Neelofa, the Woman Putting a New Face on Modest Fashion

A mononym has always been reserved for a certain type of personality: Prince, Beyoncé, Iman. The kind of personality that renders a surname irrelevant. The kind of personality that forges a household name familiar to millions. These kinds of names withstood and will continue to stand the test of time, representing certain ideals many identify with.

And perhaps the same could be said of Neelofa. The three melodious syllables roll off the tongue. String them together and a particular face would spring to mind: One that’s both soft and sharp in its geometry; its cheekbones framing a set of feline eyes, eyelashes curled and full, lush lips. On the set of the cover shoot with T Singapore in Kuala Lumpur, this particular face was crowned with the glorious swath of a black leather hijab. Her petite figure — covered in an ankle-length Alexander McQueen coat, its shoulders exaggeratedly raised as if an armour — telegraphed an innate grandeur.

Neelofa wears Alexander McQueen coat and rings. Stylist’s own top, worn throughout. Neelofa’s own hijab, worn throughout.
Neelofa wears Alexander McQueen coat and rings. Stylist’s own top, worn throughout. Neelofa’s own hijab, worn throughout.

At 31, Noor Neelofa Mohd Noor, often shortened to Lofa by her legions of fans, is a burgeoning cultural force in her home country Malaysia as well as its neighbouring countries. She wears multiple hats, juggling roles as an actress, television host, business owner, fashion icon, and even, for a brief stint at AirAsia Group that recently ended in August, as a director of an airline. In Malaysia, her name is stamped on anything you can possibly think of. Onscreen, it’s displayed on local telemovies and popular talk shows like Next to Neelofa. Off the screen, it’s printed across the plastic lids of bubble tea, the latest collaboration between her banana milk brand, Nilofa and the giant Taiwanese teahouse chain Chatime. Or more prominently on the clothing labels of Neelofa’s rapidly growing modest wear empire, Naelofar.

Her polymathic entrepreneurial interests translate to a ubiquitous presence that comes with a magnetic reach. The numbers speak for themselves: At the time of writing, she’s easily the most followed figure in Malaysia, racking up a staggering 12.4 million followers on her social media platforms. In an interview in 2019, she claimed that her label Naelofar managed to get “50 million ringgit sales [S$16.3 million] within one year from Instagram itself.”

Alexander McQueen jacket and bag.
Alexander McQueen jacket and bag.

Neelofa’s devotees pay close attention to her every move. A scroll through her Instagram account would tell you why: Collectively, her 8,000-something posts form a curated moodboard of everyday modest dressing that somehow comes across as both aspirational and relatable. She could be dressed sleekly in a figure-obscuring Valentino tunic one day, and coyly posing mid-grocery run in a loose-fitting, long-sleeved fuchsia top and a cascading skirt the next day (“Purposely hanging around the chiller for the cool breeze,” the caption reads). Her headscarf is always intact and in stylistic harmony — whether tied, wrapped or bundled. One post can generate thousands of fawning comments from her followers, mostly Muslim women. “You’re phenomenal,” says one whose avatar shows a hijab-wearing 20-something woman. “What a modest beauty,” gushes another.

But this constant barrage of laser-like attention is, of course, not all thumbs-ups and heart emojis.

“I was not prepared mentally and emotionally to be in this industry,” she admits in a video interview after the shoot. “My journey was quite fast, from nobody to someone yang orang kenal [who people recognise], it took me less than a year for me to put my name out there.”

Alexander McQueen dress, boots and earrings.
Alexander McQueen dress, boots and earrings.

Neelofa’s rise in the realm of entertainment was stratospheric, albeit unintended. In 2010, she won first place in a beauty pageant run by the Malaysian fashion magazine Dewi Remaja (which, loosely translated, means “teenage goddess”). The attention she garnered from winning the competition had one of Malaysia’s most prolific directors, Aziz M. Osman, offering her the role of the leading lady in his movie, “Azura” (2012). “When I said yes, everything changed,” Neelofa recalls. “Obviously, being someone who had no knowledge, no exposure in the industry, I was not well prepared to deal with all the unpleasant outcomes — the gossip and all those bad articles about me.” 

In the era of the Kardashians, to be seen is to be judged. And to be judged by millions, more often than not, results in losing one’s sense of self. Fame comes with a hefty price tag: the incessant spotlight, the lack of privacy, the resulting chasm between one’s real self and the self that’s displayed for thousands to double tap on. But being famous as a woman within a conservative country inadvertently raises the stakes.

People think that women like me, or those who wear the hijab, can’t offer much. But in actual fact, we have a lot more to offer.

In 2014, three years after she first appeared in TV shows and telemovies, she began wearing the hijab in public. It made headlines in local rags and online news portals. Within a few months, her followers quadrupled. For most Muslim women, the decision to don a hijab is a private matter. For Neelofa, it was one that the public continuously scrutinised. “It was not an easy decision,” she remarks, “because, you see, during that time, it was not common for someone in the industry to wear a hijab and still host entertainment shows or to play the main role in any movie or drama.”

While her fears of not landing roles or hosting jobs never materialised, people are relentless in finding fault. During a trip to the Italian resort town Bellagio in 2017, she posted an Instagram post (now removed) of herself, sitting on the plush leather seat of a yacht, her legs crossed. She had on a pair of denim jeans with ripped patches on the knees, slight slivers of her skin exposed through the tattered fabric. Harsh criticism ensued. Her sister, Noor Nabila, defensively responded in Malay to a now-removed comment: “What’s wrong with the pants? Do you have a say in what she chooses to wear? If she wore leggings underneath, must she inform you personally so that you won’t judge her?” 

Alexander McQueen coat and necklace.
Alexander McQueen coat and necklace.

In 2018, in tandem with her birthday celebration, Neelofa launched a hijab collection for her label Naelofar. The launch was held at the event space of the nightclub Zouk in Kuala Lumpur. Access to the bar and the clubbing areas were sealed, but when a video of the occasion was posted online and included a clip showing five hijab-sheathed ladies gamely dancing to Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You”, it went viral. The video clocked in four million views in less than 16 hours. The scathing comments poured in: “Tarnishing the image of women is an issue. Hijab-wearing women dancing with their bodies is another, and etc. Totally insane,” a tweeter wrote in Malay. “Are you Muslim? I wonder,” an Instagram comment questioned. Two days later, Neelofa issued a public apology, stating that the decision on the venue “was made because [of] the facilities [that were] offered... all of which are necessary and parallel to the theme of the event itself.”

“It took me a while to get used to it and to digest that people can literally comment upon anything and everything about me,” Neelofa reflects in the video interview with T. “But Alhamdulillah, thank God, you know, after a while, I got used to it. And I’m, like, I’m okay,” she says, laughing it off.

Left: Alexander McQueen jacket, trousers, necklace, belt and bag. Right: Alexander McQueen dress, clutch and earrings.
Left: Alexander McQueen jacket, trousers, necklace, belt and bag. Right: Alexander McQueen dress, clutch and earrings.

Neelofa’s perspective is familiar and understandable: Being a woman, one needs to frequently assess others’ expectations over and against one’s own. Optimistically speaking, we are on our way to living in a world that universally accepts the fact that women’s bodies and sexuality is a source of power to be revelled in, rather than hidden or denied. Whether or not a woman obscures her body — and whether or not it’s a religious decision — should ultimately be her choice. But the reality of living within a society that’s still somewhat entrenched within certain religious specificities necessitates a daily battle in order to secure that freedom.

After the notorious 2018 incident of an outraged Malaysian man slapping a Muslim woman at a bus stop for not wearing the hijab, Neelofa gave her two cents through Instagram, writing: “Is this how we want to portray Islam and Malaysia towards other people? We want people to know that Islam is a religion that is beautiful, that is tolerating and respectful and when things like this happen, perceptions are changed and Islam gets a bad rep.”

The hijab represents different things to different women — and sometimes, men. Within the layered wraps of the headscarf is a tangled dichotomy of body politics. “There has been a focus on Muslim representation through making the hijab or modesty cool and pushing back against narratives of oppression, submission and prudishness,” says Asma Uddin, the founding editor-in-chief of AltMuslimah, a website discussing gender issues in Islam, in an interview with Dazed. “Muslims consider anything that contradicts or confuses that narrative as a good thing. On the flip side, people are also concerned if this is staying true to the entire purpose of the hijab. Is there something that is being lost in ourselves as Muslims?”

Alexander McQueen jacket, trousers, shoes, necklace and rings.
Alexander McQueen jacket, trousers, shoes, necklace and rings.

To Neelofa, it has a lot to do with shattering gendered stereotypes, the archaic notion of an Islamic woman’s passive demureness. “People think that women like me or those who wear the hijab can’t offer much,” she shares. “But in actual fact, we have a lot more to offer.”

Neelofa refuses to have her identity defined by the enduring preconceptions around the hijab. Rather, the multi-hyphenate has been showing the limitless heights to which a woman in a hijab can reach: While juggling several hosting and acting roles as well as running multiple businesses, she made it onto Forbes’s 2017 30 Under 30 Asia list. In 2019, merely five years after Naelofar was launched, the modest label sold more than 10 million hijabs. “It was like a dream come true moment for me because it’s like my baby,” she recalls. “It started off with just three staff, and now we have more than 50 staff working for this one particular brand. It’s also one of the ways I measure my success and my hard work that I have been usahakan [working on] for many years.”

That’s not to say her journey has been smooth sailing. Navigating the world in a woman’s body remains a fraught proposition in the most quotidian and granular of ways. More so when the spotlight continues to trail her. Which is why it’s important to note that her big successes ought to be partly credited to her pivotal sense of style. Rather than adopting a more conventionally feminine aura, Neelofa prefers to project rigour and an intellectual thoughtfulness with her clothing choices. A regular at the front rows of fashion shows at Milan and Paris Fashion Week, she does not shy away from the more masculine silhouettes of tailored suits or the use of bold, bright colours. In Neelofa’s reality, the one-dimensional rigidity often linked to the idea of modest dressing is entirely defied.

“I always use this opportunity as a way to express myself. And I feel like last time, when you wore the hijab, you felt as if you were in a bubble and you couldn’t do much,” she says. “But even if you’re wearing hijab, you can still be orang katakan ‘stylo’ lah [what people call ‘stylish’], you see?”

 

 

Last month in mid-October, less than a fortnight after the shoot for this feature, Neelofa’s team disclosed through an Instagram post on Naelofar’s brand account “her decision to wear a niqab.” In the photograph, Neelofa is almost completely enshrouded in a full-face white veil that drapes over her head and cascades down to her shoulders and her waist. Only her eyes are visible through a horizontal crescent-shaped slit, the veil’s only opening. On one edge of the niqab, a furtive “n”-shaped metal logo of Naelofar is discreetly placed. (A quick search on the brand’s website on the same day the post went up showed that niqabs weren’t available online just yet).

The post’s caption states: “Still holding on to her motto, “The only barriers to success are the ones we make ourselves,” she never fails to amaze us with how she continues to break boundaries for Muslim women... She’s a living proof that even with your face covered, women can move the world.”

What’s next for Neelofa is a question that looms ahead. Does fully concealing herself precede the end of a career in a world that prizes exposure? Or will it yet be another glass ceiling for her to break? Only time will tell, it seems.

“Even with my stylists, they sometimes have to crack their heads, ‘Okay, how do we do this? How do we incorporate these kinds of fashion pieces with the modest look?’” she shares in the interview a few weeks prior. “You have to be extra creative on how to play around with the baju [clothing] and the hijab to make sure that it covers my aurat [private parts], but also still be fashionable enough.”

“I think after a few years of experimenting, I feel like we have achieved a certain level in terms of bringing modest fashion to the table,” she says. “And now we can say, ‘Look, we have proved you guys wrong.’”

Neelofa on one of the five covers of T Singapore’s “The Greats” November 2020 issue wearing Alexander McQueen jacket, trousers, shoes, necklace, belt and rings.
Neelofa on one of the five covers of T Singapore’s “The Greats” November 2020 issue wearing Alexander McQueen jacket, trousers, shoes, necklace, belt and rings.
Photographs by Chee Wei
Creative direction by Jack Wang
Art direction and styling by Colin Sim
Makeup by Khir Khalid using Lancome
Hijab stylist: Farah Dinana