Online in an email interview.
“I usually play with a loose or relaxed fit, long sleeves and full length skirts and pants. These are designs that are hard to find currently, and that’s something I believe makes aere very attractive to people,” the 31-year-old fashion designer added.
aere features pieces like high-waisted straight-cut pants that flatter the figure without hugging the limbs, long pleated skirts, loose-fit print tops and long faux-leather panel dresses that drape over the body, revealing just a silhouette of curves.
Raja Nadia noted that American actresses and fashion designers Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen prefer designing modest clothing for their brand The Row.
“So it’s not a Muslim-exclusive market. I’m also delighted to have received a lot of support in terms of non-Muslims wearing and buying aere pieces. aere pieces are designed to enable a lot of mixing and matching with what you already have in your wardrobe,” she said, adding that she has received very positive response beyond the target she set at the start of aere last October.
aere’s Instagram profile shows non-Muslims like local model Amber Chia wearing an aere sequinned jacket over a dress with a thigh-high slit.
FashionValet and local labels like Mimpikita also feature sleeveless tops, knee-length dresses and short skirts too, besides modest pieces.
Huffington Post UK reported recently that Mimpikita, which made its debut at London Fashion Week last month, has a seven-figure turnover and that the Malaysian brand founded in 2008 by sisters Nurul, Mira and Syera Zulkifli, is already stocked in London. In Malaysia, Mimpikita clothes are sold at its flagship store in Bangsar here and its F&B sister Calories.
“Being hijab wearers ourselves, we’re comfortable and proud of our personal styles so it’s no surprise that we love featuring models in chic, modest clothing. And in addition to that, we hope to represent and promote diversity in the fashion industry,” the sisters told the UK news website.
Mimpikita head designer and founder Nurul Zulkifli told Malay Malay Online that modest fashion is becoming increasingly popular in Malaysia so much so that it provides an opportunity for women to be fashionable and creates a niche market for entrepreneurs.
“Choosing to cover up isn’t supposed to create more stress on women, and nor is it the climax of our spirituality,” Nurul said in an email interview.
“For our recent LFW debut and for most of the collections that we have produced over the years, our models on the runway and in our photo-shoots were without hijabs to showcase the endless styling possibilities of our designs regardless of a woman’s faith,” the 33-year-old said, adding that Mimpikita plans to stock in more multi-label stores across London and e-commerce sites.
RM1 million annual revenue
Sumayyah Nasaruddin, a 33-year-old Malaysian woman whose line of full-length dresses called Love to Dress retails in Malaysia, Germany and the Netherlands, said annual revenue exceeds RM1 million since she founded her company two years ago in 2013.
“Back in 2013, there was barely a Muslimah industry and most Muslimah brands were pretty set on having this cute and sweet vibe. I desperately felt the need to rebel against that stereotype because I wanted a brand that suit my ideals of womanhood, i.e. bold, mature and feminine,” Sumayyah, who currently resides in Saudi Arabia, told Malay Mail Online in an email interview.
The entrepreneur said she started out by sourcing manufacturers from China using alibaba.com as she was living in Aberdeen, Scotland, then, and now delivers 2,000 to 4,000 dresses per collection, with three collections a year.
“With the growing demand of producing more dresses and increasing the frequency of collections i.e. four collections per year, we are looking to open our own factory in Malaysia due to currency and logistical reasons,” said Sumayyah, adding that Love to Dress dresses come in 18 different sizes and are targeted at urban Muslim women.
According to Sumayyah, the modest fashion trend in Malaysia was inspired by British-Japanese Muslim fashion designer and blogger Hana Tajima, whose modest wear collection for Uniqlo was launched in Malaysia last July.
The campaign for the Hana Tajima collection, which features loose-fitting blouses, straight-legged pants and long rayon dresses, starred popular Malaysian singer and hijabi Yuna.
The hijab appears to be gaining traction in other international labels too. H&M featured earlier this month London-based Moroccan model Mariah Idrissi in its Close the Loop campaign wearing a hijab, large sunglasses, and a dusty pink trench-coat over black trousers, reportedly the Sweden-based high street fashion company’s first hijab-wearing model.
Alternative view of modesty
Even as modest fashion appears to comprise mostly loose-cut pieces that cover the arms and legs, Malaysian interpretations of modesty in Islam are varied. Some women like FashionValet co-founder Vivy and local actress Neelofa, who has her own hijab and abaya lines, sometimes wear three-quarter sleeved tops and headscarves that don’t cover the chest, while others may insist that modesty requires longer hijabs and tops that cover up to the wrist.
News producer Mimi Azeera Abdullah, 35, considers her dressing in sleeveless tops or short skirts to be modest, a definition that may be considered radical these days as the practice of Islam here becomes increasingly conservative, even though Malay celebrities like the late Saloma and Datuk Maria Menado back in the 50s wore low-cut dresses and did not cover their hair.
“Modest doesn’t mean all covered up. You can be sexy but modest,” Mimi Azeera, who doesn’t wear a headscarf, told Malay Mail Online.
“My mum wears tudung but she always encourages me to wear – ‘You buy lah that skirt, you buy lah that shorts’. She always asks me to wear the short short ones, okay? My mum is fine with it, so thank God for that,” added the young woman, dressed edgily in a plain black tank-top, a short checked skirt over tights, and sneakers.
She described herself as a “moderate Muslim” and said there was more to Islam than the “aurat.”
“You have to start from within,” said Mimi Azeera. “There’s no point wearing a hijab if you can’t stop gossiping or if you don’t pray”.
She stressed, however, that even though she did not believe in wearing the hijab to be a good person, she still believed in dressing appropriately and respecting others.
“For example, if I knew I was going to meet someone religious like my grandma, or enter a mosque, I wouldn’t wear a skirt or sleeveless top, for sure,” she said.
Modest fashion selling like hot cakes
Local shoemaker Nelissa Hilman said Malaysian designers are moving towards modest fashion like loose styles, pointing out that international high street brands like Zara don’t have modest wear.
“In Malaysia, it’s big money,” Hilman told Malay Mail Online in an interview. “It’s crazy. As soon as they launch, they immediately sell out”.
She said shoe trends in Malaysia haven’t changed very much, but noted that Muslim women generally wear heels if they cover from head to toe.
“Like Vivy, the higher the heel, the better it is,” said Hilman, referring to the blogger and FashionValet co-founder who’s sometimes seen on Instagram wearing high heels and wedges.
Hilman, whose Nelissa Hilman label currently focuses on flats and sandals, said it was exciting to see more colourful modest wear now, instead of just black, white, brown or blue pieces.
“It’s an interesting change,” she said.