Having Our Say: An Open Letter to Fashion Brands
Posted on 03 October 2019
Has the hijab become a mainstream fashion accessory? A decade ago, we never would have imagined walking into a major clothing chain and finding Muslim head coverings proudly hanging alongside necklaces and handbags. Yet, here we are, witnessing one of the greatest shifts in the Modesty Movement: public recognition of the American Muslim Woman. Even with so much to celebrate by way of diversity, inclusion and religious acceptance, there are still so many hurdles to overcome.
Hijab vs High Street
Last August, we all witnessed the sudden appearance of Banana Republic’s latest creation – a polyester hijab available in leopard print, black floral, navy and Millennial pink, which awkwardly rode the coattails of the successful ASOS collaboration with Verona Collection’s own Lisa Vogl. Naturally, we applaud the efforts of any major fashion label including Muslim women in their advertising campaigns and do a happy dance whenever we see ourselves positively represented in the media.
However, within an hour of the launch, Banana Republic, a major American retailer owned by global giant Gap Inc., came under intense scrutiny for their portrayal of a 'typical Muslim woman'. Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t the company's take on the headscarf that sparked the most controversy, but the image of NYC model Fatuma Yusuf wearing a short-sleeved tee in one picture and a thigh-high slitted skirt in another. The fumbled message behind the ads seemed to say, “Isn’t this how all the cool hijabies dress?” You could almost hear the crickets chirping.
As a symbol of Islamic modesty, the hijab takes many forms and is interpreted in many ways by the women who choose to wear it. Nevertheless, the general rule of thumb is: if you commit to covering your hair, you pretty much cover your arms and legs as well. And while the majority of Muslim women know this 'hijab code' like the back of their hands, why did Banana Republic neglect to do their research and simply...ask?
Respecting Our Values
With Forbes Magazine projecting Muslim consumer spending in the apparel market to reach $368 billion by 2021, a wide blue ocean exists for large brands to reach Muslim customers in a more positive light. Melanie Elturk told Mashable, “Brands will continue to invest in this space, but without proper checks in place, you have images like this. All it would have taken was a consultation with a Muslim brand or group to advise in order to do it right and respect our values.”
We've reached a point where there are just no excuses anymore. Social media has made it possible for an open dialogue to exist between large brands and their publics. Zeena COO Amany Jondy stated, "As Muslim women ourselves, we know what we want in our clothing choices, and we still do our research, hold focus groups, talk to customers, and send online surveys when developing new products."
When we are left out of the conversation, embarrassing mistakes like this will continue to happen; and while the controversial Banana Republic photographs have now been appropriately cropped, the question still remains, are Muslim women to be told what to wear, or do we have a say in the matter? The answer is a loud, resounding 'YES'.
Speaking directly to apparel brands across the board, acclaimed journalist Noor Tagouri told her Instagram followers, “More Muslim women need to be involved in the PROCESS. [...] When you want to cater to a new community, invest in diverse consultants from across [that] community, seek multiple opinions from different perspectives to mitigate your risk and provide the best possible product or service for the entire community you are looking to serve…from start to finish.”
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Edited — Thoughts on Banana Republic Hijab Collection: For all the brands who are following this — when you want to cater to a new community, invest in diverse consultants from across the community, seek multiple opinions from different perspectives to mitigate your risk and provide the best possible product or service for the entire community you are looking to serve, from start to finish.
Vote With Your Wallet
As we continue to encounter large brands 'hit or miss' in their advertising campaigns, it's becoming clear that there is no set formula for what the future of Muslim representation in mainstream fashion should look like. Nicole Queen, co-host of the podcast Salam Girl! believes positive reinforcement is one way we can encourage better relationships with apparel brands seeking out the Muslim consumer. “We cheer for the wins so we get more of them,” she stated in an interview with Zeena Uncovered, “and we ignore the fails and don’t give them our attention or money, so in marketing terms, they see that was a fail. We control the market as consumers. Show them how you feel with your wallet.”
Celebrating diversity is something we should all continuously strive for. Banana Republic is not the first company to try to appeal to the Muslim consumer, and hopefully not the last. As the Modesty Movement continues to gain momentum, we welcome other fashion brands into the fold. The Nike Pro-Hijab made history when it was worn by Olympic gold medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad. Similarly, Uniqlo continues to push the boundaries of modest fashion with its ongoing collaboration with designer Hana Tajima. As consumers, we have more power than we think. Support the brands you believe are making positive strides towards inclusivity and ignore the ones who don't. Make comments. Leave feedback. Every opinion counts. It's all we can do to make the changes we want to see.
A Word of Advice
As a US-based apparel brand, ZEENA was founded with the belief that modest clothing should be effortless, accessible and woven into the mainstream fabric of society. Dressing modestly may be trending now, but for us, it is part of our lifestyle as American Muslim women.
Although we applaud the effort of any brand looking to diversify its product mix and include us in their target market, a little research goes a long way in terms of making a good impression. As a consumer group with one of the fastest-growing income expenditure, simply stated, Muslim women need to be included in the conversation. The American Muslim Woman is not inaccessible, she is, in fact, a multi-faceted global citizen who is educated, tech-savvy, self-aware, brand-aware and opinionated. We are entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, congresswomen, business owners, teachers, designers and most of all, part of a diverse community that deserves equal representation.
“I’ve said it before, mainstream fashion brands don’t really understand Muslim women as a market segment,” explains Zeena CEO Bayan Jondy, “but that doesn’t mean we don’t want them to keep trying! We are a part of the most diverse faith, which can be confusing for someone from the outside, but that is why it is vital to consult with a focus group (designers, bloggers, local community) when launching a product to us, as a target audience. I love that my daughter will grow up seeing hijab everywhere and I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying to reach us, but there is a proper way to go about it. It’s taking control of our narrative.”
Reach out. Talk to us. If you are looking to create products you know our community will love, we are here willing and waiting to share our opinion, but the question remains...are you willing to listen?
How do you feel about the hijab going mainstream? What's your take on religious diversity in the apparel market? We'd love to hear what you have to say in the comments below.