It is both a cultural phenomenon and a marketing play, but one researcher says that Muslim-inspired fashion is ultimately true to the faith.
LAUSANNE — "Mipster" (= muslim + hipster). "Hijabista" (= hijab + fashionista). Or even "turbanista" for those who prefer rolling up their headscarf into a stylish turban. Two years before the current burst of global visibility, the experimental convergence between the fashion universe and Muslim faith had already been through a major media scrum under these various designations. Most missed it, as the phenomenon was restricted to to the youngest and most trendy niche, at the crossroads between the worlds of appearance and Islam.
That was Layla Shaikley"s world, the young American — a trained architect, digital entrepreneur, co-founder of the TEDx Baghdad conferences — who, in 2014, gave global popularity to the term "mipsterz" with a video where women wearing headscarves and trendy clothing were having fun with skateboards, motorbikes, green spaces or urban property. "Being a mipster, for me, is a way to bring together, with pride and without apologizing to anyone, my Muslim, American, Arab, Californian identities," she explains.
The "mipster" trend is in tune with a larger phenomenon. During the 1990s, the world's Muslims started thinking of themselves no longer only as a community of believers, but also as a market. It was first food-related (with halal food), then financial (especially with the religious ban on interest-bearing loans), and finally clothing-related.
This last part has stirred up tension. For pious Islam, it's a dilution of faith into consumerism. For the identity concerns of a part of the Western opinion, the "chic hijab" trend is, instead, "re-Islamization" of formerly secularized Muslim populations, or even an Islamization project of the world in general.
In the eyes of those in touch with the reality on the ground, the phenomenon is taking root simultaneously in two movements: a revival of religious practices and the assumption of the Western liberal-consumerist culture. This converging momentum leads to new hybrid identities, with varying elements of both religion and consumption.
Inter-faith fashion trends
Reina Lewis, a cultural studies professor from the London College of Fashion and author of Muslim Fashion, published last September by Duke University Press, says that in the 1960s and 1970s, pious Egyptian women took on so-called "modest" or "discreet" clothing as a political act. "Their clothes were essentially made at home or by local dressmakers," Lewis explains. "The simple cuts and modest colors were for them an anti-fashion, anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist statement."
This clothing trend came out of homes and onto the global market at the end of the 2000s, in the dual wake of the aforementioned "Muslim marketing" and a broader trend of "modesty" in fashion that included evangelical Christians, Hassidic Jews and others.
"The Internet has enabled entrepreneurs and designers, essentially women who launched into production because they couldn't find what they wanted in shops, to create brands and reach consumers," says Lewis. "Thanks to the Internet, the market and opinions on this trend developed simultaneously, in an inter-faith way. The bloggers, "YouTubers' and "Instagrammers' of this movement have followers all over the world, also effecting people who don't identify as religious."
So then came the "mipster" era — a word officially invented by the American humorist (and bioethicist) Abbas Rattani in 2012. What does Reina Lewis think about this? "This trend is part of a young, modern, cosmopolitan Muslim culture. Affiliation to the "mipsterz" movement is open, self-defined, inclusive and diversified," she says. "It can be linked to a progressive Islam and generations that have engaged in a personal study of sacred texts and of Muslim cultures to claim their own interpretations."
All this seems to have triggered a global trend in the actual business of fashion: Brands such as DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger, Mango, Uniqlo and Dolce & Gabbana successively launched into it in 2014. "There are two triggers: on one hand, the development of "Muslim marketing," which is still going on, and on the other hand, the fact that trend hunters within major brands have been paying close attention to what veiled fashion bloggers have been doing," Lewis says. "The Muslim population is young and growing. Brands wanted to establish a link with it."
To grasp the current dynamics, the researcher interviewed the main people concerned. "The young women with whom I spoke believe that covering their heads in one way or another falls within a religious requirement. But to their eyes, this practice is considered authentic only when it is really a choice. They will tell you that it's just as wrong to force someone to cover their head than to uncover it."
She concludes: "It's important to note that these women are often among the progressive elements of their communities. If they could feel as safe against exterior stereotypes, they would have more power to defend themselves against internal pressure."