Posted: Wed 19th May 2021
Put yourselves in the shoes of Rifhat Qureshi. It's a few months before the pandemic; you've registered your new fashion business, carefully sourced your stock and set up shop in Cardiff. Everything's looking rosy and then…
Fast forward a year and a bit, and Rifhat has just completed a week-long residency at the Hello, World pop-up shop on Oxford Street.
Her return to physical retail came after a period of intense self-reflection, where Rifhat thought about how Modest Trends London - the modest wear brand she dreamed up back in 2012 - could cater to changing Muslim consumers, in as ethical and sustainable a way as possible, while giving something back.
Here's her story.
Rifhat, tell me where the idea for Modest Trends London came from...
"Modest Trends London is a brand I built for the underrepresented Muslim consumers out there. As a British-born Muslim, I love fashion. Growing up, I was always into Vogue and Cosmopolitan. But there was never anything that represented the styles I'd like to wear.
"When I started wearing a scarf, I just couldn't find one I liked. I started to think that we need representation on the high street; we need more brands that represent this growing demographic of consumers."
And so you decided to launch your own?
"I did. The brand itself I created in 2016. Initially I wasn't quite sure where it was going to go, but some of the issues around fashion - waste, low wages, exploitation - really started to play on my mind. I didn't want my brand to be associated with them.
"There's a growing demand for modest fashion - it's a market that will be worth $361bn by 2023 - but there's not enough thought going into the ethical and sustainable elements. There are brands - even high street ones now - representing modest fashion, but this is often done purely to meet demand."
How are these products - particularly those released by high street brands - being received?
"There was a report by Ogilvy which found that Muslim consumers tend to have a bit of suspicion around some of the brands bringing out modest fashion items.
"Muslim consumers are definitely changing in their habits, their behaviours and their buying patterns. A few years ago, you wouldn't have seen a lot of Muslim women in the gym. Now, Muslim women are always in the gym, and there's fashion that represents this.
"Nike bringing out a hijab was great. Otherwise, it was really impractical trying to work out at the gym with this flowing scarf around you.
"But sometimes brands don't always get it right. H&M released a line that wasn't as well received because it was more cultural. It didn't reflect the fact that Muslim consumers want a wider range."
It feels we're on the cusp of change in terms of traditionally minority consumer groups being listened to - is this something you've experienced?
"We're feeling it. Black Lives Matter was such a huge movement - it raised so many issues that were there but weren't actually being addressed, looked at or answered.
"Minority groups started to feel like 'We might be able to actually voice who we are and what we stand for.' Fashion is a representation of your personality. You get it through music, through arts, but fashion is what I'm really interested in.
"The planet is obviously a huge issue, too. There's much more awareness from consumers about how their products are sourced. What's the story behind them? I personally don't feel comfortable ever sourcing products from places where people haven't been treated fairly."
You've touched on launching the Modest Trends London brand in 2016. What happened next?
"The original idea actually came about in 2012. I was in Morocco, and I saw for the first time that there was this very different, very beautiful way of dressing - which I wanted to bring to the UK.
"I didn't do anything with the idea until 2016, when I launched the brand and my first pop-up shop. I had left my job - I was originally lecturing business studies at Cardiff and Vale College before moving to work as an enterprise programme exec. When my contract ended, I thought 'I'm going to go all in on my business' and open a pop-up shop and develop the brand from there.
"Unfortunately, it didn't work. It was a bit of a disaster. I quickly learned that, when it comes to business, it's not just the idea - it's also the mindset behind it. You do need that resilience, that development of yourself, before you can go into business. You need to understand that a great business idea is just one aspect."
How did you cope with that initial setback? You clearly didn't give up…
"I worked on building my interpersonal skills and self-confidence, because being in business comes with so many ups and downs. Unless you have an amazing support network, people never really know what you're going through.
"Then, in 2019, I registered the business officially, got all excited again and opened a physical shop in Cardiff. I went to Dubai and handpicked all the new products ahead of Ramadan and Eid 2020. The stock arrived, and then Covid hit.
"I was back to 'What have I done?' and feeling upset. I knew I had to get online. I was lucky enough to join the Aspect Student Accelerator Programme with the London School of Economics and Cardiff University, which helped me really map out the social elements of my business. From there I launched a website, and since then I've been focused on optimising it."
How have you found being in the Hello, World shop?
"It has so helped my confidence in terms of marketing. To be able to have this opportunity is amazing. Had things not happened the way they did, maybe I wouldn't be here. While online has been great, I always wanted to make my brand very visual on the high street to showcase the diversity we have in the UK. Being given the opportunity to feature on Oxford Street is, for me, a statement of representation and a nod to how the future of the high street may look.
"When I was on the Enterprise Nation site and noticed the Hello, World campaign, I knew I had to try and get involved. Could I really get on to Oxford Street, though? I'm a tiny brand. But I somehow got through and, after originally being given a day in the shop, I'm now here for the week."
What's next for Modest Trends London?
"Raising some capital. You can spend all day on the products and the website, but really you need to be able to market effectively. That's quite expensive to do.
"I also want to employ more people, launch my own collection and spread the word that modest fashion doesn't have to be fast fashion - it can be ethical and sustainable.
"I'm also working with charities that support women in starting their own businesses, training and education. I'm speaking to other partners who buy sewing machines for women who aren't employed in places like Bangladesh. They can create their own income because they can stitch, but they don't have the funds for a machine.
"There's another charity that provides clean water. Again, it's a women's issue because women have to carry the water. They spend a long time out of their day going from one place to another to get clean water for their family.
"If I can give back to those charities and improve the lives of women, to me that's more important than any brand. I suppose I'm using fashion as a vehicle to help and support women."
What's your one big tip for would-be entrepreneurs with a great idea like yours?
"Don't be afraid to ask for help. When I started reaching out to people from Enterprise Nation and elsewhere, which sometimes meant going outside of my comfort zone, I found an amazing level of support that I didn't think existed.
"You need support beyond your friends and family - a bigger, wider network that can really help you to develop the knowledge, skills and attitude you need to make it.
"I would also say take care of yourself. Work, self-employment and studies all have their challenges. Taking time out to work on yourself is the best way to build a lasting strategy."
The Hello, World pop-up store will be at 58 Oxford Street until 27 May. Discover which brands you can expect to find there.