Hijabs and Swim-skirts: Modest-fashion Sites Unite Jews, Muslims and Mormons

Surging business on Israel's ModLi site and other online marketplaces reflects global demand among Jewish and non-Jewish women alike to buy, and design, stylish but non-revealing attire.

American-born founder and CEO of the ModLi modest-fashion online company, Nava Brief-Fried, in June 2016.
Emil Salman

One day last year so many people from Utah tried to shop on the Jerusalem-based modest-clothing website ModLi.co that the site crashed. When ModLi – then just a few weeks old and featuring 30 Israeli designers – was up and running again, it had hundreds of orders for items ranging from swim-skirts to high-neck T-shirts to ship to addresses in the western United States.

American-born ModLi founder and CEO Nava Brief-Fried attributed the sudden interest that overwhelmed the site to an article about it that appeared that February day in the Deseret News, a Salt Lake City-based publication owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as Mormons. According to church tradition, women are supposed to wear skirts and dresses, rather than pants, and avoid showing too much skin.

The article, under the headline “Jewish woman launches modest online marketplace for women around the world,” was shared more than 17,000 times on social media by Deseret News readers.

A few weeks later ModLi also got its first order from a Muslim woman in Dubai. Staff worked with her to find a way to ship the package out via an address in Europe, since the United Arab Emirates holds to a 1972 law prohibiting business dealings with Israel, including direct import of products manufactured there.

“When these things first happened, I was shocked. I guess I assumed we would mostly get orders from Jews, because I am Jewish,” said Brief-Fried, 25, who immigrated to Israel from Boston with her family at age 4. “But now we get orders all the time from Mormons, from Muslims, from people in Europe, Dubai, Saudi Arabia.”

ModLi, an Etsy-like enterprise that has created a marketplace for individual designers, boutiques and other retail businesses seeking to reach a global audience, has expanded in less than two years to include fashions by more than 100 designers from around the world – many of them Jewish, but many others with Christian, Mormon, Muslim or other backgrounds – with a total of about 5,000 items for sale. The site now records more than 100,000 unique visitors a month, employs eight people in Jerusalem, and is in the midst of raising capital for further expansion. About 85 percent of its sales are to the United States, with the rest going to European and Middle Eastern countries.

The fast-growing ModLi, where shoppers can use filters to sort products by skirt and sleeve lengths, reflects the increasing global demand for modest clothing and how the internet has connected different, often insular religious communities.

“The modest fashion market is still divided by religious affiliation,” said Kulsoom Gul, founder of New Jersey-based online boutique B. Zarina, which features hijabs, maxi skirts and blouses. Gul said one of her goals was not to be labelled a Muslim designer per se, but to be thought of generally as a creator of modest clothing – and ModLi is helping with that.

“It brings together designers and customers of all backgrounds into one place,” Gul said. “Now you are starting to see trend in modest fashion across the board.”

Brief-Fried said the diversity of designers evolved naturally, with many boutique-owners seeing the site and requesting to join as retailers.

A screenshot of ModLi website.
ModLi

When Brief-Fried launched ModLi early last year her goal was simply to bring together local purveyors of modest clothing, and offer a one-stop-shop for women seeking fashionable, fuller-coverage clothing. This was something that she, as an Orthodox Jew, had long struggled to find in mainstream stores; even in Jerusalem, finding proper attire often demanded trips to multiple boutiques rather than a quick stop at the mall. She was tired of having tailors lengthen her skirts and dresses so they reached her knees, and of having to wear undershirts under low-cut tops.

“I was just trying to solve my problem, my friends’ problem, but there are millions of women who deal with this issue,” said Brief-Fried, wearing a knee-length black cotton dress and gauzy floral shawl, and sitting in ModLi’s office in central Jerusalem. The city has become a burgeoning startup scene in the last few years, but has yet to catch up with Tel Aviv.

Ramadan collections

In general, attention among designers and fashion chains to the modest-clothing market is growing. Outlets like Mango and DKNY have been launching Ramadan collections for the last couple of years. In May, Istanbul held the world’s first International Modest Fashion Week. The value of the Islamic fashion market alone is estimated at around $230 billion and projected to reach $327 billion by 2020, according to a report from Thomson Reuters.

“One of the things that has facilitated the development of the modest-fashion market has been the internet,” said Reina Lewis, author of "Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures," and a professor of cultural studies at University of the Arts London.

“If it’s a bricks-and-mortar store, it’s less likely to get an overlap of people from different backgrounds, particularly in an area of ethnic or cultural clustering,” explained Lewis, who has studied the development of the market for modest clothing and its crossover between religions.

Within walking distance of ModLi’s office are ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods with signs instructing women to dress modestly. This is exactly the oppressive and isolated image of modest fashion that Brief-Fried's company seeks to change. ModLi recently started a fund to help young designers create collections or single items that will interest customers; the company also maintains a blog called Cover Gal, posting stories about everything from what Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton wore on her official visit to India, to Dolce & Gabbana’s new line of hijabs.

“We want to make it a movement, not just a place to shop,” Brief-Fried said. “We are trying to show how women want these styles, how they are [both] classy and decent. It is not something imposed on them, it is from the ground up.”

ModLi also seeks to help modest fashion make its way into the mainstream.

“This isn’t a shop hidden in someone’s basement – we’re out in the open,” Brief-Fried added. "It is something the designers selling on the platform appreciate.

For her part, Gul said, “We initially sold our clothes to Muslims,” but ModLi has helped her reach more diverse customers.

This initiative has also apparently created a sense of community among a diverse group of designers, who often feel they are on the fringes of the mainstream retail and fashion industries.

“When you start a modest clothing company, you feel like a lone wolf, like an outsider,” said Camille McConnell, a Mormon from Temecula, California, who founded ModestPop.com in 2012 to sell fuller-coverage clothing but recently began to sell through ModLi as well. “It’s really nice to see that you are not alone.”