A new Montreal-based fashion brand is on a mission to change the perception of what it means to dress modestly. And it couldn’t be timelier, especially with France’s recent attempts to ban burkinis from their summer beaches and the post-election spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes that have left many American-Muslims afraid to wear their hijabs in public.
Mode-ste is the brainchild of Aicha Chtourou, a self-defined “fashion nerd,” who created the company with her mother and husband and now serves as its creative director. Born and raised in Montreal, the 23-year-old grew up surrounded by chic clothiers, but as someone of Muslim faith, she says it was difficult to find looks that mixed fashion with modesty.
“Luckily for me, my mum is a master seamstress and she was able to always alter my clothing. For example, if something was see-through, she would sew some lining to it,” says Chtourou, adding that she would also layer outfits or create skin-covering solutions from what she could find in stores. “Soon my mother and I realized that if we encountered this dilemma, maybe we weren’t the only ones.”
Chtourou and her team decided to take their business to an even bigger stage, appearing on this week’s episode of CBC’s Dragon’s Den. “We want to expand the fashion bubble and make clothing that also has that modest aesthetic for every woman,” says Chtourou.
A day after her Dragon’s Den debut, FLARE caught up with Chtourou to find out more about the true meaning of modest fashion.
Can you explain what “modest fashion” entails? “For us, modest fashion involves a very wide spectrum. Any woman who wants to buy our clothing can style it the way she wants and define it the way she wants. It’s not necessarily that the clothing defines modesty; it’s the way it’s worn. Our brand isn’t here to tell women how to wear things. It’s all about the comfort level of the individual.”
How did you learn how to create fashion looks and designs? “My mom has been making clothes for me since I was a kid and my aunt is a professional pattern maker, so both of them were always around when I was growing up. Through that, I was able to create the line.”
So it was a skill that was passed down through your family? “Exactly. It was kind of like it was meant to be.”
Why did you choose the name Mode-ste? “Modeste is a French word, which means modesty, and we decided to play on the word since ‘mode’ means fashion. We wanted to bring both together in our brand to show that clothing could be modest and fashionable at the same time.”
Was it important for you to have a French name? “I am French originally, and it is my first language. I grew up in Saint-Laurent, a French area of Montreal, and it’s a very diverse and multicultural city. French is part of the city’s culture, and we wanted to incorporate into the brand all of our culture, language and where we’re from.”
The modest fashion market has been gaining a lot of attention in the last few years, and big designers are starting to release lines of abayas and hijabs. What did you feel that was still missing? “Being born and raised here, I have my western aesthetic. With modest clothing, it may match your style; or the quality may not be 100 percent, and it’s often expensive. When we make our clothing, we really focus on the quality. We’re part of the garment-making process; we go fabric shopping, we cut and sew our clothing here in Montreal and make sure that everything is up to par. We set prices that are accessible to everyone. Above all though, we create garments that are made for anyone who is fashion-forward.”
Modest, yet modern: a gorgeous shot of Aicha Chtourou in one of her designs
How do you keep your looks fresh and different while still being modest? “Our clothing covers the body, but it’s not just about covering up skin, it’s about the silhouette, layering fabric, and new modern cuts. We draw inspiration from a lot of different designers, and we’re always keeping up with the latest trends. For instance, I personally really love the look of oversized garments.”
Who are some designers you draw inspiration from? “The Row, by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. It’s just beautiful, their designs are amazing. WANT Les Essentiels de la Vie as well. They’re twin designers from Montreal who created a very fashionable accessory line. They make their bags and shoes in Italy, carry a lot of high-end designers like Acne Studios, and everything about their store is very clean and beautiful.”
What has the response been since you started doing this full-time in 2015? “It’s been an unbelievable year. Our brand is now carried by stores in six different cities: Toronto, Calgary, Surrey, B.C., Kansas City, M.O., Montreal and Kuala Lumpur. We also did a capsule collection with a famous Dubai-based blogger named Saufeeya Goodson, who has been featured in Teen Vogue. And now we’re pitching our business on Dragon’s Den, a show we’ve watched since it first started. Canadian customers are our main core, but we cater to customers in the U.S. and Australia as well, and our responses have so far been great.”
What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about modest clothing? “I think people think it’s very boring. What you see in the media is people dressing in all black. But our message is that it’s not boring, we’re just like everyone else. We don’t just stick to black, we love colour, and we have garments in everything from burnt orange to geometric patterns. We live here in the west, and we’re part of this culture, so through our clothing we want to show that we have the same style.”
What were you hoping to get out of going on Dragon’s Den? “We were expecting a great response. Something to validate our vision and idea, and we definitely got that. Manjit Minhas and Michael Wekerle offered us deals within the first few minutes and the Dragons knew our business was growing, and that there is a huge market for it. But we stuck to our guns and knew that we didn’t necessarily have to go with their deals.”
Despite getting two offers, you didn’t walk away with a deal. What has the response been since the episode aired? Amazing. We’ve heard from people on social media, through our website, emails, just constant messages and orders. Everyone has been very encouraging and positive.”
Famed Muslim scholar Dalia Mogahed wore your royal blue signature dress during her Vancouver TED talk entitled “What do you think when you look at me?” With your designs, what do you hope people think when they look at people wearing them? “I hope they think twice before seeing someone and giving them a label. I hope they accept and look at a person for more than what they wear on their head or how they look, and seek to understand them.”