Why Western Designers Are Embracing the Hijab

Dolce & Gabbana’s new collection for Muslim women combines inclusiveness with good business.

In the ground-floor Food Hall of Harrods—the storied London department store owned by the Qatari royal family—individual chocolates beautifully arrayed in glass cases are labeled according to their alcohol content, a courtesy to Muslim customers. In the top-floor shoe salon—dubbed “Shoe Heaven”— bejeweled, flat-soled sandals by Gina, Casadei, and René Caovilla sell for a thousand dollars a pair; a bit of bling to peek out from under abayas, sarees, and salwar trousers. On the designer label-crammed floors in between, however, there are few concessions to the many Muslim shoppers who frequent the Knightsbridge stores—particularly during the “Ramadan rush,” the annual influx of customers during the holiest month of the Islamic calendar.

That’s about to change. The Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana has just launched a line of hijabs (headscarves) and abayas (cloaks) in the label’s signature playful, theatrical aesthetic. Sold only in the Middle East, London, and Paris, the pieces are trimmed in black lace and accessorized with oversized sunglasses, cocktail rings, stilettos, and statement bags. Printed daisies, lemons, and roses tie the pieces to beach pajamas and ’50s-housewife dresses in the Spring/Summer 2016 collection, signaling that this is much more than just a one-off.

Muslims and non-Muslim fashionistas alike have greeted Dolce & Gabbana’s announcement with jubilation. The collection has been hailed as both long overdue and worth the wait; the pieces are so gorgeously crafted that they could easily appeal to nonbelievers. And it has the added benefit of being genuinely good for business. Forbes called it the brand’s “smartest move in years,” the latest evidence that inclusiveness can, and often does, make financial sense for companies with an eye on the global marketplace.

Of course, Muslim women have been wearing high-end designer labels, Dolce & Gabbana included, for years. Indeed, the fashion industry would very likely collapse without their patronage. In his 1989 book The Fashion Conspiracy, the journalist Nicholas Coleridge noted the impact of the Middle Eastern oil boom on French haute couture beginning in the mid-1970s, when it was struggling to remain culturally relevant and financially viable. “The least successful houses, up to their ears in debt, saw the Arabs as cash cows and milked them mercilessly,” Coleridge wrote. “Capitalizing on their taste for expensive beading, dresses were beaded from neck to ankle, with beads applied where beads had rarely been seen before: beaded gloves, beaded mobcaps, beaded stockings, beaded clothes-covers in which to transport beaded balldresses.”

By 1983, attitudes—and tastes—had changed. Resuscitated Paris couturiers valued and respected their Arab clients, who rewarded them with fierce brand loyalty, wearing their favorite designers from head to toe. In 2011, Reuters reported that Arab women were the biggest buyers of haute couture, and they continue to dominate a market that only serves an estimated 2,000 privileged clients worldwide. In the notoriously secretive world of haute couture, Muslim buyers are among the hardest to identify, for most never wear their purchases in public, keeping them hidden behind closed doors or under abayas made by Muslim designers. Many commission these custom-made garments for elaborate, gender-segregated wedding celebrations that might last up to a week, requiring several outfits.

But the global Muslim population is youthful—and growing. In a July article headlined “The next big untapped fashion market: Muslim women,” Fortune reported that in 2013, Muslims spent $266 billion on clothing and footwear—more than Japan and Italy combined. The magazine predicted that the figure would reach $484 billion by 2019. This boom coincides with a concerted effort to promote the predominantly Muslim Middle East—specifically the luxury retail paradise of Dubai—as a fashion hotspot. Chanel presented its Cruise collection in Dubai in 2014. Last October, Dubai hosted its first Fashion Week, showcasing a mix of Middle Eastern and European designers. In November, Stella McCartney showed her Spring 2016 ready-to-wear collection there, a month after debuting it in Paris; she already had several stores in the region. Just this week, Gucci unveiled a limited edition of its Dionysus handbag inspired by eight international fashion capitals: Rome, New York, London, Paris, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Dubai. And, on Tuesday, D&G Tweeted a picture of its newest children’s boutique, located in Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates. There are even rumors of a Vogue Arabia launch later this year.

Given these high stakes, it’s perhaps no surprise that designers and retailers at both the high and low end of the fashion spectrum have been quietly courting customers there for years. DKNY, Oscar de la Renta, Tommy Hilfiger, Mango, and Monique Lhuillier have produced capsule collections sold only in the Middle East, generally around Ramadan. The e-tailers Moda Operandi and Net-A-Porter offer carefully curated “Ramadan Edits,” including Badgley Mischka caftans, Etro tunics, and Diane von Furstenberg maxi dresses. The fast-fashion purveyors Uniqlo and H&M have featured hijab-wearing models in their ads. And, around 2009 or so, savvy retailers and fashion bloggers devised a category of “modest” fashion, with the euphemism neatly encompassing the sartorial needs of Muslims, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, and fundamentalist Christians alike.

The fashion industry has always catered to lucrative emerging markets, whether in China, Japan, or Brazil, enlisting local celebrity spokespeople, creating exclusive new products, and even revamping sizing to fit new customers. Last year, Dolce & Gabbana designed a capsule collection for the Mexican market, inspired by native tiles and embroideries. But Muslims are more diverse, geographically and culturally—what sells in Kuwait won’t necessarily sell in Kuala Lumpur, or Kalamazoo, for that matter.

Dolce & Gabbana’s new collection prompts many questions about the practical relationship between Western fashion and religion. After all, the very things the industry celebrates—materialism, vanity, sensuality—are anathema to many faiths. Add capitalism to the mix, and inclusiveness can risk looking like crass exploitation (just remember the cash-strapped couturiers scrambling for petrodollars in the 1970s).

The link between Western fashion and Islam has been particularly vexed. Look no further than 2008, when the preppy chain store Abercrombie & Fitch denied employment to a hijab-wearing job applicant in California because she didn’t fit their “Look Policy.” (The Supreme Court ruled against Abercrombie last year in a discrimination suit.) Or consider how hijab wearers have suffered not only prejudice but also a series of violent physical attacks, in the U.S. and abroad. Long a symbol of style and personal expression as much as religious devotion, the hijab is increasingly being cast off in favor of “safer” hats and turbans—or taken up as a political weapon by non-Muslims. Dolce & Gabbana’s announcement comes at a critical time, making the statement that Western fashion and Islam can make for an aesthetically compatible and socially productive union: yielding beautiful garments and helping in some small way to chip away at the marginalization of Islam in countries like the U.S., the U.K., and France.

In her 2015 book Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures, the London College of Fashion professor Reina Lewis argues that Muslim fashion has been “underrepresented in the style media” while being “overrepresented in the news media” because of two related presumptions: “that fashion is a Western experience and that Muslims are not part of the West.” That’s no longer the case. Far from being the mark of the anti-fashion outsider, hijabs and abayas have become part of the Western fashion mainstream, virtually overnight. From here on in, they’ll be vulnerable to the same trends, knockoffs, and inflated price tags as any other article of Western clothing, but on the plus side, perhaps a new generation of Muslim fashionistas can now see themselves better reflected in an industry they admire.