In Conversation With: The Powerful Team Behind The Modist

BY Kate Wills / Mar 22 2018 / 18:06 PM

When The Modist launched on International Women’s Day 12 months ago, it fired a global conversation. Kate Wills catches up with the founding team to celebrate the one-year anniversary and talk baptisms of fire, building a global brand and spearheading the modesty movement

They say timing is everything, in business and in life. Considering the modesty movement has now officially hit the mainstream and dressing demurely is de rigeur for women of all cultures and ethnicities, Ghizlan Guenez’s decision to launch a luxury fashion retailer catering for the conservative dresser seems incredible prescient. On March 8, 2017 – International Women’s Day, no less – launched globally from its HQ in Dubai and spearheaded a revolution in fashion, women’s empowerment and the female gaze.

The Modist TeamFrom left, Sasha Sarokin wears: Top, Dhs1,880; trousers, Dhs1,820, both La Doublej. Sally Matthews wears: Dress, Dhs2,446, Racil. Jacket, Dhs4,848, Petar Petrov. Shoes, Dhs2,340, Malone Souliers. Lisa Bridgett wears: Top, Dhs4,735, Adam Lippes. Shirt, Dhs3,501, Ellery. Trousers, Dhs5,100, Adam Lippes. Shoes, her own. Dima Ayad wears: Jacket, Dhs4,114, ALC Top and jeans, her own. Trainers, Dhs1,374, Common Projects. Ghizlan Guenez wears: Dress, Dhs5,569, Cedric Charlier. Boots, Dhs3,221, Petar Petrov. Earrings, Dhs1,940, Annelise Michelson. All at The Modist

“The timing of our launch couldn’t have been more perfect,” agrees Ghizlan, 39, CEO and founder. “But when we first started working on The Modist there was no hype yet around modesty. Back in 2016 there was a crescendo of events which started with the ‘burkini story’ in France, followed by the Women’s March movement globally, and then Halima [Aden] walking the runways of Milan and Paris.”

For Sally Matthews, The Modist’s creative director, modesty is about more than a moment in time. “It’s great that modest fashion has become part of the fashion dialogue now and that it’s more understood on a mainstream level, but for our woman, modesty is her way of life.” Lisa Bridgett, chief operating office, agrees, “Women have been choosing to dress modestly, across religions, for epochs and generations but have not had their needs catered to [until now],” she says. “They have had to curate, alter and search for clothing that made sense for their own needs.”

Into this gap stepped The Modist, an e-commerce platform which includes a personal shopping and styling service and a hand-picked selection of the best brands around the world. On the catwalk and the red carpet, hemlines are down, necklines are up and voluminous fabric is now the dominant aesthetic, but before launch date, Sasha Sarokin, fashion buying director, recalls having to explain to designers what the modesty aesthetic was. Not any more. “Modest fashion has gained a natural momentum, both within and outside of fashion,” she explains. “Women are owning their space – whether it’s with the Women’s March, the #metoo movement, or simply by engaging in whatever passion or platform that feels empowering and authentic – the time is now for women. Modesty is part of that fabulous smashing of stereotypes in the most positive and inclusive way.”

From the day it launched, The Modist had 75 brands on board – including Mary Katrantzou, Peter Pilotto, Emilia Wickstead, Alberta Ferretti and Marni – and it now has 150, and counting. “We were thrilled to see that some of our personal favourites within the fashion office – Merchant Archive maxi dresses, for example – were as beloved by our customers as they were by us,” says Sasha. The site has now been visited by almost every single country in the world and its chic boxes were shipped to 54 different countries within the first nine months of operations. Although The Modist’s markets are consolidated in the Middle East, the US and the UK – and shoppers in the GCC spend the highest – it’s truly a global business, because as Sasha simply puts it, “modesty is everywhere”. The launch campaign reached 6 million people and site traffic is expected to reach over 3.5 million hits this year.

Ghizlan Guenez wears: Dress, Dhs5,410, Preen By Thornton Bregazzi; boots, Dhs3,221, Petar Petrov. Both at The ModistGhizlan Guenez wears: Dress, Dhs5,410, Preen By Thornton Bregazzi; boots, Dhs3,221, Petar Petrov. Both at The Modist

“We were particularly surprised at the rapid speed the US opened up,” says Dima Ayad, PR and marketing director. “It was very enthralling to know that we have tapped into our modest woman from all walks of life. Seeing an order come in from as far as Mexico was one of my highlights of last year.” A huge part of the modesty movement’s spread has been down to social media, and The Modist has been quick to utilise it to develop a relationship with its customers. “As social media continues to evolve, it’s pretty amazing to engage in different ways; not only using posts now, but by creating active stories on all platforms where we can really communicate with our audience constantly,” says Dima.” And as social is also moving into the e-commerce space, just a click from social takes you to the site to shop.”

But launching a brand on the scale of The Modist hasn’t been without its challenges and sleepless nights. “Starting a business is one of the most challenging endeavours one could go through professionally,” says Ghizlan. “This is why I always say that first and foremost you must be extremely passionate about your idea, otherwise the amount of effort, energy, emotion and resources that go into it is disproportionate to any gains. We are a hybrid because whilst we are a start-up and are only a year old, our business has grown rapidly and our set up from the get-go was large and ‘established’. This in itself is a challenge because we find ourselves daily ranging between working like an established business on the one hand, and battling start up challenges on the other. I’m a perfectionist and I very quickly learned that there is no such thing when running a start-up.”

While the whole team say that the past year has been a learning curve, Lisa Bridgett had never worked in the Middle East before and has spent the last year travelling back and forth between The Modist HQ in Dubai and London, where her family is. “I look back at the launch period as a baptism by fire and I think that it took an impressive amount of will, guidance and energy to launch in the way that we did,” she says. “The team support has been outstanding and my ‘village’ of people in London has also been amazing. The children come to Dubai as often as possible and they love the adventure!” Furthermore, she says getting to grips with a new region has been “one of the most enjoyable aspects of the role. The region is a warm and welcoming place in which to develop one’s career. Anything can be done and the levels of entrepreneurialism are high. There is a desire to learn and grow as well as a very strong sense of self here.”

Modest fashion is now officially big business – it’s a segment expected to reach almost Dhs1.8 trillion by next year – but from the outset The Modist team has been keen not to define the modest dresser too rigidly. “We actively avoided a strict definition of modesty,” says Lisa. “We of course aimed at catering to modesty in its purest form for a sensibility where value-based dressing speaks to certain strictures around sleeve length, dress length, opacity, size and aesthetic. However, modesty is broader in its reach and appeal, speaking to women who prefer a looser fit, a more elegant ensemble, high fashion without being conservative, business attire that has more flair. We have embraced all these personas and customers and have them actively in mind as we buy the product, cater for them in their shopping experience and target them prior to and post-customer acquisition.”

It’s a sentiment Ghizlan agrees with. “Modesty is a wide spectrum, from a woman who is entirely covered with the exception of her eyes to a woman who is dressed in a very modern manner that doesn’t appear modest but does maintain certain parameters, such as length of sleeve and hemlines,” says Ghizlan. “The common thread amongst most women who resonate with is their love for fashion and their inclination to dress modestly.”

The Modist team

From left, Dima wears: Jacket, Dhs3,389, Huishan Zhang. Earrings, Dhs1,670, Oscar de la Renta. Lisa wears: Top, Dhs878; trousers, Dhs813, both Stine Goya. Boots, Dhs2,790, Nicholas Kirkwood. Sasha wears: Top, Dhs770, Mih Jeans. Trousers, Dhs2,708, Petar Petrov. Sally wears: Top, Dhs1,950, Rejino Pyo. Trousers, Dhs1,880, Osman. All at The Modist

Lisa name-checks Amal Clooney and Coco Chanel as inspirational figures for The Modist, but the team are reluctant to name one figurehead who encapsulates the look. “We find a new muse everyday,” says Ghizlan. “I often bump into women in the streets who look so elegant yet modest and who have adopted the trends to work for them and they are muses to us. I also believe Her Majesty Queen Rania is the epitome of The Modist woman: her style is modest yet fashionable and she is a woman of real substance. Our muses aren’t just fashionable women who dress modestly but women who are driving change and making a difference in their own way in different walks of life.”

Equally, is about more than just shopping – it’s tapping into the momentum towards women’s empowerment and women dressing on their own terms. “I believe there is a shift globally within the fashion industry towards a more inclusive perspective,” says Ghizlan. “One that includes real women who haven’t been represented within this space before, be it the modest dresser, the curvy woman or women above a certain age. The need to embrace diversity is extremely important and I think it is no longer ‘modern’ to only showcase one type of woman in the fashion industry. I believe there is also a shift from seeing things through a man’s lens into ‘the female gaze’. There is a new light in which women are shown which isn’t solely around the sexualisation of the woman, but a direction that shows that beauty and commerciality can be equally exciting through a female lens.”

As the site continues to grow and evolve, the team says that they are continuing to learn more about The Modist shopper. “We’re at the beginning and have so much to accomplish,” says Ghizlan. “Growth is in our plans and to continue to be most relevant to our niche and the woman who we built the business for.” Sally Matthews, a former editor at Bazaar, is in charge of The Modist’s “thought-provoking content”, including “the diverse and strong women” they feature in’s digital magazine, The MOD. “The thing I’m most proud of this past year has been really honing in on the practicalities of how our woman lives,” says Sally. “How she will wear a piece? Where will she wear it? Does it work for her? What can we do better so she feels more comfortable with this look? Having spent many years previously working as a fashion director focused on interpreting luxury fashion for magazines, it has been very rewarding to think about the emotion attached to how women choose to dress and the practicalities of that.”

Although the team says there have been many highs over the past 12 months – seeing their favourite brands launch on the site, expansion into new territories, positive feedback from shoppers on social media – they all agree that the relationships they’ve forged as a team stand out as a highlight. “Being part of an incredible team of strong women, working for women, has been a highlight for me,” says Sally. Dima agrees. “It may sound clichéd, but I have a new family,” she says. “We laugh, we debate, and we debate a bit more! But we have built something beautiful together and for that I’m truly grateful.”

From the March issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia