By Pamela Cue, Manager, Public Diplomacy and Policy Support Section, Australian High Commission, Kuala Lumpur
You may not have even heard of the modest fashion market [external PDF], but it is booming. Modest fashion is clothing that conceals rather than accentuating the body – and it is quickly increasing in popularity. Spending is estimated to reach USD368 billion by 2021, a 7.2 per cent growth rate since 2015. To put it in context, that’s more than the combined size of the current clothing markets in the United Kingdom (USD107 billion), Germany (USD99 billion) and India (USD96 billion).
South East Asia is one of the biggest consumers of modest fashion, with young Muslim women in particular driving demand. In fact, millennials from Indonesia and Malaysia have the highest engagement rates on social media in the modest fashion sector.
This so-called ‘rise of the hijabista’ presents valuable opportunities for Australia’s international engagement. Apart from the obvious economic benefits, the emerging modest fashion market can help advance Australia’s public diplomacy objectives.
Not only does it provide a platform to showcase Australia’s diverse, tolerant and open multicultural society, but it also highlights the excellence of our creative industries.
At our High Commission in Kuala Lumpur we recently did just this, with the launch of the acclaimed ‘Faith, Fashion, Fusion: Muslim Women’s Style in Australia’ exhibition at the renowned Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia.
Developed by the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, ‘Faith, Fashion, Fusion’ showcases the experiences of leading Australian Muslim women, how they express their faith through fashion, and Australia’s modest fashion industry.
One of the first exhibitions of its kind in the world, it features a diverse range of women, from Aheda Zanetti, the Australian inventor of the ground-breaking ‘burqini’ swimsuit and the inspiration behind the exhibition, to academic and media commentator, Dr Susan Carland, and Australia’s first Muslim surf lifesaver, Mecca Laalaa. Read more about the inspiration behind the exhibition.
We first came across the exhibition in 2016 when we were researching public diplomacy activities for the coming financial year. At that point, the exhibition was just about to finish its stint at the National Archives of Australia – the last stop on an extensive Australian tour that started back in 2012.
We loved the concept and thought it beautifully showcased Australia’s contemporary and inclusive society. Thankfully, MAAS and the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM), South East Asia’s preeminent Islamic Arts Museum, thought so as well.
After more than 18 months of hard work and with the support of the Australia-ASEAN Council, as well as our corporate partner, Lendlease Malaysia, we were able to launch the exhibition in Malaysia – the first time it has been displayed internationally.
The exhibition launch in November 2017 was a great success, with over 120 guests plus two Malaysian Ministers in attendance. We were also lucky to secure the attendance of Glynis Jones, the curator of the exhibition and Aheda Zanetti, the Burqini designer, to add more profile to the launch.
We thought the exhibition would resonate well with Malaysians and we were right – a comment we heard from many was ‘wow, we didn’t realise Australia had a modest fashion scene’ or ‘I learned something new about Australia today.’ IAMM tells us that the exhibition has been very popular with subsequent visitors, with follow up activities, including talks with Malaysian fashion influencers, being well attended and received.
The exhibition also attracted good media coverage, with write-ups and interviews with Aheda and Glynis in leading Malaysian and international outlets. The exhibition and curator/designer pair of Glynis and Aheda also made quite the impression of some prominent young Malaysian fashion bloggers that we built into the program. See some of their Instagram posts: @sarahshahnor and @aidasue.
A further highlight has been seeing the people-to-people links forged during the project. From the close bonds between the staff at MAAS and IAMM who worked together to set up the exhibition, to the entrepreneurs we involved who were inspired by Aheda’s success story – the exhibition has cultivated links which will last far beyond its run in Malaysia.
‘Faith, Fashion, Fusion: Muslim Women’s Style in Australia’ is on display at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia until 28 January 2018. After this, the exhibition will travel to Indonesia, organised by the Australian Embassy, Indonesia.
Pamela Cue is the Senior Public Affairs and Policy Support Manager at the Australian High Commission, Kuala Lumpur. Prior to this, she worked as a lawyer at King & Wood Mallesons and at the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. She holds a Bachelor of Arts/Laws (Hon) from the Australian National University.
[Cover image credit: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences]