Modesty's New Momentum: Makes Covering Up Chic

BY Kate Wills / Mar 6 2017 / 17:42 PM

More than just an Arab aesthetic, the modesty movement is sweeping the world. Bazaar meets the women celebrating decorous design at the helm of new luxury e-commerce venture The Modist. They’ve got you covered

Modesty's New Momentum: Makes Covering Up Chic
Juliet Dunn

The team behind The Modist: Sasha Sarokin, Sally Matthews, Ghizlan Guenez, Lisa Bridgett, Dima Ayad

Great things come from humble beginnings. Such is the likely trajectory of success for the women behind The Modist, a new e-commerce venture that caters to the modest fashion market, a segment expected to reach almost Dhs1.8 trillion by 2019. For the woman whose style is more Kate (Middleton) than Kim (Kardashian), shopping for elegant and on-trend pieces can be frustrating at times. Trawling through a sea of bodycon dresses or underwear as outerwear in search of the perfect sleeve-length or hemline is inefficient and can be alienating.
From March 8, log on to for a cherry-picked selection of collections by the best designers in the world, curated into one stylish, shoppable package. Led by a team of international women with impressive CVs in the fashion-tech world, The Modist has big plans to shake up the fashion landscape.
Whether it’s for religious or cultural reasons, or just a preference for a more classic, conservative look, the modesty movement is big news. Although global fashion brands are just starting to wake up to the massive potential of this largely untapped market – note Dolce & Gabbana’s range of headscarves and abayas in 2016 – it’s something that The Modist’s founder Ghizlan Guenez has long been aware of. “I’ve grown up surrounded by elegant women, most of whom dress modestly,” she explains. “So very early on I realised that stylish women who wish to make an impact whilst remaining within the boundaries of their values were extremely under-served and not spoken to by the fashion industry.”
All that is about to change when The Modist launches this month. The platform includes a personal shopping and styling team, 24/7 customer concierge service, same-day delivery in the Middle East and free returns. The Modist’s headquarters, warehouse and all operations are run from Dubai, with an office in London alongside its d3 outpost. “Dubai is a place that really nurtures entrepreneurs, and the e-commerce landscape is only going to grow here,”says Ghizlan.
Yet while Dubai might be the incubator for The Modist’s DNA, the ambition is worldwide. “I see us becoming a global lifestyle destination for modest dressers,” says Ghizlan. Sasha Sarokin, The Modist’s fashion and buying director agrees, “We’re addressing a woman who hasn’t felt a part of the fashion dialogue before, so over the next five years we’ll be growing and expanding and coming to find her in every region in the world.”

Ghizlan Guenez, 38, Algerian, founder & CEO

Ghizlan wears jacket by Blazé Milano. Skirt, Dhs8,575, Peter Pilotto. Shoes, Malone Souliers. All at The Modist
Spend just a few minutes talking to Ghizlan Guenez about her vision and it’s easy to see how she lured her team away from plum roles at global megabrands to work for her brand new start-up. Indeed, she’s so passionate about The Modist that she is the sole investor. “It was important to me to put my money in at the outset and really see it get off the ground,” she explains.
Before launching the company, Ghizlan worked in private equity for 12 years, but says the leap from finance to fashion hasn’t been such a stretch. “Working in equity taught me so much about leadership and discipline and seeing something start from scratch and go on to become successful,” she says.
Although the 75 brands the team have on board from launch – including Mary Katrantzou, Peter Pilotto, Emilia Wickstead, Alberta Ferretti and Marni – all naturally bend to what Ghizlan calls “a demure aesthetic”, The Modist will also collaborate with designers to alter pieces to make them more modest, or even create something from scratch for exclusive capsule collections which will launch in May. “But our edit is also about the styling,” she explains. “A piece might not necessarily be modest on its own, but the way we layer it and put it together might inspire a woman to wear it in a different way.”
Ghizlan’s own sense of style was inspired by her Algerian mother. “She instilled this notion in me that looking good and dressing well is a form of self-respect.” Her wardrobe now consists mainly of “well-tailored pants and beautiful jackets – I just drape a blazer over my shoulders and go.”
From the outset, The Modist will ship globally to 120 countries, to reflect the diversity of its customer base. “The Modist woman is in Dubai, she’s in Riyadh, she’s in Tokyo, she’s in Brooklyn,” says Ghizlan. And at a time when freedom of expression feels in jeopardy (thanks for that, Trump) Ghizlan hopes that style might be a great leveller. “It feels like there’s a conversation going on right now about how different we are,” she says. “But one of the things I’m truly passionate about is showing how much we have in common as women, through the lens of fashion.”

Lisa Bridgett, 42, South African, chief operating officer

Lisa wears top, Dhs2,002, Atea Oceanie. Jeans, M.i.h Jeans, Jacket, Joseph. All at The Modist 
For Lisa Bridgett, signing up to The Modist wasn’t an easy decision. Formerly global sales and marketing director at Net-a-Porter, she had “two or three compelling job offers on the table from established high fashion brands,” and a family based in London. But when she met with the “enigmatic” Ghizlan, any reservations she had were blown away. “It felt like I’d hit the jackpot,” she says. “The idea just got me. And in a way it seemed like fate. I grew up in Kuwait and Iran so being back in the Middle East feels like I’ve come full circle.” Lisa will now split her time between Dubai and London, with plans for her partner and three sons (Julien, 12; Aurelien, eight and Nicolo, one) to join her in Dubai. “I thought I’d show them what the sun looks like,” she jokes.
Getting to grips with a new region has had its challenges, too. “Setting up logistics and contracts has been a real eye-opener,” she admits. “And social media is everything here. Seventy-five per cent of people in the Middle East region are under 35, so it’s such a young and digitally-savvy audience. The customer has two phones and the phone penetration is something like 70 to 80 per cent. So we’ve got some really cool functions on the site, like a personal shopper will share a product on WhatsApp, and the whole transaction can be tapped out like that.”
Lisa is the self-described “rock chick” of the team. “I’m rarely without a black leather biker jacket,” she says. “I’ve got my eye on one by Nour Hammour, a Lebanese designer.” Her other go-tos are The Row, Frame for denim and Fiorentini + Baker black boots. “I’ve always dressed in black and white but Dubai is starting to influence my style,” she says. “In London we wear so much grey and black, but I’ve seen so many women wearing beautiful colours here. They look incredibly elegant and really stand out so I feel inspired to try it.”

Sasha Sarokin, 35, America, fashion & buying director

Sasha wears shirt, Dhs1,763, Palmer-Harding. Top, Joseph. Necklace, Rosantica. Jeans, Dhs882, Re-Done. All at The Modist
Despite over a decade of experience in the fashion industry, a year ago Sasha Sarokin didn’t actually know what modest dressing was. “Ghizlan and I talked on the phone and she told me about modest dressing and I was like ‘What? Oh do you just mean abayas?’,” she recalls. “It was an education for me and the way she described it made me fall in love with it. And that has been a repeat experience with all the designers we’ve had come on board. Their eyes have just lit up – it’s like a lightbulb moment for them once they get it.” 
As buying director, it’s up to Sasha to intuit what the modest dresser wants, before she even knows it herself. “We’ve done a lot of homework,” she explains. “But then you also have to go with your instincts – if you only look at the numbers then you miss a big trend.” One label which immediately caught her well-trained eye was shirting specialists Palmer-Harding. “The pieces are perfect for the woman who dresses modestly because you put on one piece and you own the room. They hit the reconstructed shirt trend, and they also hit the trend for specialist brands who only do one thing. I was like ‘We’re having them and we’re having a lot of them.’”
Recently, the catwalks have been aligned with modesty – “When you look at the runway and women are wearing cami dresses over slim turtlenecks we couldn’t wish for styling that’s more modest and chic” – but if the trend wheel turns, Sasha’s not phased. “It’s about picking out what’s relevant. If you think of a trend like opulence, it’s about applying that feel to shapes and styles that work for our woman.”
Sasha’s inspirations range from elegant trendsetters she meets at the shows, such as Caroline Issa, to influencers on Instagram. “Being modest doesn’t mean you’re not being a courageous fashionista,” she explains, “it’s purely about not exposing so much skin.”
Having worked at Net-a-Porter for seven years, she knows how important a sense of luxury is to online shopping at this level. “We’ll have delicious boxes and the pieces will come beautifully wrapped,” she says. “We also have a very strong personal shopping and styling team, and all of the styling and photography is done in-house, so the customer can communicate on the fit of a piece directly with the team.”
Sasha will be travelling between London, Dubai and Europe to meet designers, but she has her capsule wardrobe sorted. “Tabitha Simmons boots, Joseph trousers, an Ellery top with a bell sleeve, Rosantica jewellery and a new sunglasses brand from Barcelona called Kaleo. I’m a total accessories junkie.”

Sally Matthews, 35, British, creative director

Sally wears blazer, Dhs5,125, Cédric Charlier at The Modist. Jeans and shoes, her own
With over a decade of working for fashion magazines in print, most recently as the fashion and beauty director of Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Sally says she’s now totally embraced the move to digital. “I love how immediate it is,” she says. “If something’s not working you can get live feedback and change it. As a start-up you can be incredibly nimble in that way. You can serve and understand the customer better – who she is, how she shops, what she needs.”
As creative director of The Modist, Sally is responsible for overseeing the whole feel and flow of the site – “From e-commerce styling, to creating a community, to ensuring there’s a consistent tone of voice, which is very celebratory.” She will also edit The Mod, a digital magazine which will extend beyond beautiful fashion shoots into the realms of beauty, lifestyle and “highlighting women of style and substance.”  
For Sally, coming on board was “a bit of a no brainer. I only met Ghizlan for a coffee last May, but I walked away thinking ‘I just have to be a part of this’.” She’s already familiar with the region, and describes her own personal style as leaning towards a more modest aesthetic. “I’m all about sharp tailoring, a good pair of jeans and I’m a huge fan of a block heel – they take me everywhere. Oh, and I can’t resist a good dose of sparkle.” 
When it comes to the designers she thinks are nailing the modest aesthetic, Sally cites Mary Katrantzou, Joseph and Ellery as go-to labels. “However, as fashion week unfolds this season, I would say that modest style can’t be narrowed down to a handful of designers, it is all over the catwalks. Collections are filled with luxe layering and longer hemlines, not to mention the likes of Yuna Music and Halima Aden walking the shows in New York. Now, is really the time for modest style to pull focus and be celebrated globally.”

Dima Ayad, 37, Lebanese, PR & marketing director

Dima wears jacket, Dhs3,967, F.R.S For Restless Sleepers. Top, Dhs495, Joseph. Jeans, Dhs1,340, M.i.h Jeans. All at The Modist
It’s lucky that Dima Ayad says that she “thrives when things are fast-paced.” In the run up to the launch of The Modist she says that she’s “barely slept from excitement”, but you get the feeling she doesn’t mind burning the midnight oil. While working as vice president of marketing for restaurants, bars and entertainment at Atlantis The Palm, she simultaneously launched her eponymous fashion label in 2011. A long-time friend of Ghizlan Guenez, the pair would often speak “for hours on end” about modesty and fashion, so when the role at The Modist came up – “there was no way I could say no.”
Dima estimates that 60 per cent of her job is global. “The regional woman already knows what modesty is,” she explains, “So it’s about refining what a beautiful, fashionable, modest woman looks like to the rest of the world.” A key part of that will be harnessing the power of social media to connect with customers. “In the Middle East and Asia social media is at another level, we’re talking about social commerce, women don’t only interact on it they buy through it,” she says. And although the exhibitionism which Instagram rewards seems at odds with a modest sensibility, Dima says a backlash is brewing. “There’s actually a firm dialogue of modesty happening on social media right now. If you put the hashtag ‘modest’ into Instagram you get more than a million hits.”
Dima grew up in Dubai – “so I’ve seen it go from all sand to a city where nothing is impossible” – and finds the street style a source of creative inspiration. “I love seeing women of different faiths, shapes, sizes, styles and ages all interpreting looks in different ways – which is exactly our ethos at The Modist.” Her own label of luxury eveningwear will be on the site around Ramadan, part of a range of activity planned for the holy month and festive season. 
Although she designs eveningwear, Dima prefers to keep her own look low-key. “I’m a sneakers and sliders girl – I’ve got over 20 pairs – my favourites are by Nicholas Kirkwood and Marni. And I’ve always loved a plain white shirt – I wear it completely buttoned-up these days. I just think it’s more elegant that way.”