A MOD­EST PRO­POSAL

Fast Company - - Contents - By Claire Dod­son

Lux­ury fash­ion startup the Modist is tap­ping into a global mar­ket for full-cov­er­age, yet trendy, cloth­ing.

A na­tive Al­ge­rian who grew up in the Mid­dle East, Ghi­zlan Guenez was work­ing in pri­vate equity when she de­vel­oped the idea for a lux­ury e-com­merce plat­form de­voted to the kind of clothes that she and the women in her fam­ily like to wear: high fash­ion, just with “long sleeves, long hems, no high slits, not too much lace,” she says. But when Guenez be­gan tak­ing the con­cept of a “mod­est” fash­ion site to de­sign­ers a cou­ple of years ago, she found that many had a very nar­row idea of what that meant, en­vi­sion­ing plain fab­rics and loose sil­hou­ettes. “[They] had a spe­cific woman, re­li­gion, and even coun­try in mind,” she says. “We are smash­ing these stereo­types.”

Last March, on In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day, Guenez launched the Modist, which show­cases ev­ery­thing from flo­ral silk dresses to fit­ted se­quin jump­suits from more than 100 de­sign­ers. The site, which has al­ready at­tracted shop­pers in 65 coun­tries, re­flects the con­cerns of a grow­ing group of women who, for rea­sons both cul­tural and per­sonal, want full-cov­er­age cloth­ing that doesn’t forgo style. The mod­est fash­ion space is pre­dicted to grow into a $484 bil­lion mar­ket by 2019, largely spurred on by Mus­lim shop­pers, who are ex­pected to spend $368 bil­lion on ap­parel by 2021, ac­cord­ing to the re­cent State of the Global Is­lamic Econ­omy Re­port from Thom­son Reuters.

The fash­ion in­dus­try has taken no­tice. In Fe­bru­ary, Macy’s launched the Verona Col­lec­tion, a ready-to-wear line that in­cludes hi­jabs, tu­nics, and lay­ered en­sem­bles. Mean­while, at the lux­ury level, houses such as Dolce & Gab­bana and Burberry have spent the past cou­ple years get­ting into the space, of­fer­ing spe­cial abaya col­lec­tions dur­ing Ra­madan. The Arab Fash­ion Coun­cil re­cently ex­panded its Arab Fash­ion Week from Dubai to Riyadh, Saudi Ara­bia. In Lon­don, the two-year-old Mod­est Fash­ion Week show­cases de­sign­ers from around the world, in­clud­ing emerg­ing la­bels such as Un­der-rapt and 1001 Abayas.

The Modist, which is one of the first plat­forms de­voted en­tirely to high-end, full­cov­er­age fash­ion, fol­lows Net-a-porter’s model of mix­ing cu­rated e-com­merce with con­tent—in­clud­ing a sea­sonal print mag­a­zine, The Mod—to cre­ate a ro­bust on­line com­mu­nity. (Guenez even hired two Net-a-porter veter­ans for her team: chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer Lisa Brid­gett and fash­ion and buy­ing di­rec­tor Sasha Sarokin.) The com­pany dis­tin­guishes it­self from com­peti­tors by show­cas­ing both tra­di­tion­ally mod­est la­bels and ap­pro­pri­ate styles from main­stream brands, such as Missoni, Os­car de la Renta, and Proenza Schouler. The site calls out im­por­tant de­tails like fab­ric thick­ness or how loosely an item fits, in case shop­pers want to layer, and fea­tures mod­els of dif­fer­ent races and re­li­gions, wear­ing head cov­er­ings and not. “The frus­tra­tion of try­ing to find some­thing [mod­est] may be stronger with a woman who has re­li­gious rea­sons,” Guenez says, “but the re­al­ity is there’s a much broader con­sumer base. The Modist wasn’t built for just one type of woman.”

Just over a year af­ter the site’s launch, the com­pany says monthly traf­fic has been grow­ing by 45%, and Guenez is aim­ing to triple an­nual rev­enue in 2018. (Top mar­kets are the Per­sian Gulf States, fol­lowed by the United King­dom and the U.S.) The Modist’s in­creas­ing promi­nence has even in­spired de­sign­ers, in­clud­ing New York’s Adam Lippes, to ad­just their clothes to meet its pa­ram­e­ters— ex­tend­ing hems, turn­ing sheer fea­tures opaque, and sewing up open backs or thigh slits. Lippes says he was ini­tially skep­ti­cal that his clothes would qual­ify as mod­est fash­ion, but the site has proven to be an im­por­tant chan­nel for his in­de­pen­dent brand, grow­ing his pres­ence “ex­po­nen­tially” in the Mid­dle East. “It was a risk,” he says, “but boy, was it the right risk to take.”

Guenez con­tin­ues to add new de­sign­ers to the site each sea­son. When she senses gaps be­tween what the fash­ion houses of­fer and what her cus­tomers want, the Modist com­mis­sions ex­clu­sive col­lec­tions, such as a Ra­madan-themed caf­tan cap­sule fea­tur­ing cus­tom pieces from Lon­don-based Mary Ka­trant­zou, among oth­ers. Guenez says she’s al­ready see­ing ev­i­dence of her plat­form’s broader in­flu­ence on the fash­ion com­mu­nity. On a re­cent trip to the Paris show­room of de­signer Peter Pilotto, she noted his lat­est col­lec­tion needed lit­tle edit­ing to fit her site’s spec­i­fi­ca­tions. “I told him, ‘It’s al­most like it’s for us,’ ” says Guenez. Pilotto replied that the Modist cus­tomer had been on his mood board all along.

“[SOME DE­SIGN­ERS] HAD A SPE­CIFIC WOMAN, RE­LI­GION, AND EVEN COUN­TRY IN MIND,” SAYS GUENEZ. “WE ARE SMASH­ING THESE STEREO­TYPES.”

Led by CEO Guenez, the Modist is giv­ing mod­est cloth­ing a fash­ion­able twist.

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