Banana Republic is selling hijabs. Muslim shoppers wonder: Inclusion or appropriation?

Banana Republic, the mainstream retailer known for no-frills work wear, has introduced a line of hijabs, making it the latest consumer brand to create products for Muslim women.

People of many faiths came to the April 28, Open Mosque Day at Islamic Center of Naperville, where among many activities was a chance to try on the hijab worn by many Muslim women. (Photo: Syed Khalil Ullah)

The company this week began selling four styles of the religious head scarves, including satin fabrics and leopard prints, on its website for between $40 and $50. It quietly added the products to the “accessories” section of its site on Tuesday as part of an effort to “to reflect the rich diversity of customers and employees,” a company spokeswoman said in an email.

The growing popularity of “modest” clothing lines and hijabs at mainstream stores signals a shift, analysts say, in retailers’ attitudes toward inclusion and diversity. The apparel industry is undergoing massive change, and analysts say companies are having to rethink their products to attract new shoppers. Many are using their websites as a way to reach groups they might have ignored in traditional stores, where the focus has long been on stocking shelves with items that will appeal to the largest swath of consumers.

Major retailers, including Macy’s and Uniqlo, have begun courting Muslim shoppers in recent years, with the addition of hijabs and other “modest” fashion items like high-neck tunics and floor-length cardigans. Nike markets its Pro Hijab to Muslim athletes, while American Eagle briefly sold a $20 denim hijab. The head covering, which is worn by some Muslim women, is now seen on the runway, in Congress, and on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue, which this year featured Somali-American model Halima Aden in a hijab and burkini.

“Mainstream companies are waking up to the fact that there is value in Muslim consumers,” said Sabiha Ansari, co-founder of the American Muslim Consumer Consortium, a non-profit that works with businesses. “Any time a consumer is acknowledged, that’s a good thing.”

But there are also large profits to be made: Muslim consumers spent $264 billion on apparel in 2016, according to the Global Islamic Economy report by Thomson Reuters. That figure is expected to rise more than 40 percent to $373 billion by 2022.

“It’s purely pragmatic: Retail needs to serve everyone who’s willing to spend,” said Wendy Liebmann, chief executive of consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail. “This is an audience that deserves to be served as any other. But I suppose the question then is, why has it taken so long?”

Part of the answer, she said, may be political. Companies are increasingly taking a stand on a number of issues – from the environment to immigration – in response to President Trump’s divisive rhetoric. Adding a line of hijabs, she said, “is a way retailers can show that everybody’s invited to their brand.”

Banana Republic, which is owned by the Gap, has had its share of financial struggles in recent years, as it tries to keep up with fast-fashion chains and new online competitors. Same-store sales, a closely-watched measure of sales at stores open for at least one year, fell 3 percent in the most recent quarter.

Some shoppers, though, said they felt conflicted about major retailers getting into the hijab business. Was it inclusion, they wondered, or the appropriation of a religious symbol for the sake of their bottom line?

“On the one hand, it does feel like they’re profiting off of us,” said Leena Snoubar, 25, a Muslim American fashion blogger whose Instagram handle @withloveleena has nearly 800,000 followers. “But on the other, it’s a way to normalize hijab and make us feel more included.”

Snoubar, who works as a labor and delivery nurse in Tyler, Texas, was tapped by Banana Republic to promote its new line on social media. She said the leopard-print hijab she received was “beautifully made.” But, she added, she won’t be buying more from the chain – she’ll stick to Muslim-owned businesses like Haute Hijab and Voile Chic instead.

“That,” she said, ” is where my loyalty lies.”

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