Reshaping the fashion industry: Meet Ozlem Sahin Ertas
Ozlem Sahin Ertas is the fashion pioneer you may not have heard of yet. Co-founder of the Modest Fashion Weeks series, she brought global attention to modest wear before it became a multi-billion industry, and highlighted the need for sustainability, diversity and inclusion in fashion before these became hot talking points.
An entrepreneur from Turkey, Ertas is the CEO of Think Fashion, a group of businesses that runs the annual modest fashion shows and is the parent company of Turkish Made Co., a production and sourcing company, and E Tu Creative Agency, focused on branding and marketing.
With a background in business engineering and a love of fashion, she aims to find solutions to the industry’s challenges.
“Talking about global warming, you can easily see that textiles is the key industry we need to think about and find a solution for at every step,” Ertas tells us. “As part of Think Fashion, we have other businesses on the production, creative management and trade side.”
“We always try to focus on how we can make the industry better. Sustainability, an ethical approach, inclusivity and diversity – these keywords are not just part of the Modest Fashion Week concept, but also of the way we manage all our other businesses.”
Making fashion accessible for everyone
Ertas believes that fashion should be for everyone. “We cannot keep featuring the same collections, producing hundreds of thousands of standard pieces and distributing them worldwide. It’s not working anymore. There should be other options. Fashion should be democratised at every step, from designers to customers.”
This belief inspired Ertas to launch Dream & Design for Disabilities in 2018, a mentorship project to understand the needs of disabled people and highlight their creations. “We did a series of workshops in Turkey, Germany and Indonesia to create a collection, ” Ertas explains. “The collection was then showcased at the Jakarta Modest Fashion Week, with paralympic athletes walking the runway.”
Dream & Design for Disabilities was very successful, and Ertas has since been pushing for better inclusivity in fashion, giving talks as well as raising awareness with runway shows. “The project inspired Asiya Rafiq, a designer based in the United Arab Emirates, to create a very practical, amazing collection for disabled people, which was showcased at the Dubai Modest Fashion Week. It is amazing to see that good things inspire others and have the potential to turn into a movement,” Ertas comments. “It is our responsibility to highlight it, but also to do it in a sustainable way. There should be options for more functional pieces for disabled people.”
The creation of Modest Fashion Week
When Ertas decided to work in fashion, she wanted something different. “I started looking deeply into the fashion industry, looking for more diversity, for uniqueness. I asked myself: if I would like to be more inclusive and respectful of diversity, what brands are out there on the market?”
“Turkey is one of the capitals of modest fashion, both on the production side and the consumer side. But when I checked the numbers, I realised that modest fashion was really big worldwide, and yet there were no dedicated global platforms or media at that time.”
In 2013, Ertas directed the first ever online hijab fashion show. “We did a live stream on YouTube, and although it was intended for Turkey and Turkish designers, we had more than 300,000 viewers from all around the world,” she says. “That’s when we said: there is a need for this globally, let’s create a different concept.”
Sustainability is also very important for Ertas. “For me, sustainability and modest fashion go hand in hand. It’s about being unique, being respectful of diversity and focusing more on slow fashion.”
After putting all these thoughts together, the Modest Fashion Weeks event series was born in 2015, and has grown to be the most prestigious event in the industry.
Taking fashion on the road: from London to Riyadh
After travelling to Istanbul, London, Jakarta, Amsterdam and Dubai, the eighth edition of Modest Fashion Week took place in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, in December 2022.
“When we talk about modest fashion, we have to include Saudi Arabia. It’s one of the biggest countries in the Middle East, and one of the most populous,” Ertas explains. “Also, we like to highlight the local talents – not only the designers, but also all the inspirational key figures from the region. We’ve been following what is happening in the country since 2017, and we believed that this year was the right time.”
For the last six years, the country has been making efforts to modernise with its Saudi Vision 2030 programme, an ambitious economic and social reform project to reduce its dependence on oil and diversify the economy. As part of its plan, Saudi Arabia has also adopted a number of changes to advance women’s rights and gender equality.
“It was the first time that I visited Saudi, and there is a clear vision. You can see this in the younger generation, that they do believe in that vision and they take responsibility for it. It’s not just words, you can literally see the changes.”
Heritage meets futurism
Saudi Vision 2030 was the inspiration for the 2022 Modest Fashion Week called “Roots to the Future”. “For each edition, we like to work around a concept inspired by the country itself,” Ertas explains. “Saudi Arabia has very strong roots: a very strong heritage, a very strong culture. But you can also see that there is a futuristic element. These were the inspiration points for us.”
Ertas ambition is to disrupt and reshape the fashion industry. “We are talking about fashion, but this can apply to any industry: we can’t accept what the system or very big players give us,” Ertas says. “We need to take responsibility, and we need to be the leaders of our own future. And to be able to do that, the first thing we need to do is to check our own values and where they come from. It doesn’t mean being traditional or close-minded, but taking the beautiful values that we have, shaping them and turning them towards the future.”
Modest fashion designers to watch
Ertas carefully selects designers from around the world for each edition of Modest Fashion Week. Riyadh’s event featured more than thirty-five designers from twenty countries on the runway, along with a number of industry talks. Here are five highlights:
Sawsan Mahmoud is a designer from Palestine. She unveiled her new collection “Women’s Essence,” combining edgy cuts with traditional Palestinian embroidery.
Kaafmeem paid tribute to Saudi Arabia’s heritage with a collection of modern abayas and kaftans.
Younass Collection is the brainchild of Soraya Adji, a fashion designer and entrepreneur based in Nigeria. A self-proclaimed “nomadic fashion brand”, she fuses tradition with bold designs to create clothes that can be worn for all occasions.
Soumaya Beauduin, from France, showcased her novel design for a hijab that can easily switch to be worn as a shawl.
Innersejuk from Malaysia featured their fast-drying, durable and comfortable sportswear, designed to help with performance, while still being a luxury garment.
READ MORE: The business of modest fashion: an industry born from a women’s movement