It’s a cool, fall day in San Francisco. The de Young Museum is preparing to open one of its most anticipated exhibitions to date, Contemporary Muslim Fashion, an in-depth exploration of fashion within the religion that’s least known for it. It’s an exhibition designed to turn conceptions of the topic on its head, showing audiences that, indeed, Muslim women value fashion just as much as any woman out there, just through the lens of modesty.
Many things had to happen to bring this exhibition to life but amongst all the creative, academic and logistical aspects that made this show come together, the museum enlisted the help of Ghizlan Guenez to co-chair the exhibition, a woman who is making waves in the space of modest fashion, and she’s doing it through business.
Guenez is the founder of the luxury e-commerce platform, the Modist, a site committed to providing a curated edit of stylish, luxury fashion to those who take a modest approach to dressing. Only a year and a half old, The Modist’s brand recognition has become synonymous with luxury modest dressing and has earned Guenez a place on the coveted BoF 500 list, a grouping of the fashion industry’s most elite and game-changing players.
When asked why Guenez decided to start The Modist, her answer is fast and simple: frustration.
“I lived in the Middle East the majority of my life and women in my family dress modestly but are very diverse. Some wear the hijab, and some don’t, but we are all modest and we all love fashion,” says the founder. “Our shopping experience was always very time consuming, very frustrating. And yet there wasn’t a platform that spoke to us in an elevated way, in a fashion-forward way where the style piece is not taken out of the equation.”
So The Modist was born.
MODEST BUT NOT RELIGIOUS
“The idea was to create a luxury fashion destination for these women that is non-denominational, that is agnostic as to why they dress this way, and offers them the fashion and the functionality together,” she says.
This non-denominational aspect has proven to be crucial to the young business. While the site was founded based on a need that Guenez and her immediate circle experienced as fashion-loving Middle Eastern women, her customer demographics and markets are not what one would think. 35% of her business understandably comes from the Middle East, while another 35% comes from the United States, and the remainder 30% comes from the rest of the world, of which 15% is from the UK. While the US as a significant market for modest fashion may be surprising to most, this number did not surprise Guenez in the least.
“In the market research I did prior to launching, we found our proposition to be relevant in one way or the other to most women,” she says. “Either she dresses like this day in and day out and it’s her aesthetic, or she’s of a certain faith and this is the way she dresses. Or, you know, she’s at work and it’s more appropriate to be modest. The reasons are varied but it’s obvious it’s a very relevant thing to women in this day and age.”
She attributes this relevance part and parcel to what she calls a shift in gaze, that in society, and more so in fashion, we are shifting from the male gaze to the female gaze. She explains that the female gaze, which she describes as the way women look at women, is never about baring all. That the idea of baring all, in society and in fashion, comes from the male gaze, which is more about showing more skin.
To understand this, take for example Phoebe Philo’s work at Céline where Philo singlehandedly defined what sophisticated, artful, yet sensible fashion looks like for a modern woman, as compared to the work of her successor, Hedi Slimane, whose premiere collection for the brand placed the Celine woman in short, tulle skirts, sequined party dresses and rocker jackets. This is the tension between the male and female gaze.
For Guenez, though, it is about neither, instead, she subscribes to a new point of view, something she calls the modern gaze.
“I don’t think it’s an entire shift where everyone is going to move from suddenly looking at or considering what is cover-worthy, as not sexy,” she says. “It’s just the way women look at women. That gaze. And I think it’s more around just adding another perspective which was not relevant maybe about 15 years ago or 10 years ago.”
SHE’S A BOSS
Guenez, whose former career was in finance, is a natural entrepreneur. She glides from our interview to a lunch she is hosting at one of the Bay Area’s most elegant restaurants, to the exhibition opening, to a street style shoot the next day, followed by a panel discussion she is participating in at the museum—and she does it all with elegance, power, and style. She is passionate, unafraid to take risks and determined which has translated to the success of her business.
This combination of natural entrepreneurial acumen and precise brand strategy has meant the e-commerce site has seen a trajectory of growth she could not have predicted. In their first 9 months, they exceeded their targets which Guenez will only describe as “very ambitious,” and they are currently seeing 250% year on year growth. They have grown their brand offerings from 80 labels to 180. They have even launched their own private label brand, Layeur.
“When you look at our weekly trade, we find China coming in every week and we find Australia also coming in,” beams Guenez. “It shows that, just like us, there are millions of women out there across the globe from China to America to Europe who dress this way for different reasons. It’s everywhere and it’s just about reaching that customer and scaling to fulfill to her.”
For all the success of The Modist is experiencing it has also meant success for the brands which they carry. Lucrative markets such as the Middle East have evaded many designers, particularly emerging ones because it requires resources and understanding of the region to successfully permeate the market in any significant way. Through The Modist’s strategic and curated buying—which often times means she works directly with brands to alter designs towards a more modest approach—a commitment to fashion-forward online styling and collaborations with designers such as Kate Middleton favorite, Erdem, The Modist, has created brand awareness for many designers in a region where they once had none.
Although modest dressing for women can, at times, be a tricky topic. For those who believe that women have worked hard to be broken free from the lack of freedom to dress as they choose, The Modist’s proposition may be construed as a step backward in terms of female liberation. Then there are those who, in regions like the Middle East, may see the fashion-forward nature of The Modist’s selection as not modest at all (although Guenez is clear she has not experienced this).
The founder disagrees with both sides and says what she offers is directly in line with both modesty and feminism.
“This is really not about advocating modesty, but advocating choice. And if you want to wear your mini skirt and it makes you feel good to show your legs, then you should do that. And if you want to cover, equally you should do that,” she says. “It is your choice on how you want to dress and how you want to express yourself and your personality. And that’s what I say is empowering.”