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SLU student, Syrian-American fashion blogger is rocking ‘modest fashion’—to international attention

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Summer Albarcha is a local 'modest fashion' blogger.

Summer Albarcha is not your typical Saint Louis University college student. She’s worried about balancing her classes and personal life, yes, but for a reason you might not expect. This 20-year-old is a busy fashion blogger who has garnered some level of international attention for her “modest fashion” blogging—which means she covers up, fashionably, while many other fashion bloggers dress down.

Albarcha was born in Ohio, but moved to St. Louis around the age of three. Her mom is originally from here and her dad immigrated here from Syria many years ago. She started her blog at age 16 under the handle “hipster hijabis,” taking a cue toward a more laid-back style.

What is modest fashion?

While Albarcha’s style is heavily influenced by her American cultural upbringing, incorporating colors and different fun styles, she also wears a hijab, or, head covering, as part of her Islamic faith. 

“A lot of people have told me that I inspired them to wear hijab or dress more covered because you can look nice while covered,” Albarcha told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Wednesday. “I’ve gotten a lot of responses about positive body image because today’s fashion is really over-sexualized for girls. By wearing more modest clothing, you’re focusing more on your personality and your inner beauty.”

Albarcha said that many people associate “modest fashion” with frumpy and ugly styles—or that making modesty fashionable is just too hard given the options out there. Not the case, says Albarcha, who finds a lot of her clothes at affordable American retailers such as H&M and Zara. She also hopes her style won’t be seen as “Muslims-only.”

  Such a cozy cardigan from @2020ave ❤️ (but for real, I wear this to school 24/7) / heels @publicdesire ✔️ #2020ave A photo posted by S U M M E R A L B A R C H A (@summeralbarcha) on Nov 10, 2015 at 10:31am PST

“Modest pieces are out there in the U.S. market—it’s just the idea of putting them together,” Albarcha said. “You could wear a non-modest piece together with a modest piece, if you wanted, like palazzo pants with a crop top instead of palazzo pants with a turtleneck. It does appeal to a lot of American women. I’m glad to know I have a lot of Muslim and non-Muslim followers.”

Summer's Instagram following counts over 185,000.

Between keeping her blog active, attending worldwide fashion events and other commitments related to her fashion blogging business, Albarcha is doing things a little differently than other students. Her Instagram following counts over 185,000 and she’s been covered by the likes of Refinery29, Marie Claire, Village Voice, and Business Insider. She’s also attended New York Fashion Week and St. Louis Fashion Week.

The business behind the blog & religious controversy

While the idea for the blog and content came from Albarcha herself, she does rely on the help of her sister and her best friend to take the photos she features on it. They get the same perks Albarcha does—invites to fashion events and receiving clothing from brands that Albarcha endorses.

That’s part of the business of fashion blogging these days: brands reach out to partner with blogger-influencers on wearing their designs. The blogger generally gets to keep the clothes or products. Albarcha has worked with clothing, tech, accessories, food and specific locations.

In one case, a business partnership did not turn out exactly as planned. Mimu Maxi, a small modest clothing line in Brooklyn which is owned by two Orthodox Jewish women, reached out to Albarcha to wear one of their skirts on her blog.

“I didn’t think twice when they reached out to me,” Albarcha said. “I didn’t consider the fact that this could cause religious tensions because we were both doing the same thing—we were both promoting modest fashion in a stylish way for people who still want to dress conservatively in the U.S. When I posted on my social media, the reaction was great, but when their company posted it, a lot of their followers sent a lot of backlash about it.”

Albarcha said the company deleted all the comments and even came out with a statement saying “You can’t fight hate with hate.”

  Summer from @hipsterhijabis takes the stage in the MIMU "LIMELIGHT," properly pairing our bright maxi with layers of neutrals. How cool to see the #hipster #hijab take on our #skirtleggings! #hipsterhijabis #hijabstyle #hijabfashion #modeststyle #fashionblogger A photo posted by Mimi and Mushky (@mimumaxi) on Jul 12, 2014 at 8:21pm PDT

“Muslim, Jewish, whatever your religion, if you want modest fashion we should be supporting it not putting it down,” Albarcha said of the incident.

"Muslim, Jewish, whatever your religion, if you want modest fashion we should be supporting it not putting it down."

  Albarcha is currently expanding her business moxie at Saint Louis University’s John Cook School of Business. While she says one of her biggest challenges is learning to balance school and her fashion work, she’s also been noticed by her professors. One professor picked her to be part of the school’s “Diamond in the Rough” business accelerator program, which pairs stellar students with local businesses to learn from their trade while still in school.

“I would like to become a global influencer in social media and to continue to grow with the modest fashion world,” Albarcha said. “I think the more people you can attract, the more positive influence you can have on others. The fashion world is kind of going downhill and I would like to bring fashion back to what it is really about: adorning your body with clothes and accessories and bringing out inner beauty with designs…bringing that back.”

Bridging the gap between the Middle East and Midwest

Albarcha’s family hails from Syria, and she visited there for several summers as a little girl. When she recently returned to the Middle East, it was of her own accord: She was invited to speak at Fashion Forward Dubai, about what modest fashion is like in the U.S. She says the Gulf is way ahead of U.S. fashion in terms of the intricacies and forward-thinking about their modest clothing. That’s not the case in other Middle Eastern countries, she said.

  Can u 2 plz come back w/me A photo posted by S U M M E R A L B A R C H A (@summeralbarcha) on Oct 6, 2014 at 5:44am PDT

When asked if she would return to Syria now, she said she would be fearful for her life.

“It’s different in different parts of Syria but as the war is getting worse, things are intertwining,” Albarcha said. “It’s not a place to go to at this moment. That’s why people are trying to flee as much as possible and find shelter elsewhere in the world.”

That’s not the way it always was, though, she said. Syria was once considered much more cosmopolitan.

“In Syria, there is a different melting pot as well of different cultures,” Albarcha said. “There’s this conservative class, a not conservative class, then there’s Christian Syrians and Jewish Syrians…in general, you would see people wearing hijab, not wearing hijab, wearing something more revealing, when I used to visit. It really is just a big melting pot, just like we have here.”

"One day, [my dad] told me: 'People are getting paid to wear less clothes and you're getting paid to put them back on!'"

Albarcha has followers from all over the Middle East, as well as Europe, the US, Australia and Asia. But she also has approval from those even closer to home. Albarcha’s mother, who was born in St. Louis and does a lot speaking for interfaith causes, often uses her daughter’s blog as an example of how different communities can come together despite differences in their religious background. Her dad, though?

“My dad is actually really happy about it,” Albarcha said. “One day he told me: ‘People are getting paid to wear less clothes and you’re getting paid to put them back on!’”

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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