Sahro Hassan, 23, remembers not being able to find a suitable dress at the local mall for her eighth grade school dance.
While her friends shopped happily, she found no clothes on the rack that were modest or fashionable enough.
“The clothes didn’t meet my religious beliefs or personal comfort,” said Hassan, a Somali immigrant whose family traveled from a refugee camp in Kenya to Indianapolis, then Lewiston, in 2006. “I had a breakdown in the dressing room. I wondered how come the whole mall didn’t have anything for me.”
It was the second time she remembered being frustrated by fashion. In Indianapolis, classmates taunted her to take off her hijab head scarf.
Those experiences heightened her resolve to change the situation.
Hassan started Fashionuji, an Auburn-based company that makes fashions for modest women, in 2013. She said she represents her own customer, as she is curvy and fashion-forward.
“I didn’t want to fit in the box,” she said.
Hassan uses bright colors and patterns to create chic but modest clothing.
“Modest wear is about what you choose to cover,” she said at a recent event for Top Gun entrepreneurs in Auburn. She was wearing a sequined hijab with a faux fur coat over her outfit.
“It’s not your granny’s clothing,” she said. “We want to empower the modest women of today through boldly designed clothing and accessories for the lioness within, for women who like to stand out in a crowd.”
The clothing is for both Muslim and non-Muslim women who prefer to cover up. Westerners may wear the traditional head scarf around their neck instead.
Chasing Muslim fashion
Hassan’s business comes at a time when Macy’s with its Verona collection and even Mattel with a hijab-wearing Barbie doll chase a $254 billion global market, according to Fast Company, and $44 billion U.S. market for Muslim fashion.
Fashionuji still is in the early stages, with Hassan planning to get the company’s website up for sales by December. She’ll use the website to establish brand recognition, then open a storefront within a couple years. For now, she works out of her home. By 2022, she hopes to be selling the patterns for the clothing she designs.
Currently, she makes the clothes by custom order. Hijab scarves run from $15 to $30, and dresses from $80 to $215.
“The clothes are made to be affordable,” she said. “This is a global need. We want to be able to play sports and be comfortable. We want representation.”
Tapping the athleisure wear market, now dominated by sports bras worn without a shirt and yoga pants, is the next step for her clothing, said Shanna Cox, founder of consulting company Project Tipping Point in Lewiston. Cox is Hassan’s Top Gun mentor.
“I’m really excited about that market, which is underserved,” Cox said. “There isn’t really a hijab that is tight enough for sports right now.”
Cox said she personally likes to have modest options to wear for running on the street or for business functions.
Cox described Hassan as someone who thinks ahead and is always prepared.
“She does a great job knowing what she wants to do and why,” Cox said. “Modest wear is not just Muslim wear. She’s addressing a much broader market.”
Hassan also learned quickly from gaps she found in the market. Last June, she had to scramble when the modest wedding dress she ordered online took three weeks to get to her. When it finally arrived, she discovered it didn’t fit.
She ended up designing and making three of the six dresses she wore at her wedding, which lasted 6 ½ hours.
“There was a lot of dancing at the wedding. I changed dresses every hour,” she said.
There are other companies that cater to Muslim women and those who prefer to dress modestly, including online sellers, but Hassan said one of her company’s assets is being local and close to its market. The local competition is stores that cater to the Muslim community and that sell traditional clothing imported from Turkey or Malaysia.
Bootstrapping with ‘Shark Tank’
While her parents are not entrepreneurs, Hassan readily adopted her new country and watched the TV shows that support new companies and styles, such as “Shark Tank” and “Project Runway”.
She said “Shark Tank” is one reason she joined the Young Entrepreneurs Academy, a chamber of commerce program for high school students to write a business plan and learn about entrepreneurship. She received $1,100 from that program in 2013.
She studied fashion and business at Mount Ida College in Newton, Massachusetts, graduating in May 2018, just before that college closed.
She currently is looking for funding and revising her business plan with her Top Gun mentor. She’s also looking to align with businesses with manufacturing expertise so she can scale up production.
“I like to describe my clothing as timeless and effortless,” she said.
Remembering what inspired her to start her own business, she said, “I hope someday to be part of a mall, with my dresses sold in prom stores.”
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