Photo: Franka Soeria (seated 2nd from right) with participants at a workshop for modest fashion founders in Jakarta in 2019. Photo supplied by #Markamarie.

Islamic Lifestyle

Modest fashion ‘needs to be more empowering, supportive, inclusive’ : Q&A with Franka Soeria

Franka Soeria is a fashion consultant who works chiefly in modest fashion. Franka and business partner Ozlem Sahin are the duo behind Think Fashion, that has been organising pioneering modest fashion weeks in key cities including Istanbul, London, Dubai, and Jakarta. Franka is also behind #Markamarie, a company that provides services to modest fashion businesses especially in her native Indonesia. In February, Franka and #Markamarie announced a new ‘Fund the Founders’ incubator programme in Kuala Lumpur to help modest fashion brands compete on the global stage.

This Q&A with Franka is part of Salaam Gateway’s International Women's Day 2020 series that is co-designed and curated by Nyra Mahmood, MD of UK-based Simply Sharia Human Capital (SSHC LTD), the publishers of the 2016 report "Women in Islamic Finance & Islamic Economy”. Franka’s responses have been edited for language.

Salaam Gateway: You recently announced a new incubator for modest fashion entrepreneurs and businesses in Kuala Lumpur, similar to the one you and #Markamarie started in Indonesia. From your work on the ground in Indonesia, and with Think Fashion in key Islamic countries organising modest fashion weeks, how big a role do women play in modest fashion?

Modest fashion was born because of women’s need to wear more modest and covered clothes. Women could not find proper modest items and so they tried to find solutions. Some try to share where they find modest items - which is done by influencers, some try to bring solutions and create the modest products by themselves, some try to make start-ups (including events) to support the brands. 

Women are really the brains of the whole movement.

Modest fashion products that are created by women usually resonate better to the customers, simply because the women wear it, so they know what’s needed and what innovation needs to be done. For example, some create instant hijabs as a practical solution, some create burkinis because they know that women need good covered swimwear so they can enjoy swimming and still be covered. And many other things...

For the Modest Fashion Founders Fund that #Markamarie did together with the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy in Indonesia, we had 400 participants consisting of designers and brands which are mostly led by women. So Modest fashion is really women's business.

At the press event announcing the incubator in KL, you said that what’s missing in many small designers is the business and marketing capability to go with their talent. How do you work with women entrepreneurs in modest fashion to give them the skills and capabilities to grow their businesses?

Many women have great creativity, and they are good in engaging with customers because of their social nature. However not many understand the finance or business part. So many of these businesses are very "DIY". The women behind the brands are the ones who do everything from A to Z. Mostly they are spontaneous and have lack of planning. So sometimes their efforts don’t yield results. What #Markamarie does is we give trainings, one-on-one mentorship and we also offer collective management services.

We manage a couple of brands under our company.

A cursory glance at modest fashion among Islamic economy sectors shows a disproportionately large women participation rate, from designers to business owners to garment makers to events organisers. Is this accurate? More pertinently, are women also the decision-makers of companies in the modest fashion supply chain?

Yes. Most are done by women. Modest fashion has very very strong community spirit. The community is mostly led by women.

What’s interesting in some countries is we will see so many wives are being supported by the husbands in doing the business. So wife is in the front as the face of the brand, and the husband is supporting the wife by thinking the business side. But women are the decision makers? Yes... 

You didn’t specify if the new incubator in KL is dedicated only to women but we’re assuming that it’s not. Regardless, do you believe women-dedicated business incubators can better support women entrepreneurs?

The program Fund The Founders initiated by #Markamarie Malaysia are led by women for all. We understand that many men also try to do the business so we open it up for that. But this is created by women and this program will put women's perspective as the core of the business. Women-dedicated programs can support better? I can say yes.. but the mentors have to be mixed gender.. because men have many good ideas too that women can learn from. 

Are the barriers for female entrepreneurs different in the key Islamic economies that you work in?  

When women start something, people won’t take it seriously until they see it’s really happening. Maybe because our approach is more "sisterhood" than men's business. But now marketing is all about community, actually. People market their products to communities because it’s more effective. The peer pressure is more than just marketing it to the "ocean full of people". 

What are the top three barriers in Indonesia and another key Islamic economy that you work in?

I can say: access.

Many women have good ideas but they don’t have access to: promotion, equal opportunity, funding. 

#Markamarie is trying hard to enable equal access for everyone through different programs. Not everyone agrees to support new talents or initiatives because they are in a comfort zone of choosing the same name again and again. I can say we work hard to promote this view in Indonesia. We need to open equal access to everyone. We dislike exclusivity. We are an accelerator. We try to bring the same values in Malaysia and other upcoming countries that we are expanding in. 

You work mainly with the private sector to organise modest fashion weeks. How do you work with government agencies to support women entrepreneurs in Indonesia?

I can say I myself am a self-funded entrepreneur who tries to be independent. We use our own funding to build our movement. This has been the way for a long time.

I advocate the industry through media appearances or being a key speaker here and there. I see Indonesia is a very huge country with lots of talents, but there is a lack of strong brands. Why? We identify the problems.. we communicate this through the media.. then entrepreneurs start to come to us one by one and tell us their problems. We try to help them as much as we can...

With #Markamarie, we also did investments for some brands or help brands to get investors. 

Then the government came to us and asked us to make a program to support the entrepreneurs. It’s like a dream come true. From the success of that program, we want to bring this to Malaysia through Fund The Founders program. Hopefully we can also bring this program to other regions.

You’ve been outspoken in the past about access to finance and funds for modest fashion entrepreneurs and businesses being asymmetric with reported annual increases in the size of the Islamic economy, including financing and funds. Do you still believe this? Are women entrepreneurs more disadvantaged than their male peers in this regard?

Yes, I do. 

I think the challenges about women entrepreneurs comes about because investors worry that women will leave the business due to personal reasons like marriage, having kids and all. Mostly, women-led businesses are done by the woman at the helm herself. Multi-roles. That’s why what women need is actually a team to support them. They need to start making a proper team, delegating their jobs and plan better. 

Also, the problem is not because the investors don’t want to invest. It is because they don’t know about the business. Reason? “We don’t know where to go to get investments..” So there is a missing link.

That’s why we hope #Markamarie will be a bridge for that, as we try to collect investors now to connect them with brands. Our focus now is for Southeast Asia: Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia for sure. 

Businesses can grow in different ways, including bootstrapping and expanding organically with internal funds. If a modest fashion business were to want or need external funds to grow, are there now many female investors they could approach? Does it matter if the investors are men or women?

Seed investments mostly come from their own pockets. Either their own saving or others. When it goes well then they need to elevate the game. For example, one brand gets accepted in multiple selling channels then they need to produce more. However, money is not enough, so they need funding.

I think there are lots of women investors but from what I know, they are personal and more spontaneous, like they invest because they are loyal customers of the brand or simply a friend. 

However because of the personal approach then the views are not too business-oriented. So what happens is- it doesn’t become as serious as other investments. Some want instant results and become disappointed when they don’t get then as fast as they expect.. as we know investment is not trading. You don’t see the result immediately. There is a process to follow.. sometimes you lose money, then the brands get frustrated.

What we try to do is we try to educate and advocate for them. We explain the process. We also help the brands to prepare themselves better so the process will be smooth.

Do you see women in modest fashion supporting other women in the industry in business, or is the industry so cut-throat that it’s every woman for herself?

Modest fashion is not such a modest business. I can say.

I was expecting better practices as the word is "modest" but then I realized that business is business in the end.

Women can look like they’re doing sisterhood but they could be practising the opposite behind people’s backs.

I think competition is very tough, especially now that everyone is looking at the industry. Because we always hear the word "billion dollar industry", then everyone wants to have a piece of the pie. Everyone wants to be the first, the best, the most famous etc.

I get it. I understand. But we need to try to make this industry friendlier than others, we need to have identity. Modest needs to be more empowering, supportive, inclusive. 

That’s why we advocate fair play through our events, media appearances and other projects. We need to collaborate more than compete, because this industry was born because of us, women. 



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