In Orlando, A 'Modest Fashion' Boutique For Hijabi Women

Sep 4, 2016

At one end of Orlando's Fashion Square mall, between a karate store and a comic book emporium, is a clothing boutique called Verona. It's stocked with long-sleeved caftans, full-length slit-less skirts, and more than 300 varieties of hijabs. Inside, women peruse through racks of garments they once could only find online.

"It's nice to have something like Verona establish a store in a mall because it's kinda like 'Hey, I'm out here.' You're being represented as American," says Feena Quazi Abbati, sauntering from rack to rack in an orange hijab with a floral top and tapered khaki pants.

Abbati, an Orlando native of Pakistani descent, grew up dressing conservatively, a symbol she and other Muslim women attribute to spiritual growth and modesty. For years, she bought clothes at H&M, Target and Forever 21 that she could layer together. But she says having access to a one-stop shop for original and stylish conservative wear — for work, leisure, and fitness — is a sign of progress.

"People have this idea that a Muslim is someone who wears black and has a scarf on. You cannot define what a Muslim looks like. You have Indonesians who are Muslim. You have Italians who are Muslim. You have Hispanics. Some girls have afros. Some girls are blond. Some girls choose to cover their hair and some girls cover their face. It's going to open the door for more opportunity just to show people, 'Hey, this is what Muslims are like.' "

Verona co-founder Lisa Vogl, a 34-year-old Muslim convert, and her partners first launched Verona as an online boutique to fill a void in the fashion industry for a demographic in need of special clothing. Vogl remembers starting out with one dress, two skirts, and four hijabs. Now, with a brick-and-mortar shop that opened in May, her team has a steady flow of orders from all parts of the world for high waist, floor length skirts, maxi cardigans and, of course, hijabs.

"It's just exciting to see the idea in your head come into real life. We're excited to show Islam in a different light and we're excited to show that we're just as integrated and stylish and fashionable as everybody else."

Clients have driven hours to come to the store to try on clothing. Others drop by on vacation. But in the wake of the June 12 Pulse nightclub shootings that left 49 people dead at the hands of a Muslim-American, Vogl says the store has emerged as a place for dialogue.

"I've had men come in and sit and ask me questions about how we dress. It gives us a chance to explain who we are, what we believe, and what we're about. And that's really an environment that we want to provide. It's more than fashion and fun clothes. It's a way to actually make change."

Shortly after reports had spread that the man behind the Pulse shootings, Omar Mateen, was Muslim, Vogl and her partners closed their store for their employees' safety. The hijab has become a loaded symbol that has put her and other hijabi women at risk for backlash. The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a civil rights advocacy group, reported several incidents across the country in which women were harassed for wearing the hijab.

Vogl feels that now, more than ever, people are misunderstanding Islam. She blames the media for the stigma. That, and lack of interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims. She hopes her shop can help change that.

"This is front in-your-face that we are exactly not who you think we are. It is a hijabi Muslim-run, women-run business. We are strong, independent, business-educated women," she says.

Perceptions aside, pure numbers show the Islamic fashion industry is responding to a real need. Haroon Latif heads research for Dinar Standard, a global firm that looks at how the world's growing Muslim population is driving certain industries, like modest wear.

"There's 3 to 5 million Muslims in the U.S.," says Latif. "And that's expected to double by 2050. Muslim consumers are a consumer group that has their own values and as those values deepen, they start to demand very unique services. Modest fashion is just a subset of that."

In a recent report, his firm found that Muslims around the world spent an estimated $244 billion in clothing last year. He predicts spending to reach more than $300 billion by 2020. Demand for modest wear is up — and mainstream companies are responding.

Latif lists H&M and Dolce & Gabbana as prime examples. "In the U.K. in particular, Marks & Spencer is one of the leading retailers and they have just launched a burkini brand," he says.

Almost 150 modest-wear brands exist now, according to market researchers. Most brands are less than five years old. Their target demographic is Muslim women and others looking for conservative fashion.

"They're really seeing the buying power and how big the community is here and we're here like everybody else," says Nadine Abu-Jabara, New Orleans native and co-owner of Verona. "We need clothes and we need laptops from Best Buy. We are everybody else. We just like to wear a scarf on our head sometimes. Or all the time."

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, we just heard one way Orlando is still coping with the Pulse Nightclub shootings, which carry the added weight of having been carried out by a Muslim-American. Meanwhile, a business in Orlando is emerging as a place for dialogue. It's a modest wear boutique for Muslim women, believed to be the only one in a mainstream U.S. mall.

Now, this is happening at a time when clothing preferred by Muslim women has been in the news in Europe because of burkinis full-bodied swimsuits that had been banned in several coastal towns in France before a judge overturned the ban. Burkinis are just one of the items you can find at the Verona Boutique, which was founded by two American-Muslim women seeking both to provide a service to Muslims and to change perceptions about them. Renata Sago from WMFE reports.

RENATA SAGO, BYLINE: Arabic pop echoes outside Verona Boutique in Orlando's Fashion Square Mall. The crowd is teeming with women - in their hands, sleek black shopping bags, on their heads - patterned scarves called hijabs. Maryam Khan is dressed in a chic fuchsia orange and white striped hijab tunic skirt ensemble.

MARYAM KHAN: This is from a company in Dubai, but then you pay a lot of shipping from Dubai.

SAGO: For Kahn and other Muslim women, covering up is a symbol of modesty and spiritual growth. In the U.S., this kind of stylish original and appropriate clothing is hard to find except online.

KHAN: You buy something that's armless, and then we have to find a cardigan or find an undershirt that matches. Plus, it's hot outside (laughter), so to have to wear all that - it's hard.

SAGO: She says a store that stocks long-sleeved kaftans, full-length slitless skirts and hundreds of hijabs is a sign of progress and acceptance.

LISA VOGL: We finally have a story that is so easily accessible, and we don't have to wait online for shipping. We don't have to wait if they're sold out. We just come here and get what we need.

SAGO: Co-founder Lisa Vogl and her partners first launched Verona as an online boutique with one style of dress, two skirts and four hijabs. Today, their store is in this central Florida tourist hub with a fast-growing Muslim community. It feels like a success.

VOGL: We've had people driving in hours and hours to come to the store, and we also have people who are on vacation nearly every day come in and say, I heard about you guys. I want to stop in.

SAGO: In the wake of the June Pulse Nightclub shootings, Vogl closed her store for three days for safety.

VOGL: Us as hijabis that wear the scarf were especially at risk for backlash. The hate is there.

SAGO: Vogl says Verona is a chance to bring fresh styles to the American mainstream and even fresher ideas about who American-Muslims are.

VOGL: This is front, in your face that we are exactly not who you think we are. It is a hijabi-Muslim-run, women-run business. We are strong, independent, business-educated women.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You guys all set?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes.

SAGO: Perceptions aside, pure numbers show the Islamic fashion industry is responding to a real need. Haroon Latif heads research for Dinar Standard. He says there are at least 3 million Muslims in the U.S. now, and that's expected to double by 2050. Latif says mainstream companies worldwide are responding.

HAROON LATIF: H&M, Dolce and Gabbana. In the U.K. in particular Marks and Spencer's is one of the leading retailers, and they have just launched a burkini brand (laughter).

SAGO: He says more than 150 modest wear brands exist now, most less than 5 years old.

Back at Orlando Fashion Square, Vogl arranges a new display of colorful hijabs, just some of the 300 her business now sells.

VOGL: We're having to reorganize because we have so many more products coming out, and we're trying to find the space.

SAGO: They're also trying to find the time to answer calls from customers in need of sizes and from people curious about modest wear fashion and Islam in general. For NPR News, I'm Renata Sago in Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.