Turkey's Islamic fashion boom, by Tristan Rutherford
Jazeera, May 2015
Modanisa is the Asos of the Islamic fashion industry. Website orders are placed by clicking on the scarves and swimsuits sported by professional models. Purchases are digitally tracked by a new 7,500m2 warehouse, which opened in 2015. Turkish-made hijabs and abayas are then shipped across the Middle East and North Africa within two to three days.
The company’s growth mirrors Turkey’s flourishing hijabic style industry: just four years old, Modanisa is now the largest fashion store in the Muslim world.
Curiously, the idea for an online Islamic fashion portal came to company founder Kerim Ture while on the haj to Mecca. “It’s traditional to bring a gift home from the holy city”, he explains. “But there were only five or ten clothing brands for sale in Mecca. And you wouldn’t call them ‘fashionable’!”
The gap in the market surprised Ture. Why were trendy 20-year-old women were wearing the same hijab as their 50-year-old mothers? Little thought was given to comfort or style or seasons. “What Muslim woman wishes to wear a thick woolen abaya on the Turkish coast in August?” Modanisa started selling Islamic fashion brands online in May 2011. “My first order was for a shawl, ordered from my home city of Samsun.” Ture thought it was a family member purchasing something just to please him. In fact, it was the start of a fashion revolution.
Ture takes me on a guided tour of his four-storey headquarters in the Asian suburb of Üsküdar. First up is the photo and video studio. A Ukrainian model catwalks a smart hooded dress from Refka, one of the 300 Turkish Islamic clothing brands currently sold by Modanisa. The images will be uploaded to the website 30 minutes later – one of 100 new products added that day. The company’s one million yearly sales are made by internet-savvy middle class women who would otherwise have shopped in Mango or Zara. “The global fashion simply industry didn’t cater for the world’s 750m Muslim women”, says Ture. “So I stepped in.”
Next we meet Ture’s marketing team. (The company leapt from two employees in 2011 to 109 employees in 2015). It’s clear from Modanisa’s social media stats that global demand for Islamic fashion is latent. Modanisa sponsored Istanbul’s Islamic Fashion Show in 2014. The video – one of 89 available on their YouTube channel – has been viewed 350,000 times. We watch one catwalk clip from female fashion designer Pinar Sems. High-waisted oriental trousers are featured in jade green, and juxtaposed against a flower shirt and matching headscarf. Modanisa’s 75,000 Instagram followers check in daily to see designs just like this.
One final question still jars. How did liberal Turkey end up supplying Islamic fashion to the wider Arab and Muslim world? “Rather than Saudi or Egypt, we have a proven textile infrastructure,” says Ture. Turkey is the world’s seventh-largest clothing producer. And individual factories can deliver cutting-edge Islamic fashions to Modanisa’s distribution warehouse. “Also, we are competing not with factories in the Middle East but with lower quality imports from China.” Ture asserts that the ‘Made in Turkey’ label on clothes, jewellery and even yachts speak volumes across the Muslim world. Following the success of the English and French sites, an Arabic version of Modanisa is set to open with much fanfare in 2016.
On my ferry ride across the Bosphorus to European Istanbul, the ‘Made in Turkey’ ethos becomes apparent. I pass a boatload of Arabian tourists on their way to see the Mohammed Aboud Afandi Palace, the mansion showcased in the heavily exported Turkish soap opera Noor. On arrival, I see scores more Middle Eastern shoppers who are experiencing Istanbul as the modern Muslim city it is. (Turkey welcomed a record 40m foreign guests in 2014, of which 5% of tourism receipts came from GCC countries). The nation has become a brand that shouts contemporary, cosmopolitan and cool.
Business is brisk is the nearby branch of Armine, Turkey’s most famous Islamic fashion brand. This outlet was styled by architects Yoo, who also designed the local Fendi and SuperDry stores. It looks like a Zara flagship with Islamic geometric patterned ceilings and calfskin sofas. It’s the brand for women who pair stilettos with headscarves – a social demographic that boomed with the Turkish economy in the last decade.
Moreover, this generation is arguably more amenable to Islamic fashion that ever before. Some 65% of Turkey’s 38m women wear the headscarf, with 25% continuing to wear Islamic dress inside the home. Importantly, this hijabic Generation Y was weaned on the Internet. High-end brands like Gonul Kolat – a luxury Islamic couturier designed by women for women – have 285,000 Instagram followers and 315,000 Facebook likes.
A final proof of what modern Muslim women want was the arrival in 2011 of Islamic fashion magazine Âlâ. Dubbed ‘Vogue for the Veiled’, it’s newsstand circulation now mirrors that of Turkish Cosmopolitan and Elle. Glossy cover shoots blend Gucci headscarves with H&M shawls and Turkish-branded abayas. Global consumer giants like Procter & Gamble and Unilever queue up to advertise on its pages. I push on to meet Gulsum Cicekci, the magazine’s new editor-in-chief.
Cicekci describes that rationale for Turkey’s fashion industry success in a nutshell. “Older hijab brands didn’t communicate with a growing base of young conservative women,” says the editor. “And other foreign fashion brands didn’t communicate with them at all.”
Cicekci seems shocked that global fashion professionals didn’t understand that conservative women prefer to wear long flowing dresses, rather than short skirts, in spring and summer. She says that the Islamic fashion industry didn’t grow up in Istanbul due to sheer luck or government support. “Our locally produced brands were simply the first to understand that modest women adore fashionable well-made clothes – and have the disposable income to purchase them.”
Is it time for Turkish Islamic fashion to take over the world? Not quite yet, says Cicekci. “Sure, with the latest TV shows and pop bands Turkish culture has become more celebrated across the Middle East,” she explains. “But unlike global fashion there are real differences in fashion styles between modest Muslim women across the world.” For example, Âlâ’s Indonesian edition, which launched in 2014, features less exotic cover shoots and more businesslike outfits. “These different cultural tastes are something we hope to cater for in a future Âlâ Arabic edition,” she smiles. Like Modanisa, the allure of the female Muslim world’s 750m potential customers is too strong to resist.
Read Tristan and Kathryn's travel stories about Turkey and the Middle East here.