ISTANBUL — Turkey’s leading Islamic online fashion sales platform, Modanisa, has geared up to lead Europe’s first Modest Fashion Week with a launch event in London in April. The retailer is aiming to unite and promote religiously conservative designers, who organizers believe have long been overlooked by the contemporary fashion industry.
Modanisa has already mobilized more than 300 manufacturers and dozens of designers to contribute to their first modest fashion web site at home and built a label that has reached up to 1 million registered clientele in 57 countries since its was established in 2011.
In a niche market that Thomson Reuters claimed is worth around $243 billion globally and is expected to surge to $484 billion by 2019, Modanisa’s founders believe an international fashion week, which they launched in Istanbul last spring, would fill a huge gap worldwide.
“We saw the gap in the Turkish market when covered women circled shopping malls for hours, trying to pick things that matched their needs and failing most of the time,” said Kerim Ture, one of the founders of Modanisa, which receives 4.5 million online visitors a month. “Being the pioneer in our league, we inherently feel responsible to help designers of this culture exchange ideas across continents and introduce themselves to a wider audience.”
Aside from acknowledged designers like Anniesa Hasibuan, who broke taboos by appearing at New York Fashion Week for the last two years with her hijab collections, and Iman Aldebe, a Swedish designer who was featured in the H&M 2015 fall collection video in a hijab, Modanisa Fashion Week also aims to unite emerging modest fashion players, including bloggers, retailers, distributors and photographers for an international debut.
Located in Uskudar, one of Istanbul’s historically conservative neighborhoods, Modanisa operated almost like a multifaceted textile factory, intertwining continents and generating sales that placed Turkey among the world’s top exporters of so-called modest fashion.
The knowhow Turkey gathered in textile production over decades, coupled with improving Internet infrastructure and the country’s speedy transportation capability were critical in growing the business by 4.5 times its start-up size each year, Ture added.
The key to success has been to capture cultural nuances among the world’s diverse female Muslim population and address their needs for style and propriety.
“The specific way you tie the headscarf is important. It says something about you, your culture, background and life,” said Havva Kahraman, the marketing manager of Modanisa, as her graphic designer in a colorful silk headscarf manipulated the cursor on her computer screen to put the final touches on the Modanisa London Fashion Week poster.
“We organize a different photo shoot for Iran, use more throw overs for Saudi Arabia, colorful headscarves for Turkey and come up with a mix for Europe. Ours is a constant effort to capture the needs of the international conservative women,” added Kahraman.
Turkish modest fashion had to come a long way before it could cater to cultural nuances for an international clientele.
Women’s headscarves had been a thorny issue for Turkey’s staunchly secular state until the Islamist Justice and Development Party took over in 2002 and challenged the status quo by gradually relaxing restrictions on women wearing religious attire in public offices and universities. By 2007, wigs that many pious female college students saw as a remedy to circumvent the headscarf ban in college campuses were replaced by a trendy mix-and-match of hip fashion items with a variety of turbans in rich colors and designs.
A similar ban was lifted in almost all public offices in 2013, which added a considerable number of conservative women to the workforce and increased their public visibility, a 2015 survey by the Istanbul-based Gezici Research concluded.
It was mainly conservative college students who found employment in greater numbers and ultimately created a demand for a contemporary look among a younger population in daily public life and paved the way for the emergence of a lucrative niche market. Now, in Istanbul young Muslim women stroll in cutting-edge modest styles in a rich palette of colors, which contrasts with the Nineties look of pious women dressed in long, loose raincoats in shades of brown, black and gray, paired with plain headscarves tied under the chin.
“In 1992, when we organized the very first modest fashion catwalk in Turkey, it was a massive sensation, almost a shock, and I was nicknamed the Tailor of God,” said Mustafa Karaduman, the founder of TekBir, the country’s leading conservative female clothing manufacturer. “We didn’t discover anything new, though. The veil has existed since God created Adam, so it was, and still is, about adding a contemporary twist and respond to an increasing demand.”
Today, Karaduman feels that he is a pioneer in establishing a standalone sector in Turkey, with hundreds of producers that contributed to more than 20 online platforms such as Modanisa. In the last few years, the West has been going through its own cultural transformation at a time when conservative and nationalist policies continue to gain ground in a backlash against Muslims, who are often mislabeled as extremists, Ture said. The Trump administration’s proposed ban on immigration from seven primarily Muslim countries; the Brexit vote, a large element of which centered on immigration, and the rise of right-wing parties in France and The Netherlands are the latest actions in that trend.
“Turkey made the mistake of considering the headscarf a political statement whereas it was merely an individual preference, and now we see the same tendency in Europe,” he said. “It’s those European countries — seen as the cradle of liberties — that should stand up against such misperceptions. If we are not going to respect a woman’s personal choice then what else is there to respect?”
Modanisa currently receives the highest number of orders from France, which has the largest Muslim community in Western Europe at 5 million, despite a ban on headscarves in state schools and public-sector workplaces.
An international fashion week along the lines of the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Weeks, as a high-end professional platform for a range of mainstream to modest fashion brands, might also display a different face of Muslim women and help correct misperceptions, organizers claim.
“Lots of people are surprised to see what they find in a modest fashion week,” said Franka Soeira, cofounder of Think Fashion, an online modest fashion platform and an organizer of the Istanbul Modest Fashion Week last year. “They might have never thought that modest fashion could be so diverse, promising and rich, just as some big luxury brands already discovered it.”
Dolce & Gabbana, Oscar de la Renta, DKNY and Tommy Hilfiger have so far invested in Muslim purchasing power and have made an inclusive statement by presenting collections for religiously conservative women.
Karaduman claims that Modanisa Fashion Week will inspire more fashion houses and help designers in the West to rediscover their cultural and religious roots.
“The cover is not a subject of the Koran but is widely seen in the Christian belief, as well as in Judaism. However, it has been forgotten in these cultures for a long time,” he said. “A modest fashion week might inspire designers to help them recapture modesty in their future collections.”
With Turkey in the lead, he added.
“Paris has been the trendsetter in women’s fashion, Milan in men’s fashion, so it’s time Istanbul leads the Muslim fashion world,” Karaduman said.