How one modeling agency is tearing down stereotypes and bringing modesty to the runway
On Sept. 12, Anniesa Hasibuan made history as the first designer to send all of her models down the runway wearing hijabs during a New York Fashion Week show.
One by one, the women stepped out on the runway wearing skirts and pants that reached the floor; loose, luxe blouses; and scarves wrapped around their heads.
But Hasibuan's designs didn't just stand out because every single model wore a hijab. They also stood out because she had one of the only shows where models were dressed modestly.
For the past three years, one agency in New York City has been fighting to show the industry that neither Islam and fashion nor modesty and fashion are such odd pairs.
"I had a lot of hands-on experience and conversations with supermodels, and just in having conversations with them, I picked up that a lot of them weren't very comfortable with not having a voice in what they wore," Lymus said in an interview. "They would not speak up because they did not want to lose their money. I just thought that was so unfortunate. This is such a glamorous industry and career, and there are so many girls that are sacrificing their comfort for this lifestyle."
Lymus, who is Muslim and wears a hijab, understood the conflict. On one hand, models want to be successful, but being successful in the fashion industry may also mean having to sacrifice their own comfort. Shouldn't there be a way to balance the two?
Lymus created Underwraps in 2013 in hopes of bringing in models who wanted to pursue modeling but couldn't because of their religious guidelines or taste, as well models who wanted to have a voice in what they wore down runways or in photoshoots.
So far, she's signed seven models.
What that means is Underwraps isn't just for Muslim women who cover, but for women of various faiths who just have a preference.
"The goal was to dismay a lot of stereotypes through this fashion outlet," Lymus said. "How can I use this platform to keep it fashion but also bring some level of awareness and dismay these stereotypes? I feel like this is a goal that's a work in progress. Right now, we have a Jewish model, two Christian models and Muslim models."
Underwraps is just one of many modeling agencies now emerging that help underserved markets. IMG Models, one of the most prominent modeling agencies, recently started a Brawn division for men who are larger than the average runway guy. Then there's Slay Model Management, which focuses on transgender models.
It's hard not to wish these kinds of agencies didn't have to exist, and that this level of diversity was taken seriously by more major agencies.
"As happy as I am that it does exist, I kind of thought that I would find an agency that would be like mine," Lymus said. "Maybe even the U.K., but I didn't see anything! So I was just like... well, let's do it. It was definitely a shock and a surprise to me."
How do you go about finding models for such a niche area? According to Lymus, it helps to live in New York City, where women who break the mold proudly walk the streets. Of the seven models, one works primarily with plus-size brands, and a few have different definitions of modesty. For instance, some are alright wearing jeans, while others not so much.
Even before she launched the agency, Lymus said people were suspicious about how women of different faiths and beliefs could work together, walking in the same shows and going to the same auditions. Showing these women working together, though, only helped break down yet another stereotype of religious women: that they would be in any way intolerant to working with a person of a different faith.
"People kind of look at the religious portion of it and feel like there's a conflict," Lymus said. "That is breaking down stereotypes and misunderstandings. And also, to see Muslim women pursuing this passion or career goal. All my girls have another job out there."
With the models frequently going to castings together, Lymus said they are not only learning from one another, but teaching others about modesty and what it means to them as well.
"My girls go to go-sees and then they're like, 'Oh you're gorgeous, but why do you wear that on your head?' and it becomes educational," Lymus said. "It's a choice that they made. That there, that one go-see, is putting into perspective what these religions are truly about and they're happy that they have an agency that has them be themselves."
So far, the Underwraps models have booked plenty of lookbooks, as well as walked runways. With the first hijabi runway held just over one week ago, there's momentum, and Underwraps now has the opportunity to keep it going.
"I thought it was so potent that every last model had a hijab on," Lymus said of the Hasibuan show. "It's been a long time, and there have been Muslim models and designers but they conform a bit and don't show off hijabs or really modest clothing. There's nothing wrong with that, but it hasn't put us where we could be in the limelight."
Between Hasibuan's show and Underwraps' efforts, it seems as though modest dressing is inching toward a place where it's not seen as a hindrance to fashion, but an exciting twist. It's not all just a bunch of unflattering sacks and geriatric patterns, after all.
Now, it's NYFW-worthy fashion.