A 10-Question Interview With Juliana Iskandar

A 10-Question Interview With Juliana Iskandar

I had the ultimate pleasure of having a little (virtual) chat with Juliana Iskandar, just as promised in the last post. She was absolutely glorious and one of the best persons I’ve met, full of love and light and so much positivity (I’m absolutely in love with her we’re already best friends in my head).

We talked everything Gaya, how it’s shaped her and of course, her dreams for the future.

Hi Juliana! First of all, I must say it’s an honour – your granting this interview. Thank you once again. So here’s a run-down of the questions. 10 in all.

It’s my pleasure. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to tell my story.

1. When was the dream that was Gaya born? And what motivated you into actualising that dream?

It was the summer of 2013. Haha. This is starting to sound like a novel. But in all honesty, it was around the middle or summer of 2013. I had just returned from Qatar, at the end of 2012, after working there for 5 years as a Digital Marketer for Qatar Airways. After returning home to Singapore, I had this dream of starting up my own Digital Marketing agency and I was in the process of doing that when my uncle who owns a publishing company called CA Editorial (caeditorial.com) approached me asking if I would be interested in spearheading a local lifestyle magazine he had wanted to launch. Side note, CA Editorial has been in the business for years running trade magazines so GAYA was its first consumer magazine. I was intrigued and since I was in the midst of setting up my other business and had time on my hands, I figured I’d help him out.

The concept of GAYA was initially thought of as a lifestyle magazine primarily for the Singapore Muslim community – here as well as those living overseas. My initial idea was for it to be a platform to showcase new and emerging local entrepreneurs in our community big and small. We had a growing number of talented local entrepreneurs in our community that I felt needed some airtime. At that time, most publications that catered to this demographic was primarily written in the Malay language. But I wanted to do it in full on English to cater to the Muslims in our community who aren’t Malay. Side note – here in Singapore, Malays make up the majority of Muslims but there are also Indian Muslims, Chinese Muslims, Eurasian Muslims – and they don’t speak the Malay language. I, personally, am an Indian Muslim. My father is half Indian/Eurasian and is a revert so growing up, I barely spoke Malay. I learnt it in school but that was the extent of my Malay language skills. Although, I am getting better at it now.

With that in mind, we named the magazine GAYA which means Style in Malay to maintain its ethnicity and culture. It never dawned on us that GAYA could reach international status as it has now. For the first 3 months, we kept content pretty local until the third issue when I started getting emails from bloggers and writers from abroad who wanted to be a part of this growing community. I was hesitant as I had that initial concept in mind and I didn’t want to steer away from it but after much pondering and receiving more emails from abroad, I simply could not ignore that calling. So, I opened the doors and the rest, as they say, is history.

If you’re asking me what motivated me to actualizing the dream, I would have to say – the writers. These young, vibrant, spirited Muslim women from all around the world, with their stories to tell – whether it be fashion tips, their personal hijab stories, balancing their faith in a Western world – they motivated me to steer GAYA into a different, more impactful direction.

2. How did you prepare for a career that is two-fold – The Modest Fashion industry as well as a successful digital magazine setup?

The short answer would be- nothing. Nothing prepared me for this. As I said above, this was not where I planned my life going. I was content doing digital marketing and setting up my agency. I was not from a fashion background, although I do love fashion, I mean which girl doesn’t, but I wouldn’t say I am an authority in the fashion industry let alone the modest fashion industry. The digital magazine setup though, well, I have been in the IT industry for over 15 years (oh gosh, now you can calculate my age haha.). Right out of school, I started out as a computer programmer so technology, IT, digital, social media – that’s my life. It’s my bread and butter really, so going digital with the magazine was sort of a given. Plus, under CA Editorial, all their magazines run digitally as well. Then again, nothing prepared me for this.

3. How do you see Gaya changing over the years and how do you see yourself creating that change and by extension influencing the modest fashion industry?

On the surface, I see GAYA changing in terms of design. If you go back all the way to 2013, to our first issue and compare each issue till the most recent, you will see a drastic change in design. And that’s one of the main changes I see happening over the years. We are constantly changing and refreshing our design and layout to keep up with the changing times. And we love doing that.

Aside from the design, I also see content changing as well. Not changing drastically, but more evolving. When we started GAYA, content was like any other fashion magazine – style tips, fashion trends. But as time went on, and again if you look back and compare, you would see the direction of content change as well. We started adding more in-depth articles – from personal struggles to social issues – and here is where I see GAYA evolving. We push ourselves here to speak up about personal issues, social issues or issues that affect our Muslim community as a whole.

It all started, if my memory serves me well, around the third issue. I had this inner voice, this gut feeling that it wasn’t enough. We had style tips, fashion trends but GAYA was missing something – I call this, the ‘heart’. So, I penned a personal story – one of pain, torment and struggle and how I came out stronger after that. I poured my heart out into that piece and for the first time, put my name on it. Scary! From that article, we started receiving emails from Muslim women all over the world wanting to do the same, to share their stories – no matter how painful. And there it was – GAYA had found its heart. So, if you ask me how do I see myself creating the change this is how, I suppose. Usually from what I am going through personally or if I see someone close to me struggle and I think to myself “I’m sure there are women out there who are going through the same thing. How can my voice help?” And I know this has barely anything to do with modest fashion and perhaps it doesn’t. But what I believe we are doing here at GAYA, is using fashion, in this case modest fashion, as a vehicle to deeper conversations and to show the world the beauty and diversity of our Muslim women, whether hijabi or not, and hopefully changing the narrative about Islam and our sisters. As my late grandmother used to say We aren’t that all different. You got to read the next answer to see where I’m going with this. Haha.

I honestly don’t see myself influencing the modest fashion industry. I don’t think I have that power. Haha! But one of my main goals with GAYA is to forge an understanding that there is a difference between modest fashion and Muslim fashion – personally I don’t really like the term Muslim fashion but I guess that’s the easiest term I can use. Basically, modest fashion is for all women regardless of faith. It simply is a way for women who don’t wish to show too much skin, to dress and feel comfortable. Modesty is subjective and it is interpreted differently by the woman wearing the garment. Whether you’re Muslim or not, hijabi or not, modest fashion sees no distinction, it is all inclusive.

4. How has Gaya affected your personal life and choices – obviously, a lot of thought pieces, opinion, fashion and lifestyle articles has passed through your desk from different people in different walks of life. Has this affected your own personal opinions and principles in any way?

Oh, definitely it has changed my life. The amazing stories that have passed through my desk have opened my eyes and my heart. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I have always looked at things from a different lens. My personal principles have not changed but they have evolved. My personal principles stem from my amazing grandmother whom I recently lost. She was my fathers mother, was Eurasian by race and Catholic – and my best friend. She raised me when I was young while my parents were out at work. I tell everyone that for the first 12 years of my life, I lived in a very Catholic home with statues of Jesus and Mother Mary hanging on the walls, and going to church. OK, wait. Before anyone goes astagfirullah, they didn’t bring me to church to convert me. They just couldn’t leave me alone at home. But at that young age, it opened my eyes to a different world – a world with different colours, culture, faiths. Even though she brought me to church and taught me to play the church organ, she always taught me about my own faith and what I can and cannot do or eat. She made sure I was raised Muslim. During Ramadan, she would prepare Sahoor and Iftar for me and eat with me so I didn’t feel alone. She taught me about Lent, which is when Catholics would fast. At that young age, I saw the subtle differences and similarities of faiths, and how they were beautiful in their own way. It taught me empathy, respect, appreciation, love. I once asked her why she loved me even though we were different and her response, I will never forget to this day, “Are we really different? You have my eyes, my nose, my smile, you have my blood flowing through you and if you cut us, we would bleed the same colour. Now you tell me, is that different?”

OK I know you didn’t ask me what my personal principles were but I had to set the stage. Haha! GAYA has changed my life in ways that I cant quite put into words. It has evolved my principles, heightened my senses, opened my eyes to deeper issues. I have had writers tell me how much GAYA has changed their lives and they thank me for that. But truthfully, it is them to have changed my life and I thank our writers every day.

5. How important is communication between you and the contributors for the magazine? What sorts of things do you do to prepare yourself for an upcoming issue?

It is extremely important for me to maintain communication with our contributors. As I said above, they have changed my life and honestly GAYA wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. I am truly and eternally grateful for each and every contributor for putting their trust in us to tell their story. And for me building the community of strong, vibrant, Muslim women who love and support each other, is my ultimate goal. But I do have to say though that it gets hard sometimes to maintain communication because of the time zones – were in Singapore for those who don’t know and there are many who don’t. Also, I still run my Digital Marketing agency so work gets crazy and it does get hard to reach me. But I try my best to always reply emails, DMs and even text messages for those who have my personal phone number. It is very important for me to have a friendship with our contributors.

I wish I had a very editor-like answer for your second question to make me sound good but I don’t. Haha. There isn’t anything particular that I do to prepare myself for an upcoming issue. I have been asked also what are the themes for each issue and the honest truth is there isn’t. Alhamdullillah, everything seems to fall into place every time were nearing a publishing deadline. We can plan all we want but Allah is the best of planners. Oh, there is one thing I must mention though that I do before an upcoming issue and this is going to be funny – I go off the radar. So, if you don’t hear from me, you know I’ve locked myself in the office and I’m going through each and every article that passes through my desk to make it into the issue. I sometimes work into the night. To our contributors out there reading this – I read everything, every word… your stories change me. Even the design and layout of your article goes through me.

6. What do you value most about the Muslim community, especially the womenfolk.

The sisterhood. After 4 years of running GAYA, I have met amazing women and many have become my good friends. You know the funny thing is I have never met these women in person but when we get going on text, were chatting like old friends. And it nurtures my soul.

7. What is the rationale behind your choice in this career path?

None whatsoever. Haha! It makes it sound like I’m an aimless wanderer. As I said before, GAYA found me not the other way around. But that said, it set me on a different path and given me a different life goal. One that is more eternal and I am grateful for that. Perhaps this is the path that God gave me.

8. What has been the biggest let-down in your career so far and what has been your biggest accomplishment?

Wow this is a tough one. Let me start with my biggest accomplishment and I would have to say that it is the sisterhood, the friendship, the kinship. GAYA began as a fashion/lifestyle magazine that evolved into a vehicle to deeper conversations, and whilst it still is, it is not lost on me that by extension, it has created a community and given me, and even some of our writers and readers, friendships that may last a lifetime.

The biggest let-down, truthfully, is when I get let-down by people. Regardless of its direction, GAYA is still a fashion magazine, were still in the fashion industry and to be quite frank, it is a cut-throat industry. I have experienced people in my life who use our friendship for their own gain. I wont lie. But that has not fazed me to be quite honest. I still lead with my heart and if I get let-down then well I guess it was not meant to be. But that makes me cherish the friendships that I do have.

I do have to say though that one let-down or perhaps more of a disappointment really is when modest fashion is conflated with Muslim fashion (again I don’t like this term). Basically, what disappoints me some days is when modesty is conflated with religion and because of the whole Islamophobia thing, modest fashion becomes labelled as oppressive like how the hijab is labelled as oppressive and that in turn casts a shadow over our beautiful religion. Hijab is a choice – a choice a woman makes on her own. In fact, I only just started wearing the hijab myself and was not forced into it. It doesn’t mean that a Muslim woman who doesn’t wear the hijab is less of a Muslim than one who does. We have to stop labelling each other and learn to embrace our diversity. Modesty is subjective. Modest fashion is for all regardless of faith, culture, nationality, colour.

9. Has running a style magazine changed your own personal sense of style in any way?

Hmm. I do have to say that I do get inspired by some of the style tips provided by our contributors. I even try out some of the beauty tips our Beauty Editor, Naira Ghanem, puts out in her articles.

My personal style is all about comfort. I’m always in jeans or pants and sweaters. And I love my sneakers. I’ve always dressed modestly but I didn’t wear the hijab until November 2016, so maybe GAYAs hijabi contributors inspired my hijab style? I don’t know. Then again GAYA isn’t a hijabi magazine and I hope people understand that. We stand for all Muslim women regardless whether you wear the hijab, niqab, turban, or no hijab at all. Muslim women come in all shapes, colours, cultures, nationalities; we are beautifully diverse.

10. Would you quit your job if say… You won the lottery, even if you loved your current position?

I wish I could win the lottery! Haha. But even if I did, I wouldn’t quit doing what I’m doing now. Its an eternal thing for me. One that money can’t buy.

To contribute to the magazine, find out submission guidelines here. You can find Gaya on Instagram here, on Facebook here and on Twitter here. And of course, find Juliana on Instagram here and on Facebook here.

A Gaya Magazine Feature x My Modest Fashion Obsession

A Gaya Magazine Feature x My Modest Fashion Obsession

‘My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.’
-Maya Angelou.

‘Create your own style’
Obviously, it’s something we’ve all heard during our years of internship and subsequent full-time employment and even promotions in the fashion wilderness. I know I have. I mean, if the fashion wilderness were a continent, I’d have my own country in it, I’d have a whole state and streets in every district. Like it wasn’t not hard enough that I cannot shop to save my life, or that I cannot even afford my true style, or that colours scare me, I am so laid back in what I call my fashion complacency that I could not even be bothered. I was comfortable in my bathrobe that doubled as an abaya. And that was it.

Until Gaya. Ga.Ya which means ‘Style’ is an international digital modest fashion fashion magazine for the modern Muslim woman. My feature on the magazine on ‘Layering tips’, alongside other amazing women did something for my style confidence and in fact, promoted the start-up of this blog. There I met Juliana Iskandar, Co-Founder and CEO and one of the most amazing and beautiful souls I’ve met. I have an interview with her coming up soon but in her words ‘stay true to your style and tell your story in your own unique and beautiful voice’. Her vision for the magazine is to bring beautiful voices from Muslim women all around the world and inspire them to create, to dream. This has inspired me so much in creating and I hope, just like Juliana, that every woman out there goes ahead to fulfill her creative dream with no limitations or restrictions. Do you. Be you.
I can say that I am inspired. From my time in finding my style, I can say that one of the biggest obstacles to personal style evolution is affordability, because we see mainstream fashion as overwhelmingly expensive. I’ve learnt that there is thrifting though (watch this space on my post on how to thrift like a pro) and you can find amazing pieces and beautiful items in thrift stores. That somewhat, rules affordability out. It is fear. Of moving out of your fashion comfort zone of the eternal jeans and sweatshirt.
And while mainstream fashion may seem overwhelming and just a tad unrealistic (excuse me, I love coats and winter boots because they’re cute and all, but I mean, in Nigeria, we have harmattan, so there), you can absolutely up your style and find comfort in it by exploring new ways to wear old outfits, adding a vibe to your everyday apparel.
For me, as part of my independence from the fashion coma, I’m hopping on the mum jeans wagon and boy! Am I loving it!

Apart from the fact that it’s easier to throw in (sorry, I’m a lazyass), as opposed to the wiggling and hopping and cursing the gods of calories that accompanies wearing skinny jeans, I’m loving the comfy and easy fit of the mum jeans. ‘Legit’.

It’s easy to style in different ways and finding the perfect fit involves no stress at all. My friend (still in the fashion wilderness) calls it a skinny jean that doesn’t involve wiggling to get into. She might be right. But basically, what you should look out for when getting mum jeans is:
•Loose, relaxed fit;
•Wide legs (mostly folded);
•Little or no stretch;
•Real denim (not faux denim).

What’s not to love!

So with the evolution of modest fashion and my own retrenchment from the fashion wilderness industry, I can tell that bathrobe-like abayas are a thing of the not-so-distant past. Now, say hello magical butterfly with abaya the colour of a Saharan sunset (I’m still searching for this magical abaya though, so if you find it, hit me up).
But before that, I’m sticking to my mum jeans and insisting there is no clear-cut rule to styling and ‘slayage’. Do you. Be you.

You can find my piece on Gaya Magazine by downloading the magazine here (sneak peak below).

Do hurry (I might be on the next issue too, talking about being a Nigerian Muslim woman in 2018 and what it means) + watch out for my interview with Juliana Iskandar, which is now up on the blog here.

Don’t forget to share + click the subscribe button + follow me on social media here, here, and here. I’ll be making polls on my next posts you absolutely do not want to miss!

Love and light,

Zainab xx.




Muslim women are taking the world by storm and breaking all stereotypes. Literally shaking the table and setting fashion trends all season long. 

While it might seem that 2017 was the year the eureka year that brought on the modest fashion boomerang, it can be categorically said that this has been in the works for a long time coming. Tunics, wrist-length sleeves and plain polo necks has made an entrance into mainstream fashion and high-street stores and it all boils down to one thing – the modest fashion wave. The world is waking up to the reality of the size of the modest fashion market and recently, mainstream fashion brands have tried to incorporate and accommodate diversity by diving into the market.

What then is modest fashion? 

The term modest fashion is simply has been open to a lot of interpretation over the years. While it has been attributed to religiosity, it has been argued that modest fashion is so much more. It is basically a visualization of the phrase ‘more is more’ – which means covering up in fashion with as little exposure of the body as possible.

Beyond the various interpretations, all agree on the idea that modest fashion means comfortable dressing covering the body according to either religious or personal principles.

So, during my modest fashion craze phase, Sara (my friend) jokingly characterized it as boring and it made me realize lots of people have this misconception.

It is so sad that people think or feel or believe modest fashion is just hijab fashion. And yes, the hijab is a component of modest fashion and both are used interchangeably, but modest fashion really does not just mean hijab fashion. There is so much more to it. It is covering up while still looking stylish that is the baseline upon which modest fashion stands.

On a general note, people may have different conceptions of modest fashion as long as it does not involve flashing the flesh. And it has been my utmost pleasure enlightening people around me that it does not limit your fashion sense or cramp your style.

Modest fashion is the new age of fashion, rapidly gaining momentum in the fashion industry. For many, it is a personal choice that simply translates to wearing more traditional styles- longer hemlines or higher collars or tucked in scarves.

Muslim women of different demographic have accepted and appreciated modest fashion as it provides a voice; an identity, which speaks volumes through their fashion choices. 

In recent times, modesty is experiencing g a popularity it hasn’t for quite a number of . Even conventional celebrities can be seen hopping on the trend and embracing the fashion of high-necked dresses and longer sleeves. It was an even more catching trend, one would say, when  Julia Roberts wore a white shirt under her 2014 Golden Globe dress. Indeed, it has become a booming business. In spring 2016, Dolce & Gabbana launched its own line of designer hijabs and abayas. In subsequent times, Tommy Hilfiger, Oscar De La Renta, DKNY and a whole lot of others have released Ramadan lines targeted at Muslim women. It is such a good time to be an hijabi; on the surface, the diversity of women in hijabs in the media is refreshing. The modest fashion market has unleashed a certain variation in the fashion industry – a break from the norm. As it is, there have been an uprising of hijabi fashion bloggers and vloggers and YouTube sensations showing Muslim women how to dress modestly without sacrificing style. 

Now, we have got the influencers and brands like Basma K who also owns her own scarves lineDina Tokio, one of UK’s biggest modest fashion blogger and style influencer  who has worked with mainstream brand including H&MIbtihaj Muhammad, hijabi olympic fencer who just very recently got her own Barbie doll, Amena Khan hijabi blogger and YouTuber who’s worked with mainstream brandsHabiba Da Silva ; hijabi entrepreneur and YouTuber, Adi Heyman; a Jewish modest fashion blogger and even newer and younger influencers like Shahd Batal; Sudanese beauty and fashion vlogger and Halima Aden; hijabi runway model. And these women are filling the wide margin previously neglected by the fashion industry, gaining influence and pushing the notion that modesty can be chic too all the while bringing representation to the forefront.

Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures is a book by Reina Lewis, a professor of Cultural Studies in the London College of Fashion. Reflecting the primary approach that characterises Islamic fashion studies, the writer opined strongly that ‘Muslim fashion needs to be taken seriously as fashion’. Reina Lewis examines the hijab as ‘fashion’, a phenomenon that prevails in the contemporary global consumer culture. As the author argues, traditionally, fashion has been associated with Western modernity, assuming no place for fashion among Muslims and confining hijab to ethnicity and religiosity. This has been a major problem for the acceptance of modest fashion into the contemporary mainstream fashion arena. Lewis, however, provides insights into ways young Muslim women use multiple fashion systems to negotiate religion, identity and fashion.

The expansion of bloggers’ universe on social media has transposed Muslim women to a new forum – many people were probably unaware of how fashion-conscious Muslim women were- using terms of reference such as hijabi and hijabista to indicate fashion bloggers dressed in the hijab. These bloggers share fashion, lifestyle and beauty tips with their followers and are well considered influencers within their consumer demographic. The American Magazine, Fortune, cites a 2013 report from Thompson Reuters, estimating global Muslim consumption of clothes and footwear at $266b. This number is expected to double by 2019.

Modest fashion trends are fast gaining momentum and lots of Muslim women all over the globe are joining the trend. Modest fashion commercialization has increased by at least 20% since 2013. And it seems as such, that Muslim women are more expressive through their fashion and style now more than ever before.

It might have taken me a long time to come to terms with the fact that sleeveless dresses or crop tops wasn’t going to be my go-to fashion, whatever the season; I avoided these outfit pieces as often as possible. And I can say that I have struggled quite a lot with the concept of longer cut dresses and hemlines. Until I realized that layering was an option (find my article on layering on Gaya magazine’s January issue here) and I could combine and style ordinary pieces and still look covered up and chic.

At 21, I have more options combining fashion and faith and have developed a wardrobe that is ‘modestly chic’. Today, I can wear shirt dresses and skinny jeans for my classes and abayas the colour of the Saharan sunset for Eid festivities.

It is the dawn of a new fashion age and we have termed it ‘modest fashion’.

With the growing presence and influence of the young Muslim demographic, who are proud to uphold faith values in clothing, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that we’ve seen the proliferation of pashminas, scarves, maxi dresses and even Islamic geometric patterns in designer and high street collections,” says Shelina Janmohamed, vice president of Islamic branding agency Ogilvy Noor. “We’ve already seen the industry welcoming in Muslim fashion talent, whether that’s Muslim American designers at New York Fashion Week, British Muslim designers at London Fashion Week or Indonesian designers in Milan. Muslim fashion is undoubtedly one of the biggest trends to come, not as a replacement but as an addition to current ranges and fashion events.”

With my experience in what my friends call the ‘fashion wilderness’, I am elated to see that young muslimahs can now express and identify themselves through their fashion choices.

Dina Tokio, British Muslim Blogger, reiterating this said, ‘I think of dressing smartly as a way to represent myself and religion’, she had said. ‘I don’t understand why you can’t be interested in fashion and be a Muslim.’

Like, I have always said, there are no clear cut rules to fashion, or modest fashion for that matter. As long as clothes aren’t too tight, transparent or reveal parts you don’t want to inflict on the public, it’s all good.

Even modest fashion agencies like Umma models and fashion houses like ModLiIslamic Design House and others have actively seasoned the modest fashion phase.

I must say, it’s an exciting time in the fashion industry and being a muslimah has never been so easy; fashion-wise, of course.

My Nigerian home girls are not left out either as influencers like Hafymo; modest fashion blogger and founder of Elora collections, Maryam SalamBilqis; MUA and modest fashion enthusiast, and Zainab Hassan are on the rise (and now me, of course).

My closet is ready to welcome major brands that can turn me from pumpkin to Cinderella. Personally I’ve never felt so connected to fashion – I’ve gone from style apathy to drawing out my own style book. And it’s so interesting seeing other muslimahs do same. We are at a new age of fashion where we express ourselves through our fashion choices and say ‘yes, I can be covered up and still slay.’

The spotlight is on modestwear and it’s now more in touch with the muslimah lifestyle. And as long as brands continue to connect authentically, the Muslim market is very much open for business.