Last weekend more than 3,000 people, most of them young, Muslim women, streamed into London’s Saatchi Gallery for a fashion event unlike any other. Some were dressed in shimmering tunics and silk turbans; some wore leather caps perched on top of their hijabs and had septum piercings through their noses; others wore nude-coloured kimonos that trailed the floor. There were fashion shows with models in burkinis and hijabs, and a burqa-clad designer pitching her clothing line to the Dragon’s Den of the fashion world. This was the scene at the first ever London modest fashion week (LMFW) launched by online fashion marketplace, Haute Elan.

More than 40 designers, hailing everywhere from the UK to Saudi Arabia, showcased clothes that weave culture and religious identity into yards of fabric. Designs weren’t limited to abayas (a long tunic traditionally worn by Muslim women in the Middle East). There were lush velvet palazzos from Maslea; pastel-coloured flared jumpsuits by Syomirizwa Gupta; satin emerald-green dresses with puffed shoulders from Foulard; trendy burkini-wear by Lyra; and beaded evening gowns by Sahee London that could have floated off the pages of an F Scott Fitzgerald novel.

Amid burkini bans in France and a cacophony of debates about Muslim women’s sartorial choices, it is a charged world in which this revolution in modest wear is taking place. And it is high time – as Romanna Bint Abu Bakr, the founder and CEO of Haute Elan, points out: “A quarter of the world’s population are going to be Muslim by 2030. Sixty percent of that population will be under 30 by 2030, so it’s really time for retailers to take notice that they exist.”

For years Muslim women in the UK have had to resort to a jigsaw puzzle assemblage of long sleeved T-shirts and cardigans to cover low-cut necks and sleeveless dresses. Faith and fashion were largely mutually exclusive.

But the wheels have turned quickly. In 2015, Britain’s Mariah Idrissi became the first hijab-wearing model to appear in any mainstream western fashion campaign when she donned a chequered Palestinian shemagh hijab and round Jackie O sunglasses in an H&M campaign. At this month’s New York fashion week the Somali-American model Halima Aden, the first hijab-wearer to be signed to IMG models, made her runway debut during Kanye West’s Yeezy season 5 show.

Mariah Idrissi
Mariah Idrissi models for H&M, 2015.

And the high street is catching on, too. In 2014, DKNY launched a Ramadan collection, with Mango following suit in 2016. Uniqlo teamed up with UK-born fashion designer Hana Tajima in 2015, to create a modest fashion line and hijabs. And only last week, Debenhams announced it was to partner with contemporary modest fashion retailer, Aab, to sell hijabs for the first time. With the global spend for Muslim fashion set to be $484bn by 2019, it’s small wonder that the fashion world has cottoned on.

So how is it that this industry has come to cause such a stir? Abu Bakr says social media is responsible: “A lot of young people use social media, and that has been the cause of the push for this fashion revolution, just like we saw with the Arab spring. Now we’re seeing that change in fashion.” This might not be Tahrir Square but the modest fashion industry has been heavily influenced by the emergence of bloggers such as Dina Toki-O and Ascia Akf, who have amassed millions of followers by posting hijab and turban tutorials, and blog posts about the arduous art of layering clothes to create demure but chic looks, crystallising their status as the Kardashians of modest fashion.

And “Generation M” – as dubbed by Love in a Headscarf author Shelina Janmohamed – has responded. This group of young, tech-savvy, entrepreneurial Muslim millennials are leading the modest fashion charge with their mipster (Muslim hipster) tendencies. Navigating between their religious and cultural identities these young women – who don’t believe consumerism or fashion is antithetical to their religious beliefs – are driving up the value of the modest fashion industry, and the Muslim pound for that matter.

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Looks from the Hana Tajima collection for Uniqlo.

But while the modest fashion revolution might be a recent thing in the UK, it has been a booming global industry for many years. Muna Abu Sulayman, dubbed the Oprah Winfrey of the Arab world, is the first Saudi Arabian woman to become an international TV presenter. Speaking at London modest fashion week she said: “It’s dangerous to assume that it’s only now modest fashion has become popular. When we talk about Muslim fashion entrepreneurs, who are we talking about? They’ve been around for years. There are really great designers coming out from Saudi Arabia, from Malaysia … ” The difference: “It’s only now that the west has recognised this.”

Modest wear is also transcending the Muslim label, flourishing among orthodox Jewish women, Christian women, and those who identify with no faith as well. Culinary queen Nigella Lawson is no stranger to modest wear – she was photographed wearing a burkini on a beach six years ago. Speaking at LMFW, Mariah Idrissi said, “This event is about diversity and showing that as much as modesty is a part of the Islamic faith, everyone is welcome to be a part of it.”

The entrepreneurial and creative flair of a vibrant, young generation, as well as the universal appeal of modest fashion, will ensure its longevity – not as a trend but as a permanent fixture in the world of fashion. Like it or not, modest fashion is officially out of the closet.

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