Muslim women shop for modest clothing in steamy summer
By Alison Lake
On the sweltering August streets of metropolitan Washington, sandals, short skirts and halter tops are seemingly de rigueur. Bare-legged women in the summer’s latest chiffon miniskirts crowd the Metro platform during rush hour. Yet not all women in the area are baring their arms and legs in the heat.
The Washington area’s diverse population includes Muslim women who follow the rules of Islam in their clothing choices, no matter how high temperatures soar. Many cover their arms, legs and neck in all seasons, and many cover their hair with a headscarf, or hijab.
U.S. Muslims number about 2.4 million (estimates vary), with about 250,000 in the Washington area, but no major fashion retail chain markets directly to Muslim women. As a result, many struggle to shop locally.
Bridging the gap for the “modest” or “Islamic” market are online vendors of Muslim-style and modest clothing, offering specialized designs in swimwear, sportswear and professional clothing. Previously, such items were available only from overseas Web sites and specialty stores.
“Finding the right style and material is difficult today,” said Zeena Altalib of Potomac Falls, founder and head designer at PrimoModa.com, an online store and in-home boutique. Shopping for modest clothes can be challenging and frustrating, said Altalib, who started Primo Moda in 2005 to meet the needs of her friends and family.
Dan Butler, vice president for retail operations at the National Retail Federation, disagreed, saying that major retail stores offer many options for Muslim customers. “Department stores carry long-sleeved shirts year-round, and a variety of lightweight cotton and poly fabrics,” Butler said. “I have seen that many off-the-rack pieces blend into Islamic wardrobes, which are often accented with traditional pieces from specialty shops and overseas.”
But in major retail stores, modesty is an afterthought, said Altalib, who also designs and sells swimsuits. “When designing modest clothing, ‘modesty’ has to be the main objective during each phase of the design and manufacturing process; it has to be the guiding principle at the beginning, middle and end.”
Alsharifa, another online store, based in Canton, Mich., does a brisk trade in modest swimsuits and colorful tunics. Kelly Alsharif, founder and chief executive, said there is a reason Muslim women are underserved by the fashion industry. “It doesn’t make business sense for a major retailer to cater to a specific minority when they don’t believe it would pay off across the board.”
Also, the fashion industry, Hollywood and advertisers discourage retailers from bucking the trend, Alsharif said, which “focuses on sexuality to attract buyers’ attention.”
Twenty percent of Alsharif’s swimsuit buyers are not Muslim, she said. They include Christians, Jews, those who worry about sun exposure and other women who want to dress modestly. “If a chain store were to carry clothing that appealed to these groups, they would have a very loyal customer base,” Alsharif said.
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