How to Sell a Hijab in Malaysia

When the Malaysian designer and entrepreneur Vivy Yusof began to wear a hijab, it was a personal religious choice—but the decision soon became a launching pad for her lucrative online-retail startup. When the Malaysian designer and entrepreneur Vivy Yusof began to wear a hijab, it was a personal religious choice—but the decision soon became a launching pad for her lucrative online-retail startup. Credit Courtesy Vivy Yusof

In October of 2013, the Malaysian entrepreneur Vivy Sofinas Yusof posted a slightly blurry snapshot of herself on Instagram. She was looking at a menu, wearing a simple green top and black head scarf. It was her first public appearance in the hijab, and within a week she had ten thousand new Instagram followers. Comments on the picture poured in: “I have made u as my inspiration.” “Love you lillahi ta’ala.” “May God bless you sis.”

For many Muslim women, the decision to don the hijab—a head covering typically worn after puberty, in order to observe the Islamic principles of modesty and privacy—is born of private self-reflection. Initially, this was the case for Yusof, who is now twenty-eight years old. But her choice soon became something else, as well: a lucrative source of attention for herself and her multimillion-dollar online-retail startup, FashionValet, which already sold hijabs and later came to include her own line of scarves and a stationery brand. Yusof is now among the growing number of Malaysian women who are trying to revolutionize the hijab’s contentious image. While the scarf has tended to be viewed primarily as a marker of Islamic duty and identity, and sometimes, especially in the West, of female subjugation and oppression, in Malaysia women are free—even encouraged—to inject glamor and prestige into the hijab, and to make money from it. Although the country is predominantly Muslim, a form of Sunni Islam is the official state religion, and it has a dual legal system that incorporates Islamic law, it is generally more moderate than many other Muslim nations. Unlike Iran or Saudi Arabia, for example, Malaysia does not force women to cover their heads by law. About five million of the country’s seventeen million Muslims—perhaps a little over half of Muslim women—wear the head scarf.

Yusof is the co-founder and chief creative officer of FashionValet, which primarily stocks clothes by Southeast Asian designers. The company has done particularly well selling clothing that is Muslimah, or observant of Muslim customs, even as it borrows the marketing techniques of global western retailers. Yusof rose to prominence with her blog, ProudDuck.com, where she has been writing for more than seven years about her college days in London, her family, and her work. Her posts, there and on social media, are distinctly aspirational. The posts are also distinctly Muslim. She has blogged, for example, about a Quran recitation app called iQuran, and about the mandatory course Malaysian Muslims take to learn how to insure a good marriage. When FashionValet opened its new headquarters in the greater Kuala Lumpur area, Yusof published a picture of the facility’s prayer room for her Instagram followers, who now number in the hundreds of thousands. A few posts later, she announced that a new line of handbags, which a regional designer had based on her style and named after her and her sister, had sold out forty-five minutes after their release. “I really don’t know what to say except THANK YOU ALHAMDULILLAH,” she wrote.

It was the donning of the hijab, though, that caused Yusof’s following to escalate most steeply. It also presented her with a clear business opportunity. Seven months after she posted the snapshot of herself in a head scarf, she launched a line of luxury hijabs, called dUCk, which the company describes as “the new cool for scarves . . . for stylish ladies who appreciate a dash of luxury in their lives.”

The dUCk brand strives to replicate the experience of buying the iconic, prohibitively expensive scarves sold by Hermès. Indeed, the dUCk box and the Hermès scarf box are strikingly similar. Both are flat, square, and sturdy, set apart by their color and trim: bold orange with a thin black border for Hermès; bold purple with a thin white border for dUCk. Upon opening a dUCk box, the customer finds a head scarf with a delicately stitched scalloped hem, available in colors with names like Banana Pudding, Diamond Rose, and Mint Frosting. The scarves can be long or short, and they barely crease, even after being scrunched up. Each has a subtle gold duck charm affixed to one corner, and costs a hundred and twenty ringgit (nearly thirty dollars).

The country’s hijab industry already hosts a slew of competing brands. In Kuala Lumpur, a single street like Jalan Masjid India provides consumers with a dizzying array of hijab designs and brands to choose from. But there, the trade takes place in small, often hot and humid prewar shops, with low prices the primary draw. Hijabs on Jalan Masjid India can cost as little as four ringgit, or about one dollar, but they more often range from twenty or twenty-five ringgit, for a scarf that stops around the chest area, to forty-five ringgit, for one that goes to the hips. Style and being on trend do matter—one vender told me that “dua muka” (two-faced) scarves, showcasing different colors on an inner and outer layer, had been particularly popular recently. But for most customers comfort and religious suitability are key. “They look at . . . whether the scarf makes it easy to go for prayers, Hajj,” a vender named Ayuniza binti Safrozal told me. Other Malaysian designers have gone after the “convenience” end of the market. The actress and television host Noor Neelofa Mohd Noor, who is better known simply as Neelofa, produces the Naelofar Hijab line of “instant shawls”—express versions of conventional head scarves that consumers can slip over their heads without the fuss of pins or draping.

Yusof was determined that dUCk be different from the outset. She told me that, when the label was still in its infancy, her husband (and FashionValet’s C.E.O.), Fadzarudin Anuar, suggested that she avoid competing with the existing markets and instead make hers an aspirational brand. The high price and the packaging were part of this strategy. Yusof’s blog and social-media posts—in English, which is spoken by a higher percentage of affluent Malaysians than of the public at large—implicitly added to the appeal. But the packaging had personal significance as well, she said. “Everyone buys scarves and they just put them in plastic bags,” she said. “Wearing the scarf is a celebration of my religion. When people buy scarves they should be well-presented.” In her posts, she tells readers that choosing to wear the hijab should be an upgrade to their lives. “She is changing the whole reputation of the head scarf,” Farah Alia Razali-Tyler, a law graduate, told me. “When people thought of the hijab, they thought, ‘I don’t want to look like a makcik’ ”—a frumpy older woman. “Now they’re saying it’s okay to be more modern.”

dUCk’s approach places it in competition less with the instant shawls and the shops along Jalan Masjid India than with the Muslimah-fashion stores in affluent suburbs like Bangsar, outside central Kuala Lumpur. One of these outposts, Modvier, sells some sixty-five local and international Muslimah brands. Customers arrive brandishing their smartphones, to show the sales assistants photos of models they’ve seen on the store’s Instagram account or on television. For these shoppers, Modvier tries to emphasize material and workmanship—pointing out, for example, that material and stitching are crucial to the way the hijab falls around the face (some women may seek a slimming effect from the material, or want elegant stitching). Higher-end scarves might also be cooling, given Malaysia’s climate. Modvier’s operations manager, Anita binti Asril, told me that Modvier staff are also mindful of the hijab’s significance, in Islam, as a symbol of modesty. Customers often begin with shorter hijabs, then progress to longer ones as they get older—when “they know what Islam wants.” Some women, particularly foreign ones, begin their journey toward the hijab by first trying out other Muslimah wear, like jubahs (long-sleeved, loose, full-length dresses), while keeping their hair uncovered.

For Yusof and others whose celebrity is linked with the scarf, the goal of religious modesty offers more of a challenge. “Once they see you as a hijab icon, you’re automatically a Muslim icon,” she said of her fans. She said she’d been told things like, “I’ve started wearing the head scarf because you make it look so easy.” Such comments make her uncomfortable, because she doesn’t feel knowledgeable enough about Islam to serve as an advocate for the hijab. There are scholars for that, she said, adding that no one should wear the scarf because they idolize another person. She herself still wears tight trousers and bright colors, even though some religious authorities argue that Muslim women are prohibited from wearing formfitting clothes in public, or indeed from attracting attention at all. Yusof’s fans also occasionally voice concerns about her appearance. She has blogged about receiving e-mails and social-media comments that tell her “Your pants are still too tight,” and “I can still see your toes.” Her Instagram followers speak up if they see a sliver of hair visible under her hijab (“Vivy, ur hair :((((((((”).

These kinds of social pressures tend to be the extent of the interplay between FashionValet’s business and the debates over the politics of the hijab that often take place outside Malaysia. Although regulations pertaining to the “decency” of attire are part of Malaysia’s dual legal system—which includes Islamic law, for Muslims, alongside secular laws that apply to all citizens—certain areas of Malaysia are stricter about matters of dress than others. Local authorities in some states, like Kelantan and Terengganu, can fine Muslim women who wear tight clothing or who don’t wear the hijab, but in urban areas, like greater Kuala Lumpur, the pressures are lighter, and officials tend to favor promoting Islamic dress over punishing the failure to adhere to it. Members of the Malaysian government, notably Zaidel Baharuddin, a special officer to the country’s minister of domestic trade, coöperatives, and consumerism, have described the kind of self-expression and promotion that women like Yusof are doing as empowering. He told me that he views self-expression by Muslim women on social media to be equally relevant to feminism. And whether hijabs are simply in vogue or a sign of devotion to Allah, he said, the surge in popularity for Muslim fashion is a good thing. “You can follow the religious obligation and look good with it.” Media outlets owned by the Malaysian government and the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition have featured Yusof and her business ventures, with accompanying photographs of her in close-fitting trousers and bright colors.

Though Malaysian films such as Norhayati Kaprawi’s documentary “Siapa Aku?” (“Who Am I?”) do question the reasons the country’s Muslim women choose to don the head scarf, domestic media rarely presents public critiques of the hijab, or of the government’s role in promoting it. But independent glossy fashion magazines are sometimes wary of the hijab’s potential to alienate the country’s secular, cosmopolitan women. After Yusof began wearing the head scarf, she told me, some magazines that had previously demonstrated great interest in her stopped calling. One, she said, cancelled plans for a feature about her after learning of her decision, even though an interview and photo shoot had already been scheduled. “They don’t want . . . a kampung [village] girl,” she said.

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