At a filled-to-capacity Laguna Hills community center recently, hundreds of Muslim women gathered for what has been billed as the country's largest modest fashion event, a marketplace of long-sleeve floral print summer dresses, flowing full-length skirts, feather-accented scarves and other items that are both trendy and cover the whole body — a combination many Muslim women say can be difficult to find in mainstream stores.
The Perfect For Her convention, which boasted more than 500 attendees and 25 vendors on Aug. 13, featured a wide range of apparel, including maxi dresses, evening wear, swimsuits, scarves, Middle Eastern-style kaftans and abayas— and a "design your own hijab" booth for customers to accent their head coverings with Swarovski crystals.
The idea behind the event, now in its fourth year, grew out of organizer Hassanah El-Yacoubi's struggle to find trendy attire that also met her religious standards for modesty.
"It was very difficult to find that one piece that was ready to go with a high neck, a to-the-floor hem and the long sleeve," she said of the fashion industry 10 years ago. "So a lot of layering had to happen. A lot of just looking frumpy and feeling disenfranchised as a Muslim woman in terms of the mainstream markets."
So El-Yacoubi, 28, started a lifestyle blog and online boutique — also called PFH, Perfect For Her — that collected modest wear from a variety of existing brands. From there, she developed the PFH convention to bring together more apparel, and to give customers an in-person shopping experience.
Her first event in 2014 was held at her friend's home in Irvine and had just four vendors.
"People were buying four or five dresses and the line was out the door," she said. "I said, 'We're on to something,' and decided to host it annually."
Since then, the PFH convention has only grown in size, and this year El-Yacoubi will be co-hosting PFH events in five other cities across the country.
According to El-Yacoubi, a doctoral student at UC Riverside's Department of Religious Studies, PFH has flourished alongside an expansion in the modest fashion industry at large — which she sees as primarily the result of Muslim women creating their own clothing brands to fill the gaps in the market.
Zain Abdullah, founder of the San Francisco-based scarf company Framed People and one of the vendors at the PFH convention, said that she also became interested in the fashion industry after seeing the limited clothing options available to Muslim women.
"I was seeing a lack of fashionable headscarves for Muslim women — something innovative, something unique and cool, but also something high quality," she said.
So Abdullah developed a line of scarves made from fair-trade fabrics that feature creative textures and accents such as feathers, velvet, chains and metallic piping.
"I used to go overseas and buy my scarves there," she said. "Now we have Muslim women-owned brands in America."
But for El-Yacoubi, the PFH convention is about more than just clothing.
"There's always a sense of frivolity associated with fashion," she said.
"And I want people to understand that these events aren't just about fashion— fashion is the medium through which we're communicating a much larger and more powerful message, which is supporting female Muslim entrepreneurship."
A majority of the convention's vendors were Muslim women business owners from Orange County to Dubai. In addition to apparel, shops also sold jewelry, chocolates, home décor, photography services and skin care products.
"These days it's not the easiest to be a woman, not the easiest to be a Muslim or an entrepreneur," El-Yacoubi said. "And against all the odds, these Muslim women are thriving and succeeding at putting themselves out there, taking the leap."
And it's because of these Muslim women business owners, she said, that the broader fashion industry has taken notice, so that now mainstream brands such as DKNY, H&M, Dolce & Gabbana, American Eagle and Nike have designed clothing specifically targeted to Muslim women.
"It's not that all of a sudden Muslim women have become fashionable," El-Yacoubi said. "No, they've always been fashionable.
"But now it's become this global force as a result of Muslim women coming together, taking matters into their own hands and starting companies that cater to the sartorial needs of Muslim women that global markets have taken note. I absolutely believe it's because of the hard work of Muslim women on the ground."