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29/06/2017

Covered-up fashion

Covered-up fashion: Why not baring all is suddenly stylish

I'd found it: the ideal dress for a black-tie summer wedding. This particular dress was long but lightweight, just embellished enough, with a neckline that wouldn't scandalise the grandmother of the bride. Except - I realised as I clicked ahead to the rear-view photo - that this otherwise perfect chapel-to-dance floor gown was backless.

"That's incredibly frustrating," says Ghizlan Guenez, founder and chief executive of The Modist, a new e-commerce site focused on the more decorous side of high fashion. Guenez, an elegant 38-year-old who grew up in Algiers, Beirut and London before settling into a private-equity career in Dubai, has a lifetime of experience with let-downs like these. She and many women in her circle choose to dress modestly, making every shopping expedition into a series of elimination rounds for nonconforming features. "If they find something they like, either it has a slit, or it's sleeveless or it's sheer... There are millions of women who dress this way and they've been completely underserved."

Until now, that is: Guenez launched The Modist in March 2017. With the tag-line "luxury modest fashion for extraordinary women", the online store is primed to reach a worldwide audience of women who prefer their fashion a bit more covered-up.

You won't find any crop tops, shorts, spaghetti straps or (ahem) backless gowns. What you will find is flattering dresses, midi skirts, interesting shirting and other assorted ready-to-wear that leaves a little something to the imagination. The site is a boon to any woman who's ever felt a dress would be perfect if only it had sleeves.

Guenez and her team leave defining what constitutes modesty to their shopper. "Really it's 'little-m' modest," Sasha Sarokin, the site's buying and fashion director and a 10-year alumna of Net-a-Porter, says with a smile. "It's more understated and a bit more refined. I enjoy buying for a woman who doesn't necessarily identify as modest or not; she just likes the look." To wit: her dress the day we meet is a high-necked, long-sleeved, mid-calf, tiger-printed number by Ukrainian designer Petar Petrov (which I know because I heard at least five women gasp over it and ask about the designer).

The site launched with a stable of 75 brands ranging from the established (Marni, Alberta Ferretti, Robert Clergerie) to the emerging (London-based Rejina Pyo and Racil; Turkish brand Mimya). The pitching process involved a good deal of visual-assisted education about modesty. But over and over again, Guenez and Sarokin would arrive at meetings to find that the women on the other side of the table were modestly dressed, whether they were conscious of that as a style choice or not.

For fashion undoubtedly is in the midst of a modest moment. The covered-up vision of beauty that Valentino pioneered has infiltrated every corner of the industry, prevailing at Gucci, Celine and Balenciaga. The breakout star of the autumn/winter runways was Halima Aden, a 19-year-old Somali-American model who wore her hijab on the MaxMara runway and on the covers of CR Fashion Book, Vogue Arabia and Allure.

Clearly, some of this shift stems from brands' growing awareness of the importance of the Muslim fashion market - it's projected to increase to $672 billion by 2019, according to a report from Thomson Reuters. Dolce & Gabbana introduced a line of hijabs in 2016, and Mango has quietly built its special collection for Ramadan into an impressive offering over the past 10 years.

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