The idea came to Chelsea Rippy when she found herself surrounded by low-rise jeans and short shirts. Nicole Thomas thought of it when she was shopping for a wedding dress and found two options: strapless or frumpy. Tedd Doucette got the idea when he and his wife couldn't find any clothes they considered appropriate for their five daughters.
Rippy, Thomas, and Doucette each founded companies specializing in modest clothing after noticing a dearth of options for stylish, yet discreet, young women. They are part of a growing number of niche retailers that cater to women who want more coverage than the typical mall outfit provides-for religious reasons, comfort, or a simple desire to look classy. Large retailers are starting to pay attention, too: This spring, Macy's will feature full-coverage dresses from Rippy's collection at stores in Utah, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. "The customer is starving for a fashionable, covered product. There's a real market out there," says Jeff Gennette, CEO of Macy's Northwest region.
Soaring sales. Rippy noticed the need several years ago. At the time, she says, "fashion took a sharp turn for the worse. Pants were crazy low, and shirts were crazy short. Modesty aside, I didn't feel cute in anything." In 2004, Rippy, 32, founded Shade Clothing and started selling undershirts that could be worn under cropped tops to cover midriffs. Today, the company sells dozens of shirt styles and has launched new swimwear and semiformal dress lines. In 2006, Shade sales were just under $9 million, nearly double the 2005 figures.
When Thomas, owner of LatterDayBride, a bridal store based in Salt Lake City, was looking for wedding dresses in 1997, she couldn't find anything fashionable with the coverage she wanted. "Anything that was modest was really ugly, like Molly Mormon," she says, referring to a local term for homeliness. She now sells over 1,000 dresses a year through her website and recently expanded into prom dresses. "Just because you're modest doesn't mean you can't have style," she says.
Doucette launched Hannah Lise, an online retailer based near Tampa, in 2002 after his wife began sewing clothes for herself and their daughters because they couldn't find clothes in stores that met their preferences. He says his sales, which approach $3 million a year, have more than doubled over the past two years.
Part of the sudden interest in modesty is a reaction to the extreme immodesty of recent fashions, says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for the NPD Group, a market research company. "The consumer rebelled," he says. "More than half the market is over 35. They don't want to look like they're 16 and doing a music video." He adds that retailers listened to customers who were saying, "We don't want to walk around like Britney Spears."
Wendy Shalit, author of the forthcoming Girls Gone Mild and founder of a group blog about modesty (http://blogs.modestlyyours.net), says women are "tired of the expectation that they present themselves in a sexual way. ... Girls are discovering that showing their belly button to strangers is not as empowering as they have been led to expect."
Many of the niche retailers selling modest clothes were inspired by religion. Brooke Samad, founder of Marabo, a clothing line aimed at Muslim women, says of her customers, "They may believe in Islam, but at the end of the day, they're a young Muslim woman in this country, and they want to go shopping and get what's hip and stylish."
Rachel Lubchansky, 29, founded the online retailer Funky Frum after discovering that women in her Jewish community shared her frustration with the lack of trendy yet modest clothes. She helped launch her site by sending fliers to 500 synagogues across the country. She's since found interest from women of different faiths as well as nonreligious women.
Rippy also found that Shade Clothing resonated with women beyond its original Mormon base. "Such a small percentage of women genuinely feel comfortable exposing their body," she says.
While national sales numbers in modest clothes are hard to come by, analysts describe an overall trend toward layered looks that expose less skin as well as classier looks. "We're back to refinement," says Roseanne Cumella, senior vice president of merchandising for the Doneger Group, a retail consultancy.
Not everyone's jumping on the modesty bandwagon. When asked whether J.Crew was following the trend, a spokeswoman said, "No," adding, "We do what's fun. We're not looking to cover up." Still, alongside skimpy bikinis and short skirts, knee-length dresses with high collars are featured in their spring catalog-outfits that could easily be sold by a retailer specializing in modest clothing.
While Rippy acknowledges that shopping at mainstream stores is easier today, she says she's not counting on that trend to last. "For me, modesty is not a trend. It's a lifestyle. ... We'll be here regardless of what the trends do."
US News & World Report