Islamic Fashion Design Council head condemns critics of Primark’s ‘modest’ fashion range

The founder of the Dubai-based Islamic Fashion Design Council has backed British retailer Primark’s launch of its range of attire for Muslim women after critics branding its use of the term “modest” as “outdated”.

The high-street chain has unveiled its affordable range called the Modest Collection in its autumn and winter series. A backlash brewed from some that claimed the word ‘modest’, which is derived from the industry term Modest Fashion, should have been dropped years ago.

Modest Fashion describes clothing for women wishing to wear enveloping clothes, often guided by reasons of faith.

Alia Khan, founder of the Islamic Fashion Design Council, this week welcomed Primark’s launch, hailing it as a win for Muslim women.

Nafisa Bakkar, who was recognised in this year’s Forbes under 30 list for media and marketing, started the clothing website Amaliah to address the difficulty Muslim women face when looking for clothes that are modest yet fashionable. She has feels the term needs an overhaul.

“A well known fashion brand announcing a modest collection feels so dated to me now Do we still use the term ‘modest fashion’?” she tweeted.

During a webinar event on Modest Fashion, held by the cultural heritage organisation the Zay Initiative, Ms Khan said Primark’s initiative should be welcomed, and the collection demonstrated that Muslim voices were being heard.

Alia Khan, Chairwoman, IFDC
Alia Khan, Chairwoman, IFDC

“We cannot get into semantics. We should be grateful and appreciative,” she said.

“We do not need to denote the fashion as modern or chic, we have just won a mini-battle and manufacturers now recognise it as a legitimate market.

“Who are Primark and Dolce & Gabbana catering for? Us, because we have been heard and we are getting the respect we want. Is this really the time for this silly conversation? It is like going back to the darkness,” Ms Khan said.

“We have come from having to rummage to find the perfect dress only to find it had short sleeves or was backless. We said ‘why should we layer? We are buying three outfits for every one piece our mainstream colleagues are’. Do you really want us to go back now and have to rummage through Primark to find something suitable to our guidelines? I’m not going to take this [criticism] seriously.”

She said she was open to ideas for the term Modest Fashion to be rebranded.

“We have to cut everybody some slack, we need to come up with a defining category for this market, it will be a fashion whatever term we use, if we call it ‘decent’ fashion we will be criticised,” she said.

“We are open to suggestions. Maybe we have a competition on what to call it.”

Dr Reem el Mutwalli, founder of The Zay Initiative. Courtesy The Zay Initiative

Dr Reem El Mutwalli, who has collected and preserved the history of the UAE’s national dresses, said Primark’s initiative has received “many positive” comments.

“What is observed is that ‘modest’ is a growing phenomenon and it is happening among women of different faiths,” she said.

“The reality is that everyone has their own idea of what modest fashion means to them. This runs alongside people’s personal preferences of colour and style. It is such a broad idea that becomes very narrow inside those two words.

“Commerce and trade is constantly fuelled by nuances to promote more consumer spending.”

Primark’s Modest Collection is available in 91 stores across Europe.

“We believe that Primark is for everyone, and we strive to provide our customers with choice, the store told The National.

“Our Modest Collection caters to anyone seeking affordable, trend-driven fashion which enables varying degrees of modest dressing.

“It includes a range of versatile pieces with longer sleeves, higher necklines and lower hems, offering endless outfit opportunities for our customers to feel comfortable and stylish, while also tapping into the season’s biggest trends.”

Post Script Statement from IFDC Chairwoman, Alia Khan, for HalalFocus:

There is an important discussion to be had when it comes to what category defining term the modest fashion industry players are happy with. Because I don’t think anyone is particularly attached to the word “modest”, I’m okay with exploring other suitable words to define this category.

In the meantime, a discussion about doing away with the category all together and just blending it with mainstream fashion again, is taking several steps back. We will be right back where we started and I don’t think anyone really wants that. Everyone has worked so hard to have their voices heard, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive from the global fashion players including leading iconic brands from Paris to New York. They are now catering to us, and have proven to show their interest in developing an understanding and respect for our lifestyle. These are very constructive milestones. It would be imprudent to not reflect on this achievement. I believe it is reason to be further encouraged to continue to join forces with industry players as we move forward on this significant development, not backwards.