The Cultural Politics Of Muslim Fashion
Dolce & Gabbana's focus on Muslim consumers is more than skin deep
In spring 2015, Dolce & Gabbana lost a major chunk of the pink pound—aka the queer spending market—thanks to the designers’ critical comments about “synthetic babies” and non-nuclear families. In the wake of this controversy, the designers need a new consumer market: Might it be possible that the Italian fashion brand is now chasing after Muslim moolah instead?
With a high profile international campaign backing their new range of designer hijabs and abayas, this might be a bold new phase for the sometimes fraught cultural politics of a luxury brand. Or, with the global Muslim spend on apparel valued at $266 billion in 2013 by Thomson Reuters (and projected to rise to $484 billion by 2019), it could simply be a canny move to raise their brand’s profile among a global Muslim population that is now being identified as a key emerging market.
Either way, for fashion industry veterans in the know, the value of the Muslim spend should come as no surprise. In 1989, Nicolas Coleridge’s The Fashion Conspiracy outed the open secret that Arab women from wealthy Gulf nations had been keeping the couture houses in business since the 1970s. Most, if not all, designers would tweak designs to meet local or religious sensibilities. Yet these clients were never featured front row, or feted in press releases. This was partly for reasons of client personal and cultural privacy. But it was also because there was zero prestige to be gained from the connection for the designers.
Fast forward to today: fashion brands from luxury to high street are definitely shifting from covert to overt in their relationships with Muslim customers and modest fashion, marking a tipping point in how western brands relate to Muslim consumers.
I spent 10 years researching my book Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures. It was clear, throughout that time, that the mainstream fashion industry was missing an opportunity to attract muslim consumers. In not appealing to Muslim consumers, it shut itself off from millions of potential customers. Frequently those working on Muslim lifestyle and fashion titles, such as emel, Diva or Muslim Girl, found that brands were unwilling to lend products for a photo shoot or, in the case of Azizah, take out ads, sometimes because the title might be too small in circulation. But often these publishers felt the lack of interest was really because brands’ public relations departments didn’t want to be associated with Muslims post-9/11.
Until very recently, the growing numbers of young Muslims seeking to express their identities through participation in mainstream consumer cultures, often whilst wearing a headscarf or hijab, were similarly ignored. Muslim fashionistas routinely encountered shock from non-Muslims that a woman in hijab was interested in fashion. There was a uniform lack of knowledge about what types of garments might best style a modest ensemble. With the Dolce & Gabbana abaya range now joining other brands—which are similarly waking up to the promise of more $$$—in the cultivation of Muslim consumers, there’s a familiar shift from aversion to brewing celebration.
The last two years have seen forward-thinking fashion brands dip their toes into the water with collections aimed at Muslims. DKNY kicked things off by creating a Ramadan capsule collection in 2014, available in its Gulf stores. Hilfiger, Monsoon, and Mango followed in DKNY’s steps last year, similarly promoting a selection of already available items under the Ramadan banner, this time however available outside the Muslim world in Europe and North America. At Net-a-Porter, the new Eid Edit collection did a similar job. If these initiatives went viral on the lively hijabi fashion blogosphere, there was near meltdown when Uniqlo announced its collaboration with Hana Tajima, the British designer and star hijabi fashion blogger, whose new range of modest fashion was available only in South East Asia.
So what sets Dolce & Gabbana out as pioneering? The launch of its new abaya range marks the first time a global luxury brand has created new product specifically for Muslim consumers. Even more extraordinary, they have promoted it as part of their mainstream media presence. Abayas have featured heavily on company Instagram accounts alongside the usual visual mix of backstage shots, catwalk collections, and happy snaps of the celebrity fabulousness of the Dolce & Gabbana world.
So is that it? Modest fashion simply joins the ranks of other styles? I don’t think so. Just because a consumer group has been historically ignored does not mean that it automatically becomes an easy target for monetization. There is plenty of room for brands to get it wrong, especially with a population accustomed to media misrepresentation. Unsurprisingly, the Dolce & Gabbana range has been criticized: for being too expensive, for not being modest enough, for the way it is marketed, and for the quality of its designs.
Nor will shopping bring about world peace. But I do think that those who have grown up as part of the majority cultures often underestimate how profoundly alienating it is to be ignored by prevalent consumer culture. Seeking a bar mitzvah card on London’s Oxford Street or wanting a long skirt that isn’t transparent if you are a modest-dressing Muslim, Christian, or orthodox Jew can leave you feeling disregarded and undervalued. So, while it is certainly the case that the majority of Muslim women (just like the majority of the global female population) are not in a position to buy a high-end abaya, when brands do reach out to neglected consumer groups, their message of inclusion is often welcomed with open arms.
The means by which brands reach out is equally as important as the product they are offering, especially given today’s visually saturated social media. Dolce & Gabbana have a sordid history when it comes to getting it wrong with visuals and minority politics. Commenting on the apparently Caucasian model cast for the abaya shoot, Ruqaiya Haris in the UK Guardian points out that Dolce & Gabbana faced criticism in 2012 for using black women’s faces as a motif on clothes and accessories in an all-white runway show. In a fashion industry that has an appalling record on ethnically integrated casting, the “consecration” of the abaya on a seemingly white body has riled many. But, given that Islam is not an ethnicity, but rather a faith that accepts converts, others have welcomed the mash-up of Arab garment on non-Arab body.
Talking to designers, retailers, journalists, and stylists in the growing Muslim fashion industry, I know that the body under the modest clothing is a big issue, as it is for designers and image makers of modest fashion in other religions. For Muslim fashion mediators in Muslim minority countries, it is often a priority to cast a commercial or editorial shoot on models of different visible ethnicities to reflect the variety of backgrounds found among a local Muslim population. But more than this, for many young Muslims, an affective identity with the umma, the supra-national community of Muslim believers, often augments local, familial, and regional affiliations of their parents’ generation. Fashion has played a central role in the expression of these transnational links, with star bloggers acting as influencers in the transmission of modest style stories that link local taste communities with micro-generational trends around the world. Many young women in Britain who have chosen to wear a hijab do so in combination with fashion from the high street, rather than the so-called “ethnic” clothing conventional to their communities of origin. While older generations might think that a proper Muslim girl should be wearing a sari or salvar kameez, these young women are styling modest dress in the seasonal colors and trends of the global fashion mags, taking guidance from online hijab tutorials rather than from family or community elders.
It is this constant stream of adaptation and innovation plus local style cultures that Dolce & Gabbana have to contend with in their abaya designs. As the blogosphere has been swift to point out, there is already a thriving abaya fashion industry in their target Gulf territories. With Forbes reporting that Bain valued the Gulf spend on personal luxury goods at $8.7 billion for 2015, will the Italians be a commercial threat to local designers, or will it stimulate a bigger market? In a context where national and regional taste distinctions are keenly felt, many of the Gulf super-rich prefer local designers for their abayas—designers who are up to speed with the nuance of fast changing trends. With abaya-wearing in the Emirates signaling the privileges of national citizenship rather than religious identity, Dolce & Gabbana may find that their Gulf clients are not actually wearing the abaya when they step off the plane in London or Milan. Another alternative scenario: perhaps if they have become recognizable trophies of international glamour, they will. Perhaps if the attention to Muslim fashion consumers continues to expand and diversity, Muslims will emerge into popular consciousness as style tastemakers, like queer style icons did before them.
Attractive as this vision may be to some, Muslims, like the LGBTQ community, might want to be careful what they wish for. The results of mass fashion acceptance and glorification are mixed blessing: recognition of gays and lesbians as consumer citizens has brought some advances, but obscured the struggle that led to those advances. A young generation of queers in certain cosmopolitan urban locations will find it unimaginable that the bars and clubs of London’s Soho or New York’s Greenwich Village used to have smoked glass windows and closed doors. Pride is now likely to be sponsored by corporate floats, handing out branded balloons to cheering crowds, but shifting the march (no longer a demonstration) to town centre locations brings additional costs to attendees. In the same way, while being recognized by the fashion industry is a welcome balm to Muslims accustomed to being relegated to the domain of the unfashionable unmodern, it may be that if being fashionable and on-trend comes to be a defining component of being Muslim, will Muslims find they are priced out of modesty, just as some queers find themselves priced out of Pride, with events run by commerce rather than community?
Reina Lewis is Professor of Cultural Studies, London College of Fashion, UAL.