Former fashion designer Nailah Lymus first launched her Muslim modeling agency, Underwraps, in 2012. But despite features in The New Yorker and Elle Brazil, and on NBC.com, it’s struggled to gain the traction one might expect from a business that’s five years old. To wit, it represents only 10 models and has a meager 800 followers on Instagram. What’s more, none of the women it represents have scored any mainstream contracts or clients.
The company’s re-launch a few months ago (the specifics of which, other than a new logo, are vague) may be a response to this, though industry insiders are split over whether such a niche agency will ever have what it takes to thrive. The company has expanded outside of the Muslim demographic to include other models with modest leanings, but industry demand for such a specific subset is still unclear.
Muslim model Halima Aden on the cover of Vogue Arabia
“Any modeling agency that offers diverse options is a good thing,” said Jennifer Davidson, the editor-in-chief of The Fashion Spot. “The wider the pool of models available to casting agents, magazines, brands and designers, the easier it is for them to be inclusive.” And there seems to be a demand for Muslim models, she said, pointing to the recent success of the hijab-wearing model Halima Aden and the launch of Vogue Arabia earlier this year.
Indeed, the speedy rise of 20-year-old Aden — who dominated headlines this past fashion week after walking for Yeezy, Max Mara and Alberta Ferretti — could easily be read as symbolic of a growing interest in Muslim models. She was quickly signed by the top tier agency IMG and has gone on to star on the covers of elite publications like CR Fashion Book and the aforementioned Vogue Arabia.
In the month of February alone, when Aden made her industry debut, she garnered 22,000 mentions on social media (specifically Instagram, Twitter and Facebook), according to Brandwatch. Compared to top model Karlie Kloss’s 60,000 mentions the same month, that may seem minor, but it’s 18,200 more than Adwoa Aboah’s — a fellow new model who has experienced similar success, walking for everyone from Marc Jacobs to Chanel — mentions for the same period.
Models’ social media mentions for February 2017
Consider, also, that, in just one month on the scene, Aden scored one-third of longtime model Kloss’s social media mentions.
“Every little girl deserves to see a role model that is dressed like her, resembles her or even has the same characteristics as her,” Aden, who boasts 206,000 followers on Instagram, previously told Vogue, of her unique placement in fashion.
Fatimah Hussein, the founder of ASIYA, a modest sportswear company, agrees, noting that modest fashion is on the rise. “Being modest doesn’t mean you have to be Muslim; it’s a choice and a lifestyle,” she said. “We believe more girls would like to see women dressing the way they want, regardless of their religion and cultural background.”
“Modest fashion is also in line with young women’s shifting attitudes about ‘sexy,’” added Emily Anatole, the associate director of insights at Cassandra, which analyzes cultural and retail trends. “They no longer think that revealing clothing and overtly sexy images are needed to convey sexiness. They prefer when brands go beyond just the physical and forge a deeper emotional connection.” Indeed, recent research from her team found that one in 10 young women globally (ages 14-34) have stopped using a brand or product because it uses sex to sell.
But, casting agents are less convinced that an industry which one such insider called “slow as molasses” would ever fully back a modest agency.
“I’m not sure an agency that represents a category so narrow will have great success,”said one agent with a decade of experience in the space, speaking under condition of anonymity. “Nike [who recently featured models wearing hijabs], which is based in progressive Portland is one thing, but can you imagine a Maybelline hair ad or a Victoria’s Secret ad featuring a hijab?”
Narrow may not be the best descriptor for the category, however. According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, the Muslim population will grow from 1.6 billion today to nearly 3 billion by 2050, faster than any other religious group. Thomson Reuters’ last report on the State of the Islamic Economy also found that Muslim consumers, who spent $266 billion on clothing in 2013, are on track to spend around $484 billion by 2019. It’s for reasons like these that brands like Chanel and H&M are embracing the demographic with special product lines and advertisements.
Underwraps’ model Haijer Naili featured on their Instagram page
Yet Eric Cano — the founder of Cano Castings, which works with brands like Simon Miller and Lively — is similarly uncertain, even though he describes himself as “a liberal and a progressive who’s all for inclusivity — especially in the modeling industry and fashion as a whole.”
Progress in this area — like James Scully demanding better (read: less racist) treatment of models and the all-black Gucci pre-fall campaign — is positive, he said. Underwraps, too, could help expand the conversation — but representing a category that’s so narrow could be unsustainable. “There are so many big money categories the agency’s models [likely] won’t qualify for — namely hair care, swim and lingerie,” he said.
One agent, with over 15 years experience casting for top tier brands, did not mince words. “Do we really need another modeling agency?” he asked, noting that a Muslim, or modest, modeling agency is especially confusing, as it sections models off by religion, rather than race. “What does that have to do with how someone looks?” Agencies that represent only African-American or plus-size models make more sense, he said, because those are “types.”
“No client has ever said, ‘Get me a Muslim or modest type.’”