This History-Making Olympian Has A Modest Clothing Line — & It's Amazing

Ana Colon
Refinery 29 UK
Photo: Courtesy of Louella.

In August, Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first woman to wear a hijab while representing Team USA at the Olympics. The fencer returned stateside with a bronze medal — a particularly meaningful win, considering that faith-honouring uniforms are still under scrutiny. The 30-year-old has been redefining modest style for a few years now, though, through her own fashion line. On top of being a history-making athlete (and an ambassador for the U.S. Department of State), she's a fashion entrepreneur, as well.

In 2014, Muhammad and her siblings founded Louella, a bi-coastal enterprise that caters to the modest, style-conscious shopper. The company is just two years old, but the seed was planted long before that. "I knew that the demand was there just from my personal experience," she told Refinery29. "As a young millennial who chooses to dress modestly but also wants to be fashionable, I was having a really hard time finding clothes." Something as simple as a long-sleeved maxi proved almost impossible to track down — and, if she did find pieces that fit her needs, they were often extraordinarily expensive. Muhammad set out to change that.

Nothing on Louella's website is over $200 (£165). The brand appeals to a devout shopper who might not have as many options in the market, but it's not exclusively for Muslim women. "Some people have a really hard time getting past the fact that the model has on a hijab," Muhammad said of the styling on her e-comm site. However, as her public profile continues to grow, and more people catch wind of her brand, she's expanding the scope of her lookbook, some of which we have in the photos ahead, to include women without headscarves. "We want people to envision themselves in our clothes," she noted, whether they are religious or simply into her collection.

The idea of modest clothing is being rebranded, Muhammad believes — finally, people are getting on board with the fact that dressing modestly and fashionably don't have to to be mutually exclusive. Plus, mass retailers and fashion brands, like Uniqlo, Dolce & Gabbana, and Mango, have attempted to cater to this long-ignored demographic — although not always successfully. Louella is different because its founder is also its target customer, aware of the demand but also the practical needs that cause shoppers like her to seek this product. And its message is only spreading.

Ahead, Muhammad discusses Louella's mission, what being an athlete teaches you about running a business, and how the industry's perception of modest dress is changing (finally).

You started Louella just two years ago. What have you learned about running a modest fashion business?

"Growing up, I wanted to be on-trend. I was always layering, and I was always longing for the perfect long-sleeve dress — that's like finding a pink unicorn in the desert within the Muslim community. Initially, my goal with Louella was to bring fashionable modest clothing to the U.S. market, because I saw how the young [Muslim] community struggled to be modest and fashionable at the same time. I don’t think that those two things are mutually exclusive.

"What’s so important about what’s current within fashion is that it’s really the first time that I can think of that it’s okay to dress modestly. As a young person, I feel very much in touch with what’s on-trend, what I want to wear, and what I see myself wearing. I can go into stores now and not have to buy three different tops to achieve a modest look. It’s been a really rewarding experience to bring that kind of business to the U.S. market. I know that there’s such a large customer base, and I also know the strength of the Muslim dollar. I know Muslim women are no different from any other group; women like to shop, we love fashion, and we like to invest in the things that we wear."

Photo: Courtesy of Louella.

You started (and still run) the company with your siblings. What led to Louella's founding?

"I’d been a sports ambassador for the U.S. State Department for a few years and a public figure in the Muslim community even before the Olympics. I was always traveling to events when I wasn’t in competition, telling my story as a minority member of Team USA, and it got to a point where I was always looking for a new dress. I was always online spending hours searching the exact same words: 'long-sleeve, floor-length maxi-dress.' I remember waiting a really long time for something to come in the mail — and I don’t even think it ended up coming in time, and I had to wear something else — and it was very frustrating. Sometimes, the things from overseas are overpriced, and when you tack on shipping prices and import tax and all that other stuff, it’s crazy how much you can spend on one item.

"My brother, who lives out in Los Angeles not too far from the garment district, didn’t understand this, and said, 'Why are you killing yourself online looking for a dress? Why don’t you just make it yourself?' At the time I was like, What is he talking about — make my own clothes? But he knew a manufacturer out in L.A. He told me, 'The next time you come out, we can go see them, and maybe bring them some ideas and fabric, to see what they come up with.' I created a whole PowerPoint presentation about this company. It didn’t take me that long to come up with the company name — it’s named after my grandmother on my dad’s side. We found an investor, and it grew from there.

"I don’t think anyone was prepared for the amount of traction [it would get], but that speaks to the need [for modest fashion]. Women are looking for this, and there’s not that much available."

Photo: Courtesy of Louella.

Who is Louella’s customer?

"We have people ordering from the most random countries; I feel like we’re reaching a lot further than I ever even anticipated. When I think of the Louella customer, I imagine her being a young millennial who’s looking for modest options that she can’t find in the traditional [places] like Zara or H&M, or Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus. I love the top that we released at the beginning of the summer, because it’s so easy to wear, and it can be dressed up or down — I lived in it when I was in Brazil. When I wasn’t in athletic clothes, I was just in our Lee tunic, because it was so effortless. That’s what I want our clothing to be — fashionable and effortless — and I don’t want people to spend a lot of money to have those things."

When you were in Rio, did people ask about your Louella pieces?

"It’s funny, because I feel like from the moment I qualified for the Games back in February all the way until now, if we posted anything related to me on the company site or on like our Instagram handle, a lot of people would be really surprised. They didn’t know I was attached to the company. I like that Louella is at a point where it can stand on its own. It’s grown so much over the past two years. It’s shocking to see the amount of growth that a small startup can have over such a short period of time, and I’m so excited for its potential and where it can go. I feel like Louella can really become a household name, because there’s this need for it, especially in the U.S. market."

Photo: Courtesy of Louella.

When you were growing up, how did you source modest pieces?

"I was always mixing and matching. When we went school shopping as kids, we went to the mall like everyone else — but I always had to buy a long-sleeve top to go underneath [a dress], or a cardigan to go over it. It’s interesting because we get so many emails at Louella from people saying: 'We love your clothes — I wish I was Muslim so I could buy them.' We don’t track the religion of our customer at all, and we’re not targeting a solely Muslim audience. There are women of various faiths who want to dress modestly. It’s always been my intention to reach as many women as I can. We make a concerted effort to make everyone feel like they can see themselves in our clothes. We try to use women from different backgrounds as models. We have women with and without hijabs in our photos — that’s to encourage people to visualise themselves in the clothes, and to not think that they have to wear hijab on in order to buy them.

"We don’t see ourselves as a religious brand: We’re a modest clothing line that’s available to anyone. Also, I feel like there's this modest trend in fashion; there are so many items on our site that any women would want to wear and feel comfortable in. That’s the crux of the company. I just want it to always be three things: modest, fashionable and affordable."

Photo: Courtesy of Louella.

How have customers' needs or requests impacted what you stock?

"A lot of our customers are repeat customers... I’m not a designer and my sisters aren’t designers, but we try to listen to our customers and their needs. Through our own experience, we bring those things to our website. Right now, we’re trying to find a designer to bring more eveningwear to our site. My younger sister got married recently, and for six months, we were scrambling to find bridal-shower dresses. It had to be long-sleeved and couldn’t be short, but we wanted something fancy and not matronly. Especially in the Muslim community, there isn't a specific wedding season — they happen year-round.

"Traditionally, we have a bunch of different parties: the engagement, then there’s the religious ceremony, followed by the traditional big-gown wedding. Those can happen just a few months apart from each other. For my sister’s wedding, we ended up buying like these expensive gowns from Saks Fifth Avenue — totally worth it, by the way: I love it and I plan on wearing it again. But why can’t we bring that to the market at a lower cost?"

Another big thing about Louella is that every garment is under $250. Why are accessible price points important to you?

"I know what it’s like to be on the other end, as the consumer. I was spending a lot of money on something I was always looking for, like a long-sleeve maxi-dress. Especially as a public figure within the Muslim community, I was always looking for dresses to wear...

"I was spending all this money on dresses that I was only wearing once, because I'd be photographed in it and wouldn't want to wear it again. Also, it’s always been important to me to be fashionable without being super expensive. Plus, I could never find fashionable, modest clothing available here in the U.S. — I was ordering from the U.K. and Dubai. So, I wanted to bring that to people: locally- and ethically-made items produced here."

Photo: Courtesy of Louella.

How has your relationship with fashion changed over the years?

"It was very black-and-white for me. If I spent time at the mosque, for example, I was in more traditional clothing, because I wanted to be modest. Then, in my day-to-day life, I wanted to express myself in what I wore, whether that be in school or hanging out with my friends or running errands with my parents — but, again, I’d be outside in tons of layers in the middle of the summer. It doesn’t make sense, but there weren’t any options.

"Now, it’s very normal to see people in loose, linen tops and culottes in the middle of the summer. If you cycled back in fashion, before you wore a tank top and you wear shorts [in the summer]. It’s such a shift: It’s not odd anymore for us to see women cover their bodies and still be expressing themselves in a fashionable way. That’s so cool, because it allows us to have so much more control over ourselves and our space, about how we feel about ourselves as women and how we dictate how other people view our bodies."

Photo: Courtesy of Louella.

In recent years, mass-market brands have tried to cater to Muslim customers, with varying degrees of success. What have retailers gotten wrong about modest dressing?

"When we see large companies, like Dolce & Gabbana or Uniqlo, make this concerted effort to reach the modest consumer, I think that it’s an acknowledgement of the Muslim spending dollar. As a business, look at the numbers — if I’m a brand like D&G, why wouldn’t I target the Muslim community? Why wouldn’t I try to get a piece of that very, very large pie? It’s funny, because a lot of these brands don’t offer these modest clothing options online — they’re available in particular parts of the world, like Malaysia or Indonesia or Dubai or Qatar.

"There are two sides: You have people who think that they’re just taking advantage of the Muslim dollar, which I feel is smart from a business perspective, and then there are those who applaud larger companies for acknowledging that there’s this need and desire for modest clothing within the fashion industry. I only wish that I were a 17- or 18-year-old now with these options, trying to find that balance between expressing yourself through what you wear and adhering to the tenets of your faith, and also that weird, awkward stage of wanting to fit in. I feel like it’s such a cool moment that we’re living in, where you have women who choose and want to dress modestly but also be fashionable, and that that's not weird. For a very long time — for as long as I can remember — it was weird."

What advice would you give fashion brands that want to produce modest clothing?

"A lot of women, especially millennials, are looking to be ahead of the trend, not behind it. A lot of the mistakes that people make in thinking about modest fashion is imagining your grandmother in it — like it has to be dull in colour, or remiss in shape in order for it to be modest. I don’t think that that’s true. The modest consumer is a very broad spectrum: There are tons of items that I may like that another modest shopper may not like, and that’s okay. But I think having that option is what’s most important."

Photo: Courtesy of Louella.

What are common misconceptions about modest fashion?

"There's this misconception that all women [who dress modestly] are all shaped alike, all have the exact same height, and are all a size 0 — and that we’re all looking to wear the exact same thing. Women are making a conscious decision to dress in the way that they want. It’s not about conforming to what society is looking from you — it’s about how you feel.

"It’s about time that we feel comfortable enough in ourselves. I don’t think it’s an age thing, either: You can have women who struggle with this at 15, and you can have women who struggle with this at 50. But to make that decision to dress the way you like and you find appropriate I think is very empowering. To be able to be part of the fashion industry and provide for the woman who’s looking to dress modestly, it’s a great opportunity for us."

Photo: Courtesy of Louella.

How do you hope to expand Louella next?

"Eveningwear is something that I’ve been really excited about. I didn’t want to take it on until after I was done competing at the Games. One of the great things about being an athlete is that not only does it teach you time management, it teaches you [how to have a strong] work ethic. I want to grow this business and I want to do it in the right way. I’m learning as I go, but it’s been such a great experience.

"Outside of it being online, I think it would be great to get Louella into a bigger department store and have it be accessible to a wider range of women — not just those we can reach via our company or my own social media, or even just the articles about me medaling at the Olympics that mention that I run a fashion line. Being in the same space as a large retailer is a phenomenal opportunity that I look forward to taking advantage of.

"Having modest ready-to-wear and basic options is definitely something that we try to incorporate into our line. We’re working right now on a spring break kind of collection. My friends and I always take a trip somewhere warm in the middle of the winter, so we have a few items that are fun and have fun prints, but that will be available in the winter.

"I don’t know if Louella will move into modest swimwear, though. That’s a big topic right now, especially with France banning the burkini on their beaches — and, thankfully, that was found to be unconstitutional. We’ll see. If I feel like there’s a need for it, I don’t see why not."

Photo: Courtesy of Louella.

Social media has helped modest fashion thrive. How have you seen that shift occur?

"Social media has helped tenfold in helping women feel comfortable about their own bodies. We have been fed a definition of what beauty is — and, without airbrushing, do any of us even fit into that? I would argue no. In this age and generation of social media, it’s such an empowering moment to show how real women look; that you’re not alone in being curvy and embracing your curves, and you’re able to wear exactly what you want, when you want, and know that you shouldn’t, and won’t, be judged for that. Social media would’ve made it a lot easier growing up, for sure: It allows you to actively search for people who are in line with how you feel or how you want to express yourself. It also gives you this level of comfort, allowing you to subconsciously grasp how you view yourself, which is particularly important among young women. It definitely [helps create a] healthier generation of women who can appreciate and love their bodies for what they are, and not constantly be chasing this unattainable, media-portrayed image of beauty.

"I follow so many [modest bloggers], even before we started our clothing line. It’s cool to see women from different parts of the world who are similar in age, and love the way they styled a long top or how they choose to express themselves in their clothes. I’ve always really liked Saufeeya bint Goodson, and I also like Ascia Al Faraj, who’s American but lives in Kuwait. It’s refreshing to see different media outlets are catching on, like, 'Oh my god, Muslim women like fashion.' We always have — you just didn’t know."

Photo: Courtesy of Louella.

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