THE INC. LIFE

HijUp/Zahara: Where Faith Meets Fashion

How these two companies are catering to the Muslim consumer’s specific needs

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BY Cristina Morales - 02 Oct 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Company Courtesy

With Muslims accounting for more than a quarter of the world’s population by 2030, many of whom live in the oil-rich states of the Middle East, the huge potential of the Muslim fashion and beauty industry is beyond question. A 2015 Thomson Reuters report estimated that Muslim consumers spent $243 billion on clothing and apparel. Projections in the same report show that by 2021 Muslim consumers will spend more than $368 billion on items like dresses, shoes and headscarves.

Big Western brands have taken notice. Uniqlo, Burberry, Dolce and Gabbana and H&M have released their own lines of hijabs, for example. Even Japanese and Korean beauty companies like Shiseido and Talent Cosmetic are starting to acquire halal certifications for their existing products.

Even so, leading the Islamic fashion trend are young, entrepreneurial Muslims—what London-based Ogilvy Noor vice president Shelina Janmohamed calls “Generation M”, millennial and Gen Z Muslims who believe faith and modernity are complementary concepts, in her 2016 book of the same title. Instead of shunning Western consumerism, these Muslims are fashioning it in their own image.

Take Indonesian Diajeng Lestari. As a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, 31-year-old Lestari knew how difficult it was to find clothing options that were both modest and stylish. This gap in the market led Lestari to start HijUp, the world’s first Islamic fashion e-commerce platform, in 2011. (As it happens, Lestari’s husband, Achmad Zaky, runs Bukalapak, one of Indonesia’s largest e-commerce sites.) “We really wanted to give the market high quality clothing at affordable prices, while staying true to modest principles,” says Hanna Faridl, HijUp’s Chief Community Officer.

Lestari began building her empire at a small office space-cum-photo studio with just two employees. Now, HiJup gets 2.56 million visits from 768,000 unique users each month. Almost 70% of the site’s traffic comes from women under 35, mostly from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.

“I was impressed,” says Khailee Ng, Managing Partner of 500 Startups, one of HijUp’s main backers whose investment in the company dates from its first round of funding in 2015.

The growth of Muslim fashion start-ups like HijUp underscore how smitten consumers are when brands and companies cater to their specific cultural needs. As the Internet makes brands more accessible than ever, consumers now have access to more options, and as a result, have become more discriminating. Says 500 Startups’ Ng, “The nuances of how religion and culture translates to consumer and media trends is one of the largest investment opportunities for any investor, especially because it is not yet a crowded space.”

Indonesian mom and entrepreneur Nadia Khaerunnisa, who has been using HijUp since 2011, says the platform helps her by presenting a wider range of products in one place at the right price. “In Indonesia, we have many brands for Muslim women, so it’s not that big of a challenge to find different styles,” she says. “But a lot of brands are very pricey. HijUp makes it easy for us to find suitable brands for ourselves.”

Apart from being a marketplace for over 200 Islamic fashion brands, HijUp also has its own print and online magazine which has fashion, beauty, and lifestyle tips for Muslim women. “They share daily Islamic quotes, they hold a lot of events, and they have seasonal sales celebrating Muslim holidays,” says Muslim fashion blogger Qonitah Al Jundiah.

Diajeng Lestari, founder of HijUp & Amira Geneid, founder of Zahara

Opportunity for Islamic fashion brands also beckon on the manufacturing side. To cite one example, many makeup brands use cheap but also non-halal ingredients like carmine (a red pigment derived from crushed insects), pig fat, and alcohol. To make cosmetics halal, brands have to do away with these ingredients. “The easiest way to explain [halal] is it’s basically like another industry standard,” says 24-year-old Amira Geneid, founder of Singapore-based halal cosmetics brand Zahara. “With factories, you often get a lot of certifications for health and safety, and halal is just an extra one on top of all that. It’s an extra standard for Muslim women to be able to trust your brand.”

Geneid started her Zahara brand in 2015 after she and her sister struggled to find a halal cosmetic product that appealed to them. “There were brands out there, but there was nothing that we were happy to give up MAC or Bobbi Brown {rival cosmetics} for,” she says. She created Zahara to build a halal cosmetics brand that she and her peers would actually be happy to use. Zahara now offers halal eyeshadow palettes, lipsticks, and soon, mascara, but their most popular product by far is their “wudhu-friendly” nail polish.

What is that, exactly? Wudhu is the Islamic ritual of washing before prayer, and some scholars have argued that water needs to make contact with the surface of the nail for wudhu to take effect. Zahara is one of the first brands in Asia to offer a nail polish that allows water and oxygen to pass through to the nail itself, making it possible for women to wear nail polish and pray five times a day.

“I don’t usually have the time to wear nail polish, but when I do, it’s important to me that the polish is wudhu-friendly so I can pray,” says Malaysian blogger and beauty entrepreneur Sabrina Tajudin.

“Women don’t want to settle for mass-market goods anymore,” Geneid says. “It’s women wanting things that suit their needs, and we’re not as willing anymore to compromise on what we want.”