The term ‘modest’ dress or fashion might not immediately evoke luxury and glamour, but Ghizlan Guenez is on a mission to change that. The founder of ‘The Modist’, an online luxury fashion platform, embodies every bit of her business’s ethos: modest fashion, modern thinking. I recently travelled to Dubai to meet the charismatic Ghizlan and her team for the launch of The Modist Ramadan’s capsule collection, learning about the world that has embraced both modesty and fashion in ways I could have only dreamed of while growing up.
‘The Modist is about modest dressing, yes, but it’s about much more than that’, Ghizlan tells me as we sit in her office in the Modist headquarters in Dubai. The CEO and founder reclines in a colourful Mary Katrantzou cardigan over well cut black basics, her hair elegantly pulled back in simple ponytail, a far cry from the typical tech-founder outfit of jeans and a hoodie. The Algerian entrepreneur talks passionately about her mission: to empower women with sartorial choices that fit their needs, to break stereotypes around what modesty means, and to showcase what women - and especially women from the region - can achieve. It’s a message that brings me great joy. As a hijab wearing style-lover who grew up in Australia, barely anything in the shops was modest-friendly, let alone anything vaguely fashionable. My style was seen as something undesirable, rather than a way of dressing that could be chic, empowering and full of infinite possibilities. That The Modist is changing these perceptions makes my heart leap!
What exactly is modest dressing? At the core, it is a philosophy around wearing clothing that covers your body; eschewing plunging necklines, short sleeves and thigh-high slits. Beyond that, it’s up to the wearer: modesty can be a bold sharp suit, an elaborate kaftan, or a long-pleated skirt with a silk shirt. Although it is often associated with different religions, ages, or particular (boring and dowdy) vibe, that was certainly not how I grew up thinking about it. For me, modesty was a way of life: yes, by wearing a hijab I was sharing with the world that I was Muslim, but also about being empowered to choose who did or didn’t get to see my hair and my body. But it’s not just hijabi wearing Muslim women who enjoy a modest wardrobe. Large swathes of Modist women are non-Muslims from around the world, a diversity Ghizlan is proud of. ’40% of our clientele is in the USA,’ she shares. ‘Our women are businesswomen, mothers and fashion lovers; a multitude of people who haven’t been catered to by the current marketplace.’
Seeing The Modist’s exquisite Ramadan collection was one thing; experiencing Dubai during the holy month itself was something else. I’d been to Dubai before, but never like this.
During Ramadan, Muslims refrain from eating and drinking anything during sunlight hours. It’s a month of mental and physical detoxing: we cleanse the body by eating modestly, spiritually detox through reflection and prayer and bring it all together in a nightly celebration with family, friends and community.
All this activity is not immediately visible to the untrained eye, however. Walking through the Dubai streets during the day in Ramadan, the city seemed deserted. Hot temperatures meant that most of the inhabitants stayed inside, saving their energies for after dusk. But as the sun set and the call of the Maghreb (sunset) prayers rang over the landscape, people began to gather around tables laden with delicious eats, bringing the city to life. Iftar, the meal that breaks the fast, starts with a date and water and quickly turns into a feast. Served in mezze style, regional foods like kibbeh, fattoush and shish are aplenty, while sweet baklava and pistachio ice cream fight for attention amongst the kaleidoscope of colours and flavours on show.
Once Iftar is over, groups migrate to Suhoor tents, although that descriptor is deeply misleading. The tents are large, open rooms, filled with plush couches and embroidered poofs set out in rings for lounging and more eating. Suhoor is the ‘morning meal’, similar to a very early breakfast (before the sun comes up and fasting resumes). We were treated by a spot in the most lavish and exclusive of venues, Asateer Tent. Intricate rose gold chandeliers hung from the roof, as tendrils of sweet-smelling smoke from the hookah-pipes floated above our heads. People didn’t walk into the tent, they floated, graced or glided in, dressed in Bambah or Tory Burch, a catwalk at midnight. As I asked for another mint tea, reclining into the comfortable cushions of the majlis and nibbling on a sweet yet salty caramel dessert, I thought to myself: if this was how it’s done, perhaps every day should be Ramadan in Dubai.