January 16, 2016 10:00 am

The Modesty Market: a look a the growing business of modest fashion for modern women


REGINA – Little Mosque on the Prairie premiered to big fanfare in 2007.

It really was a historic moment in Canadian television. It was an internationally-covered event for being a first-of-its-kind show, depicting normal Muslim life in a traditional western community. But in the Muslim world, it created buzz for a different reason.

“Rayyan was a character on the show, and we had to have her clothes designed on set and sewn on set,” recalls the show writer and creator Zarqa Nawaz.

“Women were breaking down her wardrobe and saying, ‘wow where does this stuff come from?’ And we realized there was this hole in the market for women who want to dress a certain way, maybe want to be a little bit more covered up. We thought this is an opportunity that we should really explore.”

“We were at dinner one night, and she was going on about it again as usual,” laughs Rubina Surtie. “So I said, if you really want to do it, let’s do it!”

Together, Nawaz and Surtie launched Zarquby, a brand new line of modest clothes for modern women.

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“People always assume that modest clothing means frumpy clothing,” said Nawaz.

“But, women from all faiths, and even women who aren’t religious, some women just want to be more covered up to be more comfortable in their own skin. It’s harder to find those types of clothes.”

Their timing is on point. According to a 2015 Thompson Reuters report, Muslims spent $266 billion on clothing and footwear in 2013. By 2019, that market is expected to grow to $488 billion.

Zarquby isn’t the only business trying to cash in on the niche. Big brands like H&M and Dolce & Gabbana are getting into the modest fashion business.

“I feel as Muslims we understand the market better, and we know what people are actually looking for,”said Surtie.

“People are looking for fashion. They’re moving away from the basic black abaya. You see that on the streets, and with the younger girls. You see it with people who are holding more corporate positions or business positions. I want to look like everyone else, but I still want to maintain the principles of my religion.”

In order to serve this growing community, Surtie and Nawaz looked for Saskatchewan designers who could make their vision a reality. That’s when Helen MacDonald, of Helen Anne Designs joined the company.

She’s been sewing for 27 years, and although she’d never sewn a hijab or abaya before, after a couple of meetings with Zarquby, she was hired.

“Their style is different than mine,” she said. “I was making a lot of classic designs, but I was also making a lot of dramatic designs. So I thought, if I put the two together I can probably get exactly what they’re looking for.”

“We asked [designers] to take the concept of an abaya, but don’t make it look like an abaya. Give it a completely different look,” said Surtie.

So far, business is booming. Zarquby is shipping all over the world and they just opened a few weeks ago.

But, for the creator of a show that aired in over 60 countries, it’s just a pilot compared to what she has planned.

“That was the first time a Saskatchewan television show went that far around the world,” recalls Nawaz. “So why can’t we do that with clothes? Why can’t we do that with a fashion company? Why can’t designers here in the city have access to this global market?”

“In two years, I hope we’re the amazon of the modest market,” laughs Surtie. “Yes, dream big.”

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