March 31, 2016 / Glen Reynolds

The fashion industry is entering an exciting new market: it’s making “Islamic wear” go mainstream. But it’s causing severe palpitations for the likes of the fashion mogul, Pierre Bergé, and Laurence Rossignol, France’s women’s rights minister, who recently criticised Marks & Spencer for having the nerve to include a burkini in their swimwear collection.

What? A burkini to cater for wider audiences? How dare they! Stop them! In the name of freedom, don’t let women wear what they want! Seriously, though, it’s time to grow up.

I really don’t get the urge to disempower Muslim women over and over again. The only person who should have ownership over a woman’s body is her. If I want to buy a burkini from M&S, I bloody well will. If anyone else wants to buy a bikini, well guess what, that’s available in stores too. Bergé bangs on about freedom, yet taking freedom of choice away is where enslavement begins. But I think the irony is lost on him.

Fashion shouldn’t be policed in this way. it’s about creative expression and catering for diverse tastes and needs. That the fashion industry is broadening its appeal is a natural and welcome step, but let’s also call a spade a spade: it makes sound business sense.

Consider this: globally, Muslims spent $266 bn on clothing and footwear in 2013, according to a recent report from Thomson Reuters and Dinar Standard. Look at the US consumer spend in comparison: $395 bn on clothes in 2013, according to Reuters. So it’s no surprise that the Muslim pound is set to make a big “kerching” for the fashion industry, especially since Muslim global expenditure is set to balloon to a whopping $484 bn by 2019.

Over the past few years, big brands have been reaching out to Muslim women like me. The Muslim influence on the fashion industry has coined a new term: “modestwear”. Two years ago, DKNY launched a Ramadan range that included floral jumpsuits, long flowing tops and full sleeve maxi dresses that I would personally love to have in my wardrobe. H&M made headlines in September last year by featuring their first Muslim model in a hijab, who starred in a video that promoted a fashion-for-all campaign with the motto: “There are no rules in fashion”. Even the designer label D&G produced their own range of hijabs and abayas (long flowing robe-like dresses) targeting women in the UAE.

French fashion mogul Pierre Bergé hits out at ‘Islamic’ clothing
Bergé and Rossignol’s real bugbear is that it is Muslim women’s clothing we’re talking about here. To divorce fashion from identity, faith and culture is missing the point. Fashion can be empowering, it opens up self-expression. Plus, you can be beautiful and cover up at the same time, despite Bergé’s comments that: “Designers are there to make women more beautiful, to give them their freedom, not to collaborate with this dictatorship.” Oh please, Monsieur Bergé, save your hypocrisy, it’s so last season.

More than this, modestwear has much wider appeal: it attracts many Jewish and Christian women, too, as well as thousands who want to combine style with modesty in line with their beliefs and sensitivities. Even Nigella Lawson opted for aburkini over mainstream swimwear, which provoked a media outcry, baffling some over why she would choose to don such a Sharia-compliant item on a beach. Nigella exercised her right of choice and her control over who sees what of her, when and where. But it turned into another case of women’s bodies being wrongly thought of as under public ownership.

I think it’s about time that the patronising is sewn up once and for all. The hypocrisy of a fashion guru telling women what not to wear and a minister of women’s rights taking away the right of choosing to cover up, isn’t lost on me.

In between one camp calling for feminism, another decrying male enslavement and a third camp saying: ‘Here comes the money!’, I will quietly go off and exercise my freedom of choice. Might even buy a burkini.


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