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Modest fashion crosses cultures

Romanna bint Abu Baker, CEO and founder of Haute Elan, said modest fashion has gone global. (Bloomberg)
LONDON: Saudi designers will be in the spotlight next month when the international fashion community gathers in Riyadh for the first Arab Fashion Week ever hosted in the Kingdom.
The Arab Fashion Council, which organizes the event, is welcoming the opportunity to showcase Saudi style and display the diversity of local talent on an international platform.
Among the local looks on show will be modest fashion, a trend that is gaining traction on runways across the world. Last week saw the second edition of London Modest Fashion Week (LMFW), with designers from Malaysia to Saudi Arabia showcasing a huge range of designs.
LMFW founder Romanna bint Abu Baker, who also owns modest fashion boutique Haute Elan, said the trend has quickly gone global “as seen from the breadth of international brands on our runway, from Australia to Germany, Pakistan to UK.”
“The Muslim population is very diverse and spread across the world,” she explained.
But it is not just Muslims donning demure attire. In recent seasons, international brands from Dolce & Gabbana to Oscar de La Renta have tapped into the modesty trend, releasing collections dominated by full-length gowns, loose trousers and flowing skirts. Others include DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger, Monique Lhuillier and high-street brands Zara and Mango.
Last year, UK retailer Marks & Spencer launched a line of burkinis, which quickly sold out, and dedicated modest-wear platforms such as The Modist have sprung up to cater to a growing and culturally diverse consumer base.
A recent state of the economy report by Thomson Reuters indicated one possible reason for the mounting interest in modest wear, which yielded revenues of $44 billion in 2015, with Muslims accounting for a global spend of $243 billion on clothing that year. By 2021, apparel spend from Muslims is projected to reach $368 billion, and international brands are eager to cash in on the purchasing power.
Princess Noura Bint Faisal Al-Saud, honorary president of the Arab Fashion Council, said that Arab Fashion Week in Riyadh next month presents an opportunity to explain the roots of this trend while also exhibiting the eclectic nature of Saudi style. “Modest fashion is a fairly new way of expressing beauty and with the exposure of the Saudi market and this event, I think people will understand it better.”
Organizers see Arab Fashion Week as an opportunity to break down cultural barriers and showcase Saudi style to the world. “This is an exchange of culture, knowledge and education,” Princess Noura said.
Discussing the abaya, which features widely in the collections of Arab designers and has made several appearances in international collections, she said it represents “a choice” for women.
“The abaya is something cultural, it’s something that shows our identity and I’m very proud of showing that.
“I love how Dolce and Gabbana actually showcased the abaya on the runway,” she added.
Alia Khan, chairwoman of the Islamic Fashion and Design Council described modest dressing as a different kind of beauty that “liberates” women from media stereotypes. “It allows you to be comfortable, it allows you to be free ... to feel dignified yet elegant.”
She pointed to a long-standing history of modest dressing that spans cultures, countries and religions. “Modest fashion is just as normal as everything else. It’s not a new thing, it comes from pretty much every culture.”
The modesty trend is a way of bridging cultures and bringing people together, Khan continued, pointing to a strong secondary following among non-Muslims and people of other faiths. “Fashion has always been a soft way to break down sociopolitical issues and barriers.”
Jacob Abrian, founder and chief executive of the Arab Fashion Council, which runs Arab Fashion Week, reiterated the value of fashion to start dialogues and promote understanding between different peoples. “Fashion is not only about appearance, it has a great cultural message.”
He’s unconvinced by the concept of modest fashion as a recent trend. “Being modest has always been there … I don’t define it as an industry on its own.”
“It’s up to the lady … sometimes it can be really elegant to dress modestly.It’s really a personal decision.”
Princess Noura reiterated the emphasis on freedom in fashion. “Modesty is something that’s very appealing to the Arab world but there are no boundaries in fashion — you can wear whatever you want.”

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