Part of the conversation about diversity and inclusion in French society struggles across the lines of secularism and the right to religious practice in public.
In fashion, modest wear is most often associated with Islamic practice and Muslims are probably its biggest consumer base and proponents. In France, it’s not easy to practice Islam if you’re a Muslim woman who wears the burqa or hijab. In the name of secularism, France’s government prohibited the full-face veil a decade ago and this year is pursuing a law to ban the headscarf for women under the age of 18, as part of a so-called “anti-separatism” bill.
In January 2018 at one of the earliest modest fashion shows in Paris, the organizer told Reuters that France’s resistance to modest fashion has “nothing to do with the fashion itself it has to do with religion”.
Fast-forward three years amid the continuing condemnation of President Emmanuel Macron’s anti-separatism bill—by Muslims and non-Muslims alike (Amnesty International said the proposed law would be a “serious attack on rights and freedoms”)—as Islamophobic and discriminatory, two entrepreneurs with a brand new e-boutique are decoupling the modest fashion-Islam narrative by putting the woman’s choice first.
In France, fashion isn’t inclusive, Moroccan-born French national Soukaïna Jaafari told Salaam Gateway. The Parisian and her business partner Maud Garnier launched their modest fashion e-boutique Ordestie at the end of last year.
Ordestie considers modest fashion a way for a person to “transmit freedom” to be themselves, and calls it “the banner of diversity” that “has no borders or religion”.
Jaafari and Garnier continue the conversation in France that calls for a woman’s right to choose for herself what she wants to wear, moving away from the religious argument, and giving modest fashion to any woman—Muslim or not— who chooses it.
“We think that fashion is a unique way to break through stereotypes,” said Jaafari. “Many modest fashion brands are emerging, and followers of this dressing style in France need a platform showcasing them.”
Jaafari and Garnier, who lives in Laval in Western France, met in early 2020 at a start-up incubator where they explored opportunities to launch their businesses.
“We didn’t know each other but found out that we had one thing in common: the difficulty of finding fashion that meets our criteria of modesty in a European style,” Jaafari said.
Modest fashion is by no means new in France. Before the 2018 Oriental Fashion modest fashion show, modest wear found its way onto the Parisian catwalk in 2017 as part of the International Fashion Summit during Paris Fashion Week.
Thanks also to France’s Muslims— the Republic is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population, estimated at 5.72 million in 2016, or 8.8% of the country’s people—there are many brands selling modest fashion.
MODEST, INCLUSIVE, ETHICAL
The narrative that Ordestie and other French modest fashion companies are using now is one of inclusion and ethics.
The values-conscious business owners handpick the brands to align with what Ordestie believes in— modesty, inclusion, and ethical fashion.
When Ordestie launched in December, five brands signed on. Over the past six months, the portfolio grew to twelve, offering items ranging from skirts and trousers to tunics, sportswear, and accessories.
The e-boutique’s idea of inclusiveness covers women of all shapes, origins, and religious opinions – from the models presenting the fashion to the customers buying the products. In the future, the e-commerce platform will offer sizes up to 52 on request.
Jaafari and Garnier pursue designs “Made in France” and that are produced in workshops that respect human conditions and demonstrate transparency on the subject.
Brands like Barcha and Toucoulor Paris share Ordestie’s beliefs.
Barcha, led by sisters Iman and Lamia Mestaoui, specialises in the production of turbans. According to the company website, the team at Barcha regularly inspects their contracted French and Tunisian workshops to uphold worker’s rights such as fair pay and appropriate working conditions. Barcha’s designs weave the sisters’ French-Tunisian culture and religious identity into the brand’s fabric.
Also embracing its roots, Toucoulor Paris was named after a West African ethnic group native to Senegal and Mali. The brand blends African touches into its style by applying ancestral know-how about indigo-dyed fabrics. Made in France and some pieces handcrafted in Africa, the collections are produced in limited editions to guarantee exclusivity, a welcome move as mass-produced, and fast, fashion is responsible for massively increasing wastage.
Europeans use nearly 26 kilos of textiles and discard about 11 kilos of them, per person, every year, the European Parliament reports on its Circular Economy website. Instead of being recycled, 87% of used clothes are incinerated or landfilled. To tackle this wastage, the EU requires all member states to collect textiles separately by 2025 at the latest.
France has taken it a step further and prohibits the destruction of unsold non-food inventory such as clothing, among other product categories. In February 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron signed Law No. 2020-105 Regarding a Circular Economy and the Fight Against Waste which, in future, will require manufacturers, distributors, and stores to donate or recycle unsold inventory instead of dumping it.
Addressing ethical issues, such as reducing or eliminating wastage, is what Ordestie considers to be part of the state of the modest fashion mind.
It’s still early days for Jaafari and Garnier but they believe they have overcome teething problems and are already planning to move forward.
In the coming weeks, the entrepreneurs plan to increase the brands on their platform to 20, create a seasonal catalogue, and introduce a personal shopper service. As soon as all COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, the Ordestie team plans to organise pop-up stores in Paris to connect the clients and brands in real life.
France is one of the fashion capitals of the world and the sector accounts for the country’s biggest share of e-commerce revenue, at 32% in 2020. There’s enough of a market to keep Ordestie busy butJaafari and Garnier are dreaming beyond Parisian streets.
“Right now, we just operate in France. But we want to become an international platform,” said Jaafari. The first steps forward are planned for September.
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