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When Swedish clothing retailer H&M released an ad campaign last month focused on sustainable fashion through recycled clothes, the appearance of Mariah Idrissi-a London-based Muslim model who wears the hijab-sparked a debate both within the fashion industry and amongst Muslims worldwide on modesty and the limits to how the hijab can be used as a fashion accessory.
“I’m not wearing it [the hijab] for fashion and ‘Oh I’m Muslim as well’,” Idrissi told NBC News. “First, I’m Muslim and then I also want to make my hijab a little bit more fashionable.”
Idrissi, who was spotted by a talent scout on Instagram, is only one of a number of stylish young Muslim women online who routinely share selfies and trade hashtags in support of the hijab. One popular fashion blog, The Muslim Girl, even offers 'Hijabi tips' to its readers.
For H&M, the world's second largest retailer who has a large presence in the Muslim world, tapping into that sentiment certainly was both a political and savvy commercial endeavor, according to Katie Conway, a senior strategist at Siegel+Gale, a New York-based brand strategy and design firm.
“It positions H&M as a very progressive brand,” said Conway. “I think they’re marketing to a mindset: a mindset of inclusion and individuality.”
The ad campaign, though, has not come without its share of controversy. Idrissi said some conservative Muslims have decried her appearance while others online have criticized H&M for the ads alleged political message. A company spokeswoman told the New York Times that H&M would “never take a religious or political stand.”
It should be noted that the idea of a Muslim woman modeling while wearing a hijab is not novel. Brands across the Arab and Islamic world use models who wear the hijab. Idrissi defended herself by insisting, “All I’m doing is bringing it mainstream, because it should be seen as something normal."
The backlash, Idrissi said, has not deterred her from using her role to push the debate. She is not alone in her mission.
Many hijab-wearing women from around the world have reached out to her with messages of solidarity and support. It is this demographic that has been virtually ignored for years by major brands and retailers, Idrissi said, and they now see in her a way forward for mainstreaming the hijab into the fashion industry and, to a larger extent, Western popular culture. “I should be marketed to as well,” she said.
If other retailers follow suit still remains to be seen. Reaching consumers who look like Idrissi should be the aim, not the exception, Conway said. According to a Thomson Reuters report on the global Islamic economy released earlier this year, Muslims spent $266 billion on clothing and footwear in 2013 and that number is expected to increase to $484 billion by 2019.
“In order to be competitive in a global market, it makes sense,” said Conway. “You need to be seen as a brand that is inclusive.”
An inclusive fashion marketplace is precisely what Idrissi dreams of and hopes to strive for – major brands that are not afraid to use models that are of different racial and religious backgrounds, especially since Idrissi’s view of modest fashion extends far beyond her own personal preferences. “There are so many different women, like Jewish women, Christian women, pregnant women, women that are not happy with their bodies," said Idrissi. "I want to try and incorporate this [modesty] into mainstream fashion now and not make it such a separation between being modest and being fashionable."