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A ‘mammoth market’ revolutionizing the Muslim world

Interview - September 22, 2015

The Worldfolio talks to Ms. Alia Khan, Founder and Chairwoman of the Islamic Fashion & Design Council, about the extraordinary growth of Islamic fashion and its relevance beyond business, as a language that breaks preconceived ideas about Muslim women around the world


The UAE has struck a unique balance between its deep-rooted traditional customs and the more modern, vibrant, global dynamics. In this context, Islamic fashion is growing very fast, but what is so Islamic about Islamic fashion?

That is a very good and popular question. It is popular for a few reasons, among them that there are slight variations in interpretation on what is Islamic or Islamic-compliant when it comes to fashion, so people have different opinions on what should be covered or not and how. Particularly at IFDC (Islamic Fashion and Design Council), we make it clear that we are not a religious council, so we are not here to tell you what is correct and what is not correct, although generally speaking, you are talking about full sleeves, full length and adequately loose fitting. Yet, you are free to be stylish, you are free to adhere to any type of colour combinations that you prefer and, of course, there is a focus on quality. In fact, one of the mandates of Islamic living is to live in the highest quality, and if you put something out, you put it out in the best of ways. This commitment to excellence is a very big staple of Islamic lifestyle. Generally, I think that would be the answer that I would give you. When people ask us if an outfit or a look is compliant or not, we do stay away from answering such questions because that is not really our job; it is actually the job of the scholars of Sharia and the Islamic principles to give those mandates more clearly.

If you look at Europe, there has been controversy about women wearing hijab in public places and many of them felt under pressure in their work place to remove it. Do you think that is a case of islamophobia?

I think being upset about hijab is like being upset with Grace Kelly for wearing her iconic scarfs when she used to go out. If you are going to be upset, then be upset with everybody, because many women did it as a cultural norm in France as well as in other European countries, in America and in Australia. My American friends’ grandmothers, even today when they go out, they like to put on a light scarf. It is a norm for many people, so to pinpoint any particular group I think is unfair, then you might as well include everybody in that criticism. The way I would answer their perception is that they are looking at it from a very negative place, as if women are being forced to it. However, as I have just pointed out, there were celebrities and notable women that to this day are still doing it – some for fashion, some to be more demure or modest. It is a choice and many women choose it for its elegance; it’s definitely more modest and definitely more humble. Many women like that about their lifestyle.

In this context, how do you think Islamic fashion can help break the stereotypes of Islamic women around the world?

I always say that no matter what type of fashion, fashion is a language. In fact, it is the language that takes the least amount of effort, because all you have to do is see someone and the ensemble that they are wearing and right away you automatically, whether you like it or not, have put together a certain perception about that person and they have communicated something to you. Therefore, fashion is an extremely important medium, so now when you take Islamic fashion it becomes further intriguing and important as it has an opportunity to rebrand the image if you will. I think that just by default it is breaking the stereotypes, and you realize this when you actually see Islamic fashion and the diversity, the elegance, the beauty and the options that it offers to women around the world. It is no wonder to us that we are finding a secondary market for Islamic fashion boutiques – the non-Muslim consumers, so many women come in and find that they are falling in love with the elegance that is being offered in this space. It is a beautiful language and people are speaking it everywhere.

I was very interested and surprised to see that in 2012 figures estimated Islamic fashion to have a volume of $224 billion by 2018. A year later, it was estimated to be $322 billion and last year the prospects were $500 billion for 2018. It looks like the market is growing so fast that it is difficult to find data that keeps up with its pace.

Yes, it is generally growing at an alarming and wonderful pace. Everybody gets shocked every year and I think that as IFDC is more out there, we realize that perhaps we need to put together a more comprehensive study because there seems to be a lot more to the picture than what we originally estimated, and I think experts everywhere and researchers are realizing this. At IFDC, we are addressing that now by designing our own comprehensive study; we feel like we need a more clear picture, so we need to go to all areas of the study and see who is exactly the demographic, who has got the spending power, who spends more, who spends less, and what are their demands.

At IFDC we have answers to most of these questions by default, as we are out there and we are speaking to this market. Nonetheless, some of it needs a very formal study, so we are going to undertake that task. We are already speaking to potential media partners, research partners and sponsoring partners on the study, but it will be a pretty large-scale one that will encompass everything, from round table series to focus groups, to surveys and polls and also to direct interviews. Concerning this last element, we need to actually sit with many of the influencers; sometimes an influencer can be someone that is just very active on social media, it does not have to be a big time stakeholder in a major company that is catering to this area. There are influencers that would surprise you, they can be the average person that just happens to have their finger on the pulse and we want to talk to these people.

An interesting figure shows that the Islamic fashion market of all Islamic countries combined would be second only to the American fashion market.

GIES Islamic Economy Report that came out for 2014-2015 said that if this market were a country, it would be third after America and China. Apparently, now they are saying it would be second after America, which is wonderful. I can see why they are saying that, as every year the numbers keep surprising us and keep increasing exponentially; it is not even like a 40%, increase, it is more like doubling. In that sense, we have a mammoth market in our hands to play with.

If you look at the importance of global events such as the Expo 2020 or the World Islamic Economic Forum, the winning bid of the Expo 2020 gives an opportunity to highlight the transformation of the UAE from being just a tiny oil producer to becoming a global focus for sustainability, entertainment, and tourism. In this respect and given that the central theme of this global event is ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’, how do you think that Expo 2020 can influence the future growth of Islamic fashion?

I think there is a manifold way to do that. The potential is endless and I personally would love to be part of helping to design that initiative for Expo 2020 as this space, innovative in itself, needs a team to get behind it for proper showcasing. There are so many facets and so many aspects of it we should address and acknowledge, for example, that a lot of the mainstream designers are beginning to respect this area and they are showing their honouring of this by coming up with creations that are very appropriate for this type of customer. I think we should recognize that, the beauty, and the elegance that they have produced from their brainchild and creativity. These are very important things as Dubai is making its way to be the leader of Islamic economy, since they are hosting the Expo 2020, and they need to give that nod of acknowledgement to all the players. The field just keeps getting wider and wider, so it is really exciting.

The primary line of business of the IFDC is fashion, but there are other lines of business. Can you give us a brief overview of them?

IFDC basically covers all aspects of design, so we have fashion and we also have a focus on arts, architecture and interiors, so it is really about all creative mediums. We are still kind of in the first phase, where we are very focused on fashion. We first tackled women's fashion because that is a much more diversified area, but having said that, we are taking a very keen interest in men's fashion as well in this space. Once we have addressed that and once we are satisfied with sufficient initiatives, and we have got quite a few that are in the making right now, we will then move on to the other arts and design areas.

The whole idea for IFDC came up when I realized that there was nothing supporting this particular genre. There is something for couture, for ready-to-wear, for active wear and there are councils around the world catering to pretty much every type of designer. However, when it came to Islamic fashion by way of the modesty parameters and the needs that they have put out for that type of product, there was not much support; probably none I would argue. This is a really underdeveloped industry, actually an undeveloped one, and that is why it was so fragmented. There are obviously a lot of players out there that are doing their thing: you have the bloggers, the social media activity, the online activity with the e-commerce boutiques and everyone is doing remarkable things, but there was not cohesiveness so no one was really in tune with each other. Hence, we needed that platform because that is what councils do: they gather the industry, put some order into it, provide opportunities and help to sort of point out potential that may not otherwise be realized unless someone is actually taking a look at the broad picture and noticing the gaps that can be filled with talent. That is our purpose. 

Who are the members of the council? Who is eligible to become a member?

We have now almost 5,000 people that have signed up. It is really exciting because we have been very active in the media, social media, including our new Modest Channel on YouTube and the IFDC website. Many people have looked us up, we’re active at global events and speaking engagements. We’ve learned it has to remain global, this area can never be regionalized.

What Islamic fashion is and who these people are will surprise you; we got in touch with a designer from Mexico for example, whereas we would never think that there was much of a market there. Suddenly, we were introduced to Islamic fashion designers there and they will tell us about what their challenges are to meet the needs of the Islamic fashion market in Mexico. It is very interesting and you have the same thing with South America, Brazil, Russia, Bulgaria, African countries, etc. The list of countries is endless.  I just got a contact by e-mail where they said they are not happy with the way Islamic fashion is being designed and even promoted in Africa, so we need IFDC to come and set up a chapter office there. We have somebody that is interested in running a chapter office over there, so we will probably explore that opportunity. That is the scene for you and this is what we are dealing with.

On top of that, we have a lot of consumers that have also signed up with us, as they just want to be informed when we have any promotion or event coming up. They have this appetite for creativity, elegance and beauty so they want to know what everybody is doing and what their options are. In fact, that is a big opportunity for the designers and the stakeholders because now they can have a lot more direct communication with the consumers, whereas before it was kind of a mess and they did not really know. 

Going back to the global events, you already took part in the World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF) that was held here last year; and you will be participating in the upcoming one in Kuala Lumpur. What is the real impact of this forum? What do you think is its usefulness?

Well, I think it has a lot of uses. The World Islamic Economic Forum has done a very good job being all-inclusive: they have included the business community as well as the creative community. I think that is a great opportunity, because when these two can come together, they can also find synergies. Therefore, now for the first time, thanks to the World Islamic Economic Forum, a lot of creative talent in the Muslim and in the non-Muslim world that deserves exposure can come and showcase their work. I was one of the trainers for the young promising talent last year, so I trained them on personal development and personal success type of training skills, which would not have been a possibility had the World Islamic Economic Forum not provided such opportunities for them. By the same token, they got to meet a lot of people that were financiers and business strategies, which was great support. That is actually a big one that WIEF provides and then of course there was so much more; just the fact that they are allowing so many things to be showcased under one roof makes it so much easier for all of us to come together. Again, it is about the cohesiveness and coming together on one platform, that’s beautiful.

When it comes to the UAE, are you collaborating with the government? How do you think that you are supporting the vision of making Dubai the Islamic economic capital?

We are grateful. We have enjoyed tremendous support by the government and we have been met with tremendous kindness, enthusiasm and a lot of appreciation for our efforts. They have really acknowledged and appreciated us and we continue to be big supporters of their work. We make it very clear to them that we are behind this vision and the Dubai Islamic Economy Development Centre (DIEDC) has done some wonderful initiatives. In fact, they are the ones that are partnering with the Italian government on this coming GIES roundtable series that they have invited IFDC to. Hence, their work is ongoing, which is very important, and I think it is groundbreaking, as no government in the world has really taken this step. The fact that they are doing it is historical.

How is it that you chose New York to set your Head Office?

To be very frank, when we were first setting up we needed an easy place to be a council. With all the requirements and everything that a council needs, it is really a multipronged organization, so if you were trying to set that up as a corporation in other countries, there were just a lot of limitations. It was because it was easier. Besides, I am from America so that was sort of a comfort zone for me, to be able to set up an entity there as I know how things run there. Now, thank God, we have chapter offices and a lot of branches that are springing up, which is much easier, so we can have affiliate offices where councils are not as easy to set up but affiliate offices are. Our next one is London and we are going to be in Paris after that. We also have been approached by Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia, so it is an ongoing thing. Actually, we have been approached by Australia as well, as there is a group in Melbourne that is interested and approached us side by side with the African market, wanting to set up IFDC offices.

As you see, it is extremely necessary to continue to grow on a global level because Islamic fashion can never be contained to a region, which is one of the misperceptions. People think Islamic fashion is the abaya, but the abaya is actually a minority in Islamic fashion. That is just one of the beginnings of what maybe you would think of, but there are so many other facets to Islamic fashion. You do have cultural norms like the abaya and the chador, but by the same token, in Germany the Muslim consumers have a cultural norm and in New York they have a different one, so we must address that but we must also be the platform where each corner of the world can be appreciated for what they are putting out. We got approached by Japan, as now there are some Japanese designers that want to come up with a kimono-abaya and we encourage that, we think it is really fantastic and that it is very creative. Our role is to encourage that level of creativity and we do our best to make it happen or at least facilitate their success.

Looking at the geopolitical situation and the spread of extremism, did you expect to have this kind of responsibility in terms of shaping the image of the Islamic community in the world? How do you feel about the responsibility that you now have?

I do not think we can worry about conditions in the world to the extent that they detract us, or anyone, from a sound vision. What we do is do our best and we put out absolute excellence in whatever we do, we believe that alone will change perceptions. Thus, the rebranding is a default result of our work. Frankly, we are not trying to ease any political tensions or get involved in situations that we may not have any control over. We do however, realize that a lot of our work is by default rebranding the image, and we are happy with that result.

I think anyone, not just the Muslim population, when they put something out that is to be appreciated, in the end it becomes a point of glory and amazement for all. I think anyone who is in their right mind would have no choice but to marvel at someone's beautiful creations, no matter who you are or to what group you belong. If you put out excellence, I believe the world should all stand up and applaud that excellence, and that is what we want to do. We want to contribute to the global excellence that all races and religions are contributing to.