“Modest fashion, modern thinking” is the motto at Ghizlan Guenez’s two-year-old luxury shopping site, The Modist (pronounced mode-ist). In an era which women are pushing inclusivity and the not only willingness to accept, but rather an all-out celebration of each other’s diversity, a site like this doesn’t just make sense, it feels like a brilliant, welcome change. Frustrated by the lack of modest designs, Ghizlan, after 15 years in finance in which she split her time between London and Dubai, quit her job, traveled the world listening to women who were looking for the same kind of clothes she wanted and opened up shop so to speak. The response has been tremendous, from women who’ve felt ignored to designers who now have their eyes opened to a new set of customers. Plus, the edit on the site is exquisite. (Seriously, there are some of the dreamiest dresses you have ever seen, and of course, they deliver to the US.) Here Ghizlan shares why a good team matters most, how failure is a necessity, plus a few of her favorite Spring picks.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Who you are and what you do? I’m the founder of The Modist, I started the business a couple of years ago and it was my first experience starting a business, running a business, and building it, which has been an incredible and amazing adventure and journey so far. I’ve got an incredible team of people and I think that’s the smartest thing I’ve done is have these amazing people who are experts in what they do that help me run the business. But really my role involves a lot, as does any kind of role of a founder or entrepreneur. One day you’re thinking vision and five years from now and how you’re going to grow to x number. The next thing you’re picking up the phone and solving a problem with a customer. I think that’s the beauty and excitement of doing this, it’s that you go across the board from building the strategy and vision of where you want to take the business to the nitty gritty and the details of what happens across the business.
What is your background? I studied economics at university, and then fresh out of university I joined a private equity company. It had just opened doors; I was the fourth employee. By the time I left in 2015, it was the largest private equity player in emerging markets. So I had been in that business as it experienced huge growth. That was an exciting and very important learning experience that impacted what I do now. I was not in finance, I was in the brand building and partnership building side of things. So it was building partnerships with art and philanthropic platforms across the spectrum of all the stakeholders that the business interacted with. It was interesting to be between finance numbers and the softer partnership side of things.
What led you to launch the site? It was the problem that presented itself in my life and the frustration that I experienced…my mother, the women in my family, my friends who dress this way. It was their shopping experience and ours that have been always so time consuming and frustrating. We didn’t feel that we were spoken to by any retailer online or offline.
After I left the company, I took about six months off and started traveling–to Turkey, London, America, across different cities meeting friends, friends of friends, and women that I didn’t know to speak to them about the way they dress, their shopping experiences and The Modist site.
You know, across the spectrum of modesty, some women dress that way for religious reasons, some do so because they find it age appropriate, others just love the aesthetic. I wanted to understand their shopping experience, their frustration, and the ideal experience that they were looking for.
What do you think makes your site different than others? One, we are a niche business. We are a platform that is focused on a particular customer and a particular way of dressing. We’re quite personalized; we’re not everything for everyone. What we don’t offer our woman is as important as what we do offer her. So it’s quite a lot that we put into what we do, understanding this woman and offering her fashion and functionality, so modesty but in a very fashionable way.
We’re built on tenants of diversity and inclusiveness because that’s who our women are. Everything we do is around that notion of choice and the fact that exercising your choice whether you want to wear a mini skirt or a maxi skirt is an empowering thing.
The second element that is equally important is our purpose. We’re not just a retailer. It’s not how we view ourselves and it’s not how our customers see us. There’s purpose in what we do. We’re built on tenants of diversity and inclusiveness because that’s who our women are, who our customers are, and we believe so much in choice. Everything we do is around that notion of choice and the fact that exercising your choice whether you want to wear a mini skirt or a maxi skirt is an empowering thing. That’s what we advocate really more than just modesty. It’s just that choice that a woman makes and enabling her to exercise it.
I think it’s interesting because fashion has gone that route anyway. Things are more covered up– longer dresses, covered arms, higher necklines, they’ve all become popular. I definitely think that modesty is a macro trend, it has been for a few seasons. You know long hems, and maxi maximus dresses and all of these trends relating to modesty. I’m looking at the runway now seeing if it still is. But when that trend is out, I think our woman will need us even more because there will be nothing left probably for her out there.
Do you find that designers are receptive and open to working with you? It’s been a very exciting journey with designers. We’ve been pleasantly surprised with how embracing and excited they all have been about what we do. I think probably the biggest factor there is the way that our brand positions itself and the way we showcase their brands in this modesty light. We’re nondenominational. We are agnostic. We don’t care why a woman dresses this way. We’re all about fashion, we’re all about offering her modesty without taking any specific angle whether it’s cultural or religious. It really takes all of that out of the equation and as a matter of fact we celebrate the diversity of why the woman dresses that way. And the fact that all of these women are so different yet they’ve got this commonality of loving fashion and enjoying modesty.
So I think they’ve enjoyed that and also just taking their brands and being quite respectful of the brand integrity and showing it in the best of light. It’s enabled them to see a different way of how their brands could cater to a woman who they would not necessarily be speaking to in a meaningful way if they didn’t have kind of a conduit like us doing that.
When you launched this what was the easiest part about it for you? You know what’s funny enough the easiest part for me was actually to build my team, and I know it’s usually not the easiest part.
Most women I interview say it’s the hardest. I know. Not that it didn’t take work and time and all of that, but it was easy in the sense that I just knew that this was the right person. We’re aligned in the vision of where I want to take the business. There’s a lot of passion around working for this woman that we had built the business for. There’s a lot of synergy around how we see delivering this business and executing on it. Then one team member would then connect me to the next. We built the team organically like that for the first six months.
And then the reverse. What was the hardest part about it or something that surprised you? What did you learn from it? The hardest thing about starting a business is the uncertainty. You build the best plan, you’ve got everything checked, and you’ve done your due diligence and homework, and prepared for everything and then you need a plan B and C and D and E.
Because it’s full of uncertainty. You’re starting fresh, so there’s nothing to reference. There’s nothing to go back to and use as a measure to whether you’re doing the right thing or not. I mean there’s obviously the resonance of the customers and people in general and that’s kind of your guide. But I think uncertainty is probably the most challenging thing when you’re starting a business.
Ghizlan’s Spring Picks
One of you attributes that helps you succeed? I think when you’re starting a business probably resilience and perseverance are the most important aspects because, don’t get me wrong, it’s the most exciting thing one could do and I’m so passionate about it, but it’s very challenging and you continue to face challenges, they just change and evolve and become different. You understand that this is part of the journey and you’re not just trying to get to a point where there are none, because there will never be a point where there are no challenges. It’s funny, I follow Sara Blakely of Spanx and she posted this diagram of the life of an entrepreneur and it shows you in a day: One minute you’re happy, the next minute it’s ‘what the hell am I doing?!’, the next minute you’re over the moon–it’s this whole crazy journey. And I’m thinking Sara’s been doing this for 18 years.
And she’s still thinking that way, right?!
It’s insane. But I suppose you need that resilience. And you need to be excited about it and understand that this is part of the journey. Part of the beauty is that you’re constantly evolving and resolving these challenges.
Three words that describe The Modist: Purposeful, because purpose is such an important element to what we do. Thoughtful, because truly everything we do we’re thinking about our woman from the way we style an outfit to the way we write content to the pieces that we curate. And forward-thinking, we see [The Modist] as a brand of the future that stands for values like diversity and inclusiveness which are important for us.
Three words that describe you: Empathetic, resilient, generous.
Role models: I get so inspired by women in general and women who are doing challenging things in life, whether it’s starting a business, raising kids on your own, or overcoming adversity. Women, young, old, who are just pushing through and doing interesting and exciting things in life.
Best career advice you’ve received or you would share with somebody? Truly follow what you’re passionate about. I rose up in a region, and I think it’s the same in many cultures—where there are certain specific notions to what success looks like. It’s particular careers, or certain fields, or educational qualifications. What I’ve learned is that you could be doing anything in life from baking muffins to building large businesses and you would still achieve incredible success if you do what you do extremely well, if you work hard at it, if you’re passionate about it and if you’ve got that kind of open mindedness to where you can take it. I’d say forget what is prescribed by society or cultures around what success looks like and go for what you love and what you’re passionate about.
To date what has been your biggest success? Launching this baby and building this, I’m so proud of it. I’m also so proud of my amazing team, who from the most senior to the most junior, are truly incredible. But I think importantly the thing about our business is that it can be so misconstrued and the whole idea of modesty is unclear, not very known, and has a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions around it. I think the resonance that we see every day with people loving what we do and loving the way we’re showcasing it is something that makes us proud.
What has been your biggest failure or dud? And what did you learn from it? I genuinely feel that one of the topics people need to talk about more is failure. It happens almost every day. And you think ‘oh I should’ve done this or should’ve done that’. It’s little things. But I think that there’s such a stigma around failure that it’s almost like it’s such a shame to fail. And I think it’s just a reality of life. There’s no way that you won’t fail.
If you don’t fail, you don’t succeed. It’s how it goes. There’s this perception about people that they’re so successful and they’ve got it alright and it’s all 100 percent. Every piece of the puzzle is falling into the right place but the reality is that, you’re never seeing 360 degrees. And you could get it right in one place and not in another place; we all are succeeding in certain areas and failing in others. And it’s just about our journey as people in general whether in businesses or in personal life is just to continue to evolve and also be a little forgiving with ourselves.
What motivates you? A lot of things—from probably the most cliché thing of reading good books and listening to a good podcast, to obviously family and starting my own business. Anything around entrepreneurship, founders, and leadership is very motivating. I know I talk about my team a lot, but I’m very motivated by my team. I get a buzz working with amazing people. And we have women constantly messaging us on social media and across platforms saying finally there’s a destination that speaks to me, finally you’re presenting me in the beautiful light. Connecting with us emotionally, I think that’s the most motivating thing. We could be making all the returns in the world and the money. But I think that impact that you have emotionally on people is extremely motivating.
Life goals: Honestly as silly as it sounds is just to be happy. Like just being happy and grateful. I think that wherever this journey takes me, I just want to be able to be that.
Daily goals: Continuing to do things that are fun, that I enjoy and that have a bit of impact. A mix of impact and fun. Purpose and fun.
Daily rituals: Morning coffee, a podcast on my way to the office, and then being in the office for the rest of the day and the evenings always kind of change depending on what’s happening.
What podcasts do you like? I listen to quite a few. Recently I’ve been listening to Overnight Success by the founder of Rodial, Maria Hatzistefanis. There’s The Twenty Minute VC, the BOF [Business of Fashion], Second Life by Taylor Haney. It depends on the mood.
How do you unplug? I’m fortunate enough to live in Dubai. We have amazing beaches and generally good weather, so the sea, the beach is always something that when I have the luxury of taking the time, I love doing that whether it’s a walk or a few hours. And spending time with the family. I am very close with my family and I find that when you spend time with family you automatically switch off from work.
Favorite inspirational or motivational reads: Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outliers.
Favorite charity: Anything that has to do with young girls, whether it’s education or relating to their betterment, is something that is very close to my heart.
Do you collect anything? Coffee table books, but I’m not a big collector. I actually find so much joy in cleaning and getting rid of things. I don’t have too many attachments, whether it’s clothes or just things in general.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: Actually it’s probably the first thing that I bought with my own salary, which is a ring. It’s tiny, but I still love it. At the time it was a splurge.
Scent that brings back memories: The smell of baked croissants brings back memories of my early childhood. I was brought up by my maternal grandmother until the age of nine and she used to be an amazing at baking.
Favorite small indulgence: Anything to do with food. I will travel for food. It could be savory one day and dessert the next.
Album currently on repeat: Queen. I recently saw a documentary on Freddie Mercury so it’s not new but I’m into it.
Favorite hour of the day: First thing in the morning. It’s the beginning of another day. It’s a fresh, a clean slate, another chance to live again and get started on what you want to do and decide how you want to think of that day.