Modest wear shamelessly redefining fashion

FE 6

Under the fashion spotlight, long hemlines, draped silhouettes, wrist-length sleeves, headscarves and high necklines are taking centre stage. Modest Fashion is the new black – but how would one define it?  

The art of dressing modestly can be described as wearing clothing that conceals the shape of the body, rather than accentuating it. Born from a religious need for less skin-revealing clothing, modestwear has evolved from functional attire into coveted luxury fashion, catering to an expanding cross-cultural market that is reportedly worth billions. According to the State of the Global Islamic Economy, the Modest Fashion market’s worth is forecast to reach a whopping $361bn by 2020.

Moreover, western fashion has also taken into ‘modesty’ as runways, fashion magazines, luxury brands and high-street retailers continue to offer and showcase increasingly stylish and diverse modest designs. Dolce and Gabbana, Lancôme, H&M, Nike, ASOS and Gucci are but a few mainstream brands that have tapped into the movement, pushing conversations around fashion’s diversity, inclusivity and eradication of stereotyping.

The meteoric rise of social media over the years has paved way for independent modest fashion designers and hijabi influencers, which has led to the creation of a modern culture celebrating the fusion of faith and fashion. In South Africa, fashion mavens such as Nabilah Kariem, Aqeelah Harron Ally (Fashion Breed), Thameenah Saint and Aisha Baker-Parnell (Baked the Blog) are dominating the modest influencer scene by making their own rules on what modest fashion really is. 

In turn, South African modest designers are breaking their own boundaries and setting the future of modest design. One progressive designer in particular, Tasleem Bulbulia, seeks to empower the masses on Modest Fashion and redefine it. A founding member of the Cape Town Fashion Council, Tasleem formerly mothered fashion labels Funeka and Soul child, which retailed in top South African stores. During her 20-year career she has also featured on TV shows such as Top Billing, Pasella and Eastern Mosaic, as well as local and international fashion publications.

Tasleem’s current label, Bulbulia Threads offers exquisite bespoke pieces and intricate designs that are a culmination of her faith, culture and long fashion journey. ‘Modern, modest and meaningful’, Bulbulia Threads seeks to create a positive image of women in Hijab, whilst also representing women across all cultures who aim to express themselves through elegant sophisticated designs.

To gain a creative perspective on Modest Fashion in South Africa and across the globe, we spoke with the Johannesburg based designer:

The definition of Modest Fashion varies from person to person. How do you describe Modest Fashion, and how do you ensure that your brand embodies this definition?

To me Modest Fashion is dressing fashionably without showing off too much skin. I show higher necklines and longer lengths, I like layering pieces that compliment the wearer. I also include options for head coverings.

What was your experience starting a Modest Fashion brand in a time when ‘Modest Fashion’ was not as big of a trend as it is now?

I’ve always been in the mainstream fashion industry in South Africa, so it was a very natural progression. I make fashionable clothes, so adding the modest elements came easily and since there aren’t many designers who understand this market, I gained attention for catering to a market that is often overlooked in South Africa.  

You are constantly working towards “redefining women’s fashion”. What is the ultimate vision you’d like to achieve within the industry?

I’d ultimately like to become the most prominent modestwear designer in South Africa and be taken seriously as an industry specialist. I’d like to bring Modest Fashion to the mainstream.

With more than 20 years working in fashion, what are your views on the growth of the Modest Fashion market in South Africa and globally?

Globally, modestwear is being seen as the growing market that it is. Diversity is celebrated. In South Africa we are still lagging behind.

In your opinion, is there anything that sets South African Modest Fashion apart from the global Modest Fashion offerings?

Yes, definitely. My aesthetic is undeniably South African. The vibrant colours and prints I use are African. Growing up in SA and being exposed to European fashion has also influenced my silhouette and style. Globally, people are still discovering what Modest Fashion means.

Many assume it’s cultural, but modest women come from all over the world and therefore the styling is very diverse and not limited to the Arab abaya which global brands identify as modestwear.

In 2018, you merged fashion with functionality, partnering with British firm Celessence TM Technologies to create new-age turbans that incorporated nano technology. What steered you towards this venture, and can we expect more tech-infused fashion from Bulbulia Threads in the future?

I was sponsored by the British firm Celessence for a Modest Fashion show held in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia. They wanted to develop something with various designers and I was keen to incorporate some technology into my line. Women who cover their hair all the time suffer from hair loss, or the lustre is lost since the hair isn’t exposed to sunlight. Since this is a real problem I wanted to offer a solution. The nano technology that my turbans have undergone releases a fragrance and conditioner for the hair. We also have a cooling effect turban, so the wearer feels comfortable for the whole day. They are also semi-made so it’s easy to tie and the scalp is not too stressed by a very tight scarf. I’d love to use this technology in other items, hopefully in the future.

As a modestwear designer, what have been the biggest challenges you have had to overcome?

I think getting the industry to sit up and take note. I am lucky to have been working in this industry for such a long time that I was able to launch my modestwear line at a fashion week, however trying to get buy in has been challenging. I get invited globally to fashion weeks to showcase my modestwear, yet in SA I’m not given the same relevance.

I think retailers in SA are also too slow to respond. However, this works in my favour as I am fulfilling a gap they haven’t been able to tap in to. This is why modestwear brands have an edge over the chain stores.

Fast fashion brands are slowly introducing modest aesthetics to their offerings. How does this affect independent designer brands such as yours?

It doesn’t really affect my brand, since fast fashion brands follow trends and I design my own looks, not following trends. Also, they don’t quite understand the market.

What fashion offerings can we expect from Bulbulia Threads in the next season?

We are working on our summer collection featuring our iconic pieces. Bulbulia Threads will be launching its Style Council workshops for individuals, focusing on creating your own Style Icon later this year. We will also be launching a Modest Bride collection early next year.

With a brand ethos steering towards the future and timeless pieces that are sustainable and fashionable, Bulbulia Threads is definitely a brand that will pioneer Modest Fashion in South Africa.

Written by: Kea Moraka

For more information on Bulbia Threads, visit their website at or follow them on Instagram @BulbuliaThreads

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