Zahra Aljabri has never had much luck at the malls. Whenever she went shopping, the Minneapolis woman would see plenty of clothing with short hemlines, clingy fabrics and revealing necklines. But as a Muslim who dresses conservatively, little of what she saw fit her sense of propriety — or her sense of style.
When she took her search online, she didn’t fare much better.
“The majority of retailers simply neglect women like me by producing overly revealing designs,” Aljabri said. “Conservative [dressing] women are at a disadvantage because they have to spend significantly more time and money to find anything at all, much less something stylish.”
So despite the fact that Aljabri has a law degree, and no background in retail or fashion, she researched the viability of starting a website to sell more modest clothing. Collaborating with her tech-savvy husband, James Faghmous, she created and launched Mode-sty (mode-sty.com) last year.
The site, which is still in beta testing, relies on a pop-up model, selling products online only during designated windows of time. (The shop is open this week through May 17. )
Aljabri said that the pop-up store allows her to refine her business model, experiment with clothing lines and learn more about her customers. Although still in its infancy, it does have loyal customers. One is Mary Ellen Gast of Edina.
“Mode-sty is a godsend for women who want conservative clothing for religious or cultural reasons,” she said. “But it’s also a boon for those of us whose desire to dress well has become needlessly challenging.”
Gast, like many women with exacting tastes, knows exactly what she doesn’t want in her wardrobe: “mid-thigh hems, bandage dresses, in-your-face cleavage.”
What does she want? “Stylish but conservative clothing that I can stand, sit, move and bend over in — without needing strategically deployed props to avoid flashing anyone,” she said. “Zahra does the weeding for me, and my psyche is unscathed.”
Degrees of coverage
Aljabri does that weeding by working with local and national brands to curate a unique collection.
“We pull pieces from both established brands and independent designers,” she said. “In both cases, we’re focused on finding really beautiful garments with the coverage our members are looking for. Once it meets our coverage requirements, we focus on quality and fit. We only take pieces that pass all of these criteria. For any particular sale, we might go through nearly 100 pieces, find maybe 20 that are modest, and keep two.”
All garments on the site — which offers well-known brands such as BCBG Maxazria and Rachel Roy alongside lesser known names — are placed in one of three coverage categories. Low-coverage items may include short sleeves or body-hugging designs. Medium coverage includes half-sleeves and scoop necklines that hit up to 2 inches below the collarbone. Full coverage encompasses designs that drape loosely over the entire body, from collarbone to feet.
Aljabri, who grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, moved to Minneapolis in 2008 to complete her law degree. It was in Minnesota that she met her husband-to-be, who was working on a doctorate in computer science at the University of Minnesota.
It was also in Minnesota where she discovered what she calls her “entrepreneurial self.” After finishing her degree, she started her own law firm, specializing in estate planning and wills. She founded MuslimBuddy, an organization dedicated to building community involvement among local Muslim organizations, for which she received a Bush Fellowship. Then she started up Mode-sty.
Because she has so little experience in the fashion world, Aljabri said, she has to work hard to keep abreast of style trends.
“I’ve immersed myself in the world of designers, manufacturers and trendsetters,” she said. “I spend a lot of time reading and talking to fashion insiders to stay on top of everything that is currently happening in the industry.”
While she has no plans for a brick-and-mortar store, she hopes to grow Mode-sty from a sporadic sale site into a permanent destination for a diverse group of women who prefer to leave something to the imagination.
“Just walk into J. Crew, Zara or Mango, or visit online retailers like ShopBop and Gilt Groupe and you’ll see the exact same model smiling out at you,” she said. “Even if you aren’t particularly conservative, there aren’t many alternatives to what every other brand is selling.”
If Aljabri has her way, Mode-sty will be one of those alternatives.
Sally McGraw is the Minneapolis-based author of Already Pretty (www.alreadypretty.com), a blog about the intersection of style and body image.