Fascinating and Fashionable: Zahra the Modest Clothing Entrepreneur

I met Zahra at the Giant Steps conference and immediately new I wanted to share her amazing story. She’s a smart, savvy businesswoman with a vision of creating an online shopping destination for women who prefer to dress modestly, and her site, Mode-sty, is well on its way. Let’s hear from Zahra!

zahra_aljabri_mode-sty

Can you give me a little background on your schooling and career path?
I grew up in a a suburb of Los Angles in southern California. I attended UCLA where I received my undergraduate degree in mass communication with a mathematics minor. I then attended law school at Syracuse University College of Law in New York. I worked for a local nonprofit organization as a civil rights advocate and also had an estate planning practice. In both roles, I had to essentially grow a small business.

I moved to Minneapolis in 2008 after I finishing law school and getting married to my husband who was working on his Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Minnesota. However, Minneapolis is where my “entrepreneur self” was born! I started two companies* here in the Twin Cities, as well as my private law practice. Minneapolis has quickly become home, with many wonderful and supportive friends and mentors as well as my son (almost 2!) being born here.

What inspired you to launch Mode-sty?

As a Muslim woman, I made the choice of dressing conservatively when I started college. Ever since then, it has been a struggle to uphold my values and my sense of style. The majority of retailers simply neglect women like myself by producing overly revealing designs (backless, see-through, sleeveless, etc.) As a result, conservative women are at a disadvantage because they have to spend significantly more and money to find anything much less something stylish. My husband who has entrepreneurial experience then helped take the first steps in determining if this was a viable idea and if we had a sufficiently large market. A few months later, we co-founded Mode-sty and have received tremendous support from thousands of women worldwide!

mode-sty

How would you describe the site to someone who has never heard of it or visited it before?
Mode-sty is an online boutique that caters to stylish conservative women. We offer a selection that builds a beautiful modest wardrobe for every occasion and ever modesty level.

When did the site launch? At what point will you move from Beta/pop-up to full-use?
We had our first beta “pop-up” store at the end of July and we’ve had several more since then. We are using these pop-up stores as experiment to learn more about our customer and refine our business model. We are currenlty planning for a mid-2013 full launch.

Do you have a background in fashion or merchandising?
No, so I have immersed myself with designers, manufactures and trend setters. I spend a lot of time reading and talking to fashion insiders to be on top of everything that is currently happening in the fashion industry.

Who makes up your customer base?
The largest portion of our customers are women who really value dressing modestly for religious reasons. To these women the first factor they consider when shopping for clothing is: “will this garment give me the coverage I need”. We also have many customers who want more modest yet stylish options for professional reasons. In both cases our customers are very frustrated by the time, effort and compromised style they face when they shop.

Why do you think so many women are seeking less revealing clothing options?
I think that we are seeing such an interest in Mode-sty from all types of women because the vast majority of big brands and designers are all targeting the same demographic: the fun and hip twenty-something. Just check the homepage of brands like Zara, Mango, JCrew or online retailers like ShopBop, Gilt and you’ll see the same model smiling out at you. Therefore, even if you are not particularly conservative, there aren’t many alternatives to what every other brand is selling. Furthermore, with the rise of style blogs and particularly modest fashion blogs many women see examples of ways to be trendy and stylish without sacrificing their values. Thus instead of feeling like you have to choose to either be stylish or dress modestly now many women a looking for options where they don’t have to choose.

peplum_little_black_dress

What’s your best-selling item?
Our peplum little black dress: trendy, provides great coverage, flatters the figure, and can seamlessly go from a work to an evening outfit with some accessorizing. (Shown here, dress is Canadian designer Jessica Rose.)

Any plans to open a brick-and-mortar store?
At the moment our sole focus is to grow online.

*Muslim Buddy is Zahra’s other company, and she received a Bush Fellowship to continue her work there. So yeah, she’s 100% amazing.

  • http://www.over50feeling40.com Pam@over50feeling40

    I love what she is doing. I teach young girls and they need role models like this. Thank you for sharing her story!

  • Susan

    That is a very attractive outfit, period. I’d buy it, which says something because I DETEST peplums. I think there’s quite a market for stylish clothing that preserves your dignity, particularly as you approach “a certain age.”

  • http://hearth-tobelovely.blogspot.com/ Hearthrose

    Wow. We need more shops like this! And I love love love that dress.

  • Anna

    This is such a great idea! I can’t help but have misgivings about the branding, though . . . “sty” by itself is not a word with great connotations and that was what I automatically thought when I read the name of the company, because of the way it was set off from the word “modesty.”

    • LeslieLe

      I thought the same thing, Anna– they really need to work on their branding.

  • Shay

    Nope. I live in a Muslim country and choose to dress modestly (I’d never cover my head or wear a burka or anything but because of my job I don’t wear sleeveless shirts, etc) and it’s easy to dress well. You aren’t ‘neglected’ and you shouldn’t ‘struggle’ – that’s just a lack of creativity on your part.

    • Chelsea

      It sounds like Zahra grew up in the U.S. though, which probably has more limited clothing when it comes to modest styles, especially in warmer regions, than most Muslim countries.

    • Jessica

      That part also struck me. As someone who dresses modearly for religious reasons (Jewish), I’ve never really bought the lack-of-access
      line. Old Navy, Target, and the Gap have consistently offered up long-sleeved basics and maxi-skirts. It’s actually not that hard to find modest clothing.

      • Jessica

        *Modestly, not modearly! And I want to clarify that I think the shop is a great idea, and that black peplum is gorgeous. It just rankles when religious conservatives frame every dialogue with how neglected they are by mainstream clothing manufacturers.

      • Rachel

        But what if you don’t like The Gap, Target, or Old Navy? I prefer longer skirts, sleeves, higher necklines, and clothes that aren’t overly tight because I like to be able to move freely and not worry about showing stuff that’s none of the high-school boys’ business. But the clothes from those stores don’t appeal to my style and often don’t fit well.

        If you have access, it’s because you like what the stores you listed have available. But not everyone shares that same sense of style, and they may lack access to clothes that they like. It’s not a world-ending problem, but I think it’s great that women who choose not to bare it all, for whatever reason, are increasingly able to do so while still expressing their personal style.

        • joan

          Try Downeast basics they have longer skirts

    • eryn

      Shay: I have no experience here, but I would guess that there are more options for conservative clothes shopping in a Muslin country than in the US. That option gap is what Zahra is trying to address.

  • BeckyMc

    I love that little black peplum dress! Are you also aware of other modest clothing companies that have been around for awhile such as Shabby Apple and Shade Clothing? They are slightly less conservative, becasue they are not based on Muslim modes of dress, but are decidedly modest when compared to the vast majority of ready to wear.
    Thank you for highlighting Mode-esty and for acknowledging that there are many of us who prefer modest dress out of a sense of self respect.

    • Anonymous

      I support and respect every woman’s decision about how revealing (or not) their clothing is. But I don’t like when this decision, one way or the other, gets turned into an excuse to denigrate the morals or character of women on the other side.

      • BeckyMc

        I didn’t denigrate, or indeed say anything about anyone else. I prefer to be more modest because that expresses my point of view, and yes, it is an expression of my sense of self respect. If, to you, that translates into saying anything about the character of anyone else at all, the only thing I can say is that you have made a harsh judgment about my intentions, without knowing anything about me at all. Stereotype much?

        • Anonymous

          Forgive me, but your original statement was a generalization, referring to “many of us” and not just yourself: “Thank you for…acknowledging that there are many of us who prefer modest dress out of a sense of self respect.” It allows the implication that women who prefer to dress more revealingly are doing so out of a lack of self-respect. If you only intended your comment to apply to your own reasoning, you needed to say as much.

          Women’s clothing is very often used as a tool of judgment about our character. While your comment may have seemed innocuous to you, it speaks to the pervasiveness of these attitudes in our culture that such a comment would not even register as judgmental to you, twice.

          I am not speaking out stereotype or prejudice. As I said, I support and respect every woman’s decision about how revealing (or not) their clothing is. I would come down just as hard on anyone who expressed a negative attitude about people who choose to wear less revealing clothing.

          Freedom won’t come when everyone adopts a certain standard of clothing; it will come when we are free from the moral judgment of others about the type of clothing we wear.

  • ClaraT

    I think there are two issues in modesty: coverage and shape. I love the dress that is shown, but I don’t consider it modest because it is so molded to the body (especially bust and arms). I appreciate the coverage, however, both for warmth and modesty. I’m glad this shop was featured (and I did not find the ‘sty’ part of the name at all notable!)

  • Lara

    Um…I’m kind of feeling like a little kid in a candy store, very excited in other words! I especially love the first outfit with the orange floral skirt, fabulous! We need more choices that are beautiful, womanly, that acknowledge that a woman is more than a collection of parts to be put on display. I am not saying that a woman doesn’t have the right to show what she wants to show, but rather, that we also have the right to modesty, without being made to feel less than…what I’m not sure, acceptable, perhaps? I hope I’m making sense.

  • Allie

    I must admit that I’m a little bummed out at the “yay modesty” vibe that this post gives off. I want it to be clear th not writing out of anti-Islamic sentiment, and can definitely agree that Zahra does indeed seem like a very successful strong woman. Still, I think it’s wrong to put a premium on women being modest.

    Now, I dress fairly “modestly” meaning that I don’t show a lot of skin…because that’s my personal style. But I think the idea that women SHOULD be modest is anti-feminist, fuels rape culture, and generally encourages the idea that women are either pure or sluts meaning that men don’t have to behave respectfully. I mean, she was totally asking for it.

    I absolutely respect choice when it comes to how you choose to dress, but think placing a premium on modesty is wrong at best and dangerous at the worst.

    Some good reading: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2012/06/on-modesty-and-moving-the-bar.html
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2012/12/how-the-modesty-doctrine-fuels-rape-culture.html

    PS: I still love your blog lots.

    • Lara

      I would hope that what can do for each other is to respect choice along the spectrum of the modesty issue. I don’t believe that respecting choice is the same thing as advocating extremism. When the variable definitions of modesty are added to the mix, the conversation becomes even more difficult.

      Like you, I dress conservatively, at least compared to what mainstream media and fashion promote, but perhaps not according to many of the worlds religious guide lines. I dress the way I do mostly because I value my privacy, but also for religious reasons as well, not because I agree that I am responsible for, or create, moral weakness in men. I find the idea that any woman is responsible for awful behavior in a man, just because of her clothing, appalling.

    • K

      My problem with the idea of “modest” clothing is that the word “modest” is incredibly loaded with cultural and sometimes religious connotations of morality and virtue. I think many commenters here agree with me. I understand that it is difficult to succinctly describe a particular way of dressing, and that the term “modest” is convenient. However, just from my personal experience, this use is fraught with potential issues.

      1. If I label my style as “modest”, I am implying that anything less is “immodest”. In many subcultures (and, to some extent, the American culture as a whole), many people believe that if you are “immodest”, you are immoral, irresponsible and inherently promiscuous. It is an excuse for bad things happening to women. More dangerously, this label is the REASON some bad things happening to some women.

      2. The definition of “modest” is so loose as to be almost meaningless. I spent my childhood in an incredibly conservative environment, and both examples in this post from Mode-sty would have been considered immodest, even scandalous. The black dress is much too form-fitting and showed too much leg. The beige top is too form-fitting while the orange skirt is too colorful. (In my grandparents’ words, these are “harlot clothes”.) As another commenter says, “modesty” can be defined as coverage and/or fit, and different groups have different standards for both. Hence it is unreasonable to label one’s own clothing “modest” and anything less as not.

      Fortunately, I have left that environment and found such vices as tolerance, liberalism and feminism. I have no problem if anyone wants to dress a certain way and market that way of dress commercially. My problem is with associating morality (through the use of loaded words) with any way of dress, and using one’s own standards to alienate and denounce.

  • http://ignorantawareness.blogspot.com Ignorant Awareness

    Shay, that may be the case in a Muslim country, but in other places it can be hard to find modest clothes (especially ones that don’t make 21 year olds like me look frumpy & old-fashioned).

    Many of us Muslim women have become adept at layering our clothing creatively, but it becomes VERY tiresome (& expensive!) after a while. I mean yes, we CAN buy a sleeveless dress & make it more modest by wearing a cardigan over the top, but do you realise how much extra money I have to waste by buying all these extra outerwear items? Not to mention how stuffy it gets when summer rolls around:

    (As a side note, contrary to popular belief, dressing modestly doesn’t cause you to overheat in the summer- it just depends on the fabrics/ colours you wear (same as for anyone not fully covering up). For example, a white & lightweight, full-sleeved cotton kaftan dress doesn’t feel any heavier than a tank top.)

    Anyway, back on topic, it’s nice to be able to get clothing which covers all over in one go (eg- when I shopped Mode-sty’s pop-up sale, it was nice to see full sleeved maxi dresses).

    PS- If anyone else is interested, I’ve seen a lot of other modest retailers online such as Modest Mary & Just Long Shirts- they ARE out there, but we just need to look out for them!

  • LK

    I love this dress! Another good site is Zeena: http://www.simplyzeena.com/. Little pricey but super cute.

  • jii

    I cover my breasts and legs and arms, then my mouth, then my brains.

    • Shaye

      So, what, in order to expose my intelligence, I have to flash my tits? Is THAT where I’ve been keeping my wit all this time?!

      Why can’t we agree that flashing one’s tits OR covering one’s hair is a personal choice that does not necessarily reveal anything about the person’s brains, morals, or position on feminism?

  • Chris

    Sal,

    One of the comments that used the term frumpy got me to thinking. What is “frumpy”, anyway? What do you think it is? I looked up photos of women wearing supposedly frumpy outfits. The only characteristic that I could see in common among all the outfits is that they all looked too big for the wearer.

    Actually, I didn’t see anything wrong with most of the outfits. But then I severely style and fashion challenged.

    So please tell me what do you think frumpy is and why is it so terrible?

    Thanks.

  • Chris

    Sentence should read but then I am severely style and fashion challenged.

  • http://www.mode-sty.com Zahra- Mode-sty

    Thank you Sally for this post! I love this discussion! We believe that there is a sever lack of trendy, stylish, contemporary fashions for women who want to have more coverage (without layering or alterations) and that’s the gap we are trying to fill. We hope you’ll sign up at http://www.mode-sty.com if you agree! You can also find us on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/ModestyOnline and Pinterest http://www.pinterest.com/modestyfashion

    • Nomi

      Zahra, I followed the link in your post hoping to learn more about Mode-sty but only wound up enrolling in a contest for I-know-not-what. Free clothes? Something else? Would you mind giving us a little more information? I don’t do Facebook — I’m too protective of my privacy. Thanks!

  • Eleanorjane

    Interesting discussion. Personally I don’t feel in the least immodest dressing in clothes that are sleeveless, low cut, transluscent, over the knee etc (not all at the same time!). For me, I feel uncomfortable if I’m inappropriately dressed according to my own mores i.e. wrong clothing for the weather, in things that feel like I’m trying too hard, in something that looks cheap and tacky, something that seriously doesn’t fit the dress code (I prefer to be dressed up rather than down compared to others).

    In other women, I have similar ideas – she can look fabulous in a tiny dress or inappropriate and uncomfortable. The amount of skin on show isn’t an issue although I’m not happy with people actually showing genitals i.e. transluscent tights as trousers where you can see underwear (or not), transluscent tops and no bra, skirts which flash the bum.

  • Annette

    Like many women I like dressing modestly. My daughter is even more modest in her dressing and I will send her a link to this post. I definitely like the black peplum outfit I plan on using a pattern I saw to make my own.

  • LeslieLe

    I liked seeing what this website was about, but I’m bummed that you can’t actually see any clothing.

  • M-C

    100% amazing! On this blog, I’m amazed to see “modesty” passed off as a virtue, while no mention is made of the underlying religious fanaticism that wishes to keep women in their place. Kinder, kuche, kirche, in summary. WHAT are you thinking, Sally??

    • Mandy

      M-C, You are projecting. Nowhere in this interview is there any mention of Modesty being passed off as a Virtue. Aside from that, this is an interview about a woman’s clothing company–would you have asked her about the religious fanaticism that wishes to keep women in their place? I think not.

    • Portia

      First, I think you have mis-interpreted the blog entry. This entry presents options for fashionable, chic modest clothing which are not often available in the mainstream shops which often slavishly produce trends that are often, as one of the commenters pointed out, aimed at the younger crowd. And often, these clothes are quite revealing or “sexy” (because apparently that’s the only way all of us can feel hip/confident/cool/sexy, by dressing in skin-baring clothes?) But obviously, those clothes don’t work for everyone, nor do we all share the same taste and not all people like dressing the same way, right? Modesty is presented not as a virtue, but as a way of dress, just as say, dressing as rocker chic, hipster, classic, pin-up girl, etc. are ways of dressing. In no way did I feel like I was being shamed for not dressing modestly, nor did I feel like modesty is being lauded as a virtue.

      But I am really quite astounded at the ignorance in your statement “…no mention is made of the underlying religious fanaticism that wishes to keep women in their place.”

      Are you sure that there is an underlying religious fanaticism here? In what way is modesty a tool of religious fanaticism to control women and “keep them in their place,” as you say? How do you know?

      I have an inkling that you are referring to the image of Muslim women in hijabs and burqas as being oppressed. Is this your only image of a Muslim woman, of men and the religion? I dearly hope not, because that is a very narrow-minded, un-educated view.

      I will acknowledge that in some countries in which patriarchal interpretations of religion is used to enforce control, clothing/dress is indeed used as a tool of control. But to assume that modesty in itself is a tool of religious fanatics…well, you are way off base. There are many women who *choose* (yes, they choose – they made that choice) to dress modestly, as we can see from many of the commenters. Sometimes that choice is informed by religion, sometimes by culture, sometimes by personal preference. Who are you to comment on how a woman dresses, and/or whether or not how she dresses is a result of religious fanaticism? (And for the latter part of that question, how do you even know? and are you sure, i.e., what informs you of your opinion?)

      For Muslim women AND MEN, the concept of ‘hijab’ means ‘modesty’ in dress and behaviour. But, like I said, if there is a patriarchal reading of a rule, it will result in a skewed interpretation and enforcement of that rule. But please do not assume that all Muslim women (or other religious women or even just women who choose to dress modestly) are being kept in their place by religious fanatics. It is not an accurate view of Muslims. Indeed, there any many Muslim (and non-Muslim) women – educated, feminists, politicians, scholars, etc. – who choose to dress modestly; and again, *they* made that *choice* themselves.

      And your comment “Kinder, kuche, kirche” – that is a really, really rude and derogatory statement. I can’t believe you would shame other women’s choices like that (in fact, it’s pretty ironic).

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  • Naj

    Hi, I just found this article from Pinterest. This is the first time I’ve heard of Zahra. I agree that it can be very difficult shopping for modest clothes in the U.S. As a Muslim woman, we must wear clothing that isn’t sheer (see-through) and tight (form-fitting). Also, the only skin that we are allow to show is our face and hands. Some Muslims believe that no parts of a woman’s body may show, hence the burqa (which is the best way for a Muslim Women to dress in order to preserve her modesty). If a Muslim Woman chooses to wear pants/skirts, our tops must end below the knee. These are things I look for when shopping. The vast majority of shirts aren’t this long, and most pants aren’t wide leg, hence the difficulty. I now shop on shukronline.com to purchase clothing and I continue to search for modest clothing at the mall.

    Anyway, I look forward to being able to shop at mode-sty this summer 2013!!

  • Theresa

    Many women and girls in my church have a hard time finding modest clothes. I’ve seen many of them buy lace and sew on shirts that show cleavage, back or shoulders.