A passion for Islamic fashion

Alia Khan, founder and president of the Islamic Fashion and Design Council, explains how she is helping people tap into a $500 billion industry
A passion for Islamic fashion
By Neil King
Wed 15 Jul 2015 10:24 AM

With an estimated value of $500 billion by 2019, the Islamic and modest fashion market simply cannot be ignored. 

Its influence across the globe is growing year on year, with countless blogs, clothing and jewellery lines, and events attracting huge swathes of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

On its own it is impressive, but the market looks even more promising when you consider it is a key component of the global Halal industry, which itself is projected to reach $6.4 trillion by 2018.

By 2019 spending on Islamic clothing is expected to have risen by 82 percent since 2013, according to the Global Islamic Economy 2014-2015 report by Thomson Reuters Corp. and Dinar Standard, and with the number of Muslims in the world expected to reach 2.9 billion by 2050, the numbers are almost certain to shoot up even further.

But if there is one criticism of the Islamic fashion market, it is that it is fragmented, and without a focal point.

Enter into the frame the Islamic Fashion and Design Council (IFDC).

Founded by Dubai-based Alia Khan in 2014, IFDC is a wide-reaching platform for players in the Islamic and modest fashion space, providing a range of products, services, training programmes, networks and support for those connected to the industry.

Launched with the aim of facilitating, promoting and developing the industry and its stakeholders, Khan says the opportunity to be part of such a big market was too good to pass up.

“The Islamic fashion space is mammoth,” she says. “It’s a huge space. We’re heading towards a $500 billion market by 2019, and the GIES (Global Islamic Economy Summit) 2015 report said that if this market was a country it would be number three after the United States and China.

“So when you look at it from that perspective you think ‘wow, what is anybody doing about it?’ I realised it’s quite fragmented and it needs a platform, and that’s when it hit me. It inspired me to look into putting together a fashion and design council.

“I wanted to work with the artists and designers, the creatives, then manufacturers, and everybody else, bring everybody onto the same platform and at least initiate a dialogue and see where things go.”

Born in Pakistan, Khan was raised in Canada and the United States of America, where she forged a background in media, setting up her own media and marketing company in Los Angeles before moving to the UAE in 2005 to join her family.

Having always had a creative streak, with a number of fashion design courses and shows under her belt, Khan seemed destined to move into that arena, but it was another interest which gave her a more pointed focus.

“I started getting interested in the Islamic economy in a big way and started learning a lot about Islamic finance and different parts of the halal industry,” she explains.

“I took a hiatus from anything to do with business and went to study in Jordan for about a year, where I learnt a lot about the Islamic sciences and fusha Arabic, That’s what gave me a bit more exposure.”

Setting up some charitable initiatives in Pakistan, focused on education and nutrition, Khan explains she became increasingly socially aware, and pursued a number of causes she felt passionately about. But she admits: “The work became bigger than my means and I had to get back into the work world”.

She continues: “That was a turning point for me. I really got intrigued with the Islamic fashion space and modest fashion space, and the rest is history, as they say.

“The Council really blew up. It was just an idea of its time and it needed to happen.

“And so here we are. We’ve completed over a year now and we’re feeling extremely blessed.”

And what a year it has been for Khan and her team. Not only has the Council attracted thousands of people from the fashion industry, but it has also enjoyed a strong presence at a number of high-profile forums, including the World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF), held in Dubai last year.

“What naturally came our way was fantastic support from the Dubai government,” Khan explains.

“They got us involved in WIEF as our first major global platform for exposure. And that was great because we got to really apply a lot of the things that we know.

“One of the things we did at WIEF was to train their young budding talent, and because we felt that we had a very powerful training programme, we had to prove it to someone, and we thought that this is our opportunity to really prove it in a meaningful way. 

“So we took their group of young leaders and artists through a training programme that we had designed, and it was amazing - the results were incredible. I could just see the colours flying, if you can understand what I mean. People were motivated they were inspired, they got their vision better, they were able to work in a more focused manner and I felt very, very rewarded by that.

“We also did a panel discussion as well, and we were involved in a couple of other things, like a roundtable discussion, and it was lovely. WIEF has become a bit of a second family to us - they are amazing people and their vision is really aligned with ours, so we love the way they work.”

Speaking engagements followed at the Islamic Economic Forum in Italy – the first to be hosted by a European government – as well as the Bosphorus Summit in Turkey, while back on home turf IFDC has worked with the Dubai Shopping Festival, and recently published a series of research booklets with the Dubai Economic Development office, focused on fashion, beauty and design.

The release of the booklets in the middle of June coincided with another speech at the Dubai government’s seminar, Halal Product – Compliance and Potential Global Markets.

“Things have just gone better and better,” says Khan.

“There were a handful of high-profile opportunities that came our way that we just nailed - and we had to nail them - it was very important that we get them right, and we did it and that helped us seal our brand.”

To populate the Council with an array of talented people, groups and businesses, Khan and her team took to social media to encourage people in the design space to join up for free – a model that still exists, but will change in the future, says the founder.

“What this did was build our database,” she continues.

“We have more than 6,000 names in our database and that was actually really inspiring, surprising and scary at the same time because we found we were getting talent from as far away as Mexico. They were real designers who had been working in this space for a while, and we never even realised there was an Islamic fashion market out here.

“It was the same with Russia, Bulgaria, and places like that that you wouldn’t expect. We weren’t surprised by Australia – we got a lot of people signing up from there.

“And then of course there were the bloggers, the fashionistas, and the media that are watching this space. They started signing up with us and we realised that it was really coming together.”

The next question for Khan was “what do we do now?” To determine the direction she and the Council should go, the IFDC team went out and spoke with industry players, from the designers, fashionistas, bloggers and designers, to the manufactures and the textile community.

“We asked them what they want to see more of,” explains Khan.

“Everybody wanted to see more structured opportunities. For the designers we had to help them increase their revenue streams, for the media, the bloggers, we needed to get them better range and better variety, and also more opportunities for exposure. And for the factories and textiles they just needed a better way to communicate with the industry players so they can let their products be known and their services be heard about. 

“So we became the place for all of that to take place. All our initiatives are undertaken with that in mind. Everything that we do, whether we’re working on fashion week, or an exhibition, or a talk, or collaborating with a world forum, or an event, we always bear in mind how is this going to benefit all of our industry players. How are they going to get the most out of this?

The speed and hunger with which people signed up to the platform was made all the more intense by the fact there are no other councils in the world doing what IFDC does.

 “What’s amazing and probably at times exciting and overwhelming for us is that we are the only one doing this,” says Khan.

“We are the only council of its kind focused on Islamic and modest fashion, and the arts, in the way that we are.

“One thing that we did do was to be very careful in the way we structured ourselves and built ourselves.

“We made sure that we benchmarked ourselves against all the leading councils around the world.

“We wanted to see what CFDA [Council of Fashion Designers of America], the New York Fashion Council was doing, we wanted to see what Paris, Milan, Britain, what they were all doing so we could make sure we were at least on par if not better, because excellence was our goal.

“We had something to prove, and this was also an opportunity to rebrand Islam. It’s very important to understand that this opportunity is maybe larger than we can comprehend because you’re putting something out there that’s for immediate judgement, whether we like it or not.

“No matter how you, I, or the guy on the street dresses, it’s a form of language - a form of communication. So we recognise that we had this big responsibility with what we were doing because it’s such a visual endeavour for us.

Not just confined to Muslim designers, or the Islamic market, the IFDC continually interacts with the mainstream market.

Khan says the Council is a “necessary part of the puzzle, and a big piece of the puzzle” and explains that it has been overlooked for a long time.

“We decided it needs attention, so here we are and we’re trying to give it as much legitimate attention and presence as possible. And boy, has that happened in a lovely way.

“Not only does it have a legitimate presence, but an important presence – partly because of the collaborations we have with the mainstream fashion world.

“Mainstream fashion is embracing it because they recognise that it is an opportunity for their designers too. So now the mainstream designers, who sometimes struggle with their economies, have found an avenue through us that can open them up to whole new revenue streams.

“It’s turning out to be a beautiful relationship between us and the mainstream fashion scene.”

Given today’s geopolitical climate, in which the threat of extremism looms large and the perception of Islam has become increasingly distorted for many people, the IFDC is one of a number of initiatives heralded for exhibiting aspects of the religion in a much more positive light.

But while the beauty, modesty, and creativity of Islam is evident from even a cursory glance at the Council’s website, Khan is careful not to misconstrue it as a religious institution.

“The first thing that I tell everybody is that we’re not a religious organisation. So let’s make that very, very clear. We don’t have any position on how you should wear what, so it’s entirely up to you.

“What we do is we facilitate the people who want to cater to this space with variety and creativity. Everybody wants to be elegant, and everybody wants to be stylish to a certain degree. And even those that don’t find themselves inclined towards fashion necessarily, or the style side of things, they do incline themselves towards the quality side of things. Everybody wants to be comfortable. 

“We get asked: “So, what is Islamic fashion?” or: “What are its parameters?” and we avoid answering those questions only because there are so many different interpretations and there is so much perception which is where we want to remove the pressure.

“We want to bring the focus back onto the idea of rebranding Islam or the Islamic space with something that is so pleasing and so easy to understand because we all get it, whether we dress modestly or not.

“We all understand quality, style, fashion, elegance, grace - we all know what that means to us, no matter how we define it. So we keep it there and it’s lovely because it’s all-encompassing.

“If you want to talk about Islam, the true essence was always to be all-encompassing - it was never to make anybody feel left-out or isolated, and that’s not the idea here either. So we embrace the mainstream, the non-Muslim creatives and consumers, and we do whatever we can to explain things better.

“But we do avoid getting into religious discussions.”

The idea of inclusion rather than exclusion is one that is prevalent within the Islamic and modest fashion industry, especially when it comes to trends.

Or should I say the lack of them.

“What I find most refreshing about this space is that they don’t care about trends and don’t care about what’s in and what’s out,” says Khan.

“That’s what’s lovely - they are so confident in who they are, they are so individual. If you decide to live within these parameters you’re doing it for a higher reason.  You’re not necessarily doing it to be ‘in’. 

“And as a result we want to respect that and preserve the individuality that this market has created. Never has there been much talk about ‘well, metallic hijabs are in and neon hijabs are out’ so that’s where they distinguish themselves from mainstream fashion.

“It actually means we have our work cut out. We have to see how we can carry this on while catering to the industry and bringing something new without saying you’re out if you don’t appreciate the new things. They don’t appreciate talk of what’s in or out, but actually they do appreciate what’s new, so that’s where we keep it.

“These people are practising, so they don’t judge each other, and that’s what’s so refreshing. It gives the designers so much freedom of creativity.”

This freedom is something that Khan believes has a ripple effect into the mainstream market.

“I think there is also a sense of relief there,” she says.

“When you talk to the designers or distributors, or textile companies, there’s a bit of a load that’s been taken off just by knowing that they can be creative on the basis that something looks nice, and not worrying what the top tier designers are coming out with that they need to keep up with in order to make sure that the market appreciates them.

“That edge has been taken off, so it’s all about understanding this market for what it really is, and who the people really are, rather than perceptions that get built up that may or may not necessarily be true.

“Those conversations about what’s in or what’s out of style aren’t even thought of in the Islamic and modest space because everybody’s doing what they feel they must do in order to live within their parameters and boundaries, and they understand what elegance or grace or quality means to them, and that’s what they go for.

“For them nothing is a passing fad or trend or a fashion season. It’s all about what they like and how they represent themselves.”

As well as the issue of trends, the mainstream fashion industry has taken its fair share of criticism over the years for its potential to advocate unhealthy or unrealistic body shapes and lifestyles.

Topics including size zero models, bulimia, body dysmorphia, and expectations of aesthetic flawlessness have continually featured in the global media, with opponents claiming the industry can have toxic and destructive elements to it.

According to Khan, the Islamic fashion space provides a counterpoint.

“There is no pressure to be anything like that,” she replies when I ask about expectations for women to be a certain dress size.

“In this space they appreciate anything and everything God-given. So how you look, how tall you are, how small you are – none of that matters to anybody.

“It takes a load off, and once that pressure is off people will try to go for their personal best, which is the way life naturally should be.

“On top of that, if you’re an industry player, whether Islamic or mainstream, this outlook gives you a really big opportunity. You’re looking at consumers that have chosen these modest parameters for a higher reason, so trends don’t count for them, as we’ve discussed. It’s a lifelong journey, so if you can win that audience then you’ve got a captive audience for the rest of your career.”

Helping mainstream designers understand the differences and break into the modest market is another aspect of the Council’s work.

“We do a lot of consulting on this front,” explains Khan.

“In the past Ramadan collections by the mainstream fashion industry have come and gone and there have been hits and misses. Largely because they’ve failed to study the market and understand who these people are and how they can cater for them so that they can actually win them over.

“I think they fail to recognise that once you win this market over you’ve got the most loyal audience you’ll ever have. Mainstream fashion doesn’t generate such loyal audiences because of the fashions, trends and seasons. They come and go, and so do your followers. But here you just have to win them.

“In fact, it’s easier than that – you just have to know them.”

Knowing the consumers, as well as the designers, artists, and other industry players, is something Khan has worked hard to do, and for her this is just the beginning for the IFDC.

In her view the potential for the group and the industry is huge.

“The future is overwhelmingly exciting,” she says. “And that’s putting it in mild terms.

“I mean, look, we’ve got the largest youth population. Over 62 percent of the global Muslim population is under 30. And now the profile is changing too, becoming more educated, more independent, and more career or business orientated. So they’ve got the spending power.

“This spending power is growing at a faster pace than before, and it’s been proven by consumer studies.

“Just recently there was an article that said British Muslims are the number one charity givers - they have the most financial power to be able to give large amounts to charity.

“Those kinds of stats speak for themselves, and it’s important for us to understand is that this is an important market whether you’re in the space or not - it’s one worth looking at.”

Khan explains that she expects partnerships and collaborations to continue coming, but is keen to allow them to arrive organically.

“The relationships and collaborations are very meaningful to us and they have kind of come naturally to us, which is really nice. Out of all the partnerships we’re in right now, I don’t think it felt like hard work for either side.

“Everything has happened quite seamlessly and that’s when you know that something is right. And going forward we’re just going to be focussing on what feels right, what feels natural, and what we feel is best for the industry.

“By that token we have a responsibility to also be an active part of the mainstream fashion industry - we want to contribute positively there as well and I believe we are and I think we’re going to even more so.”

Given the speed at which things have moved in the past year, you would certainly back Khan and the IFDC to achieve these aims, and more, with relative ease.

All of which bodes well for those looking to be part of that $500 billion industry.

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