“This is what acceptance looks like,” says American, hijabi Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad. She is talking about a pair of black leggings and a semi-fitted black hoodie tunic top that covers the bottom and thighs. While at first glance it might not appear to be a groundbreaking invention, its very design could actually change the lives of women the world over.
This is the new Nike Victory swimsuit, advance performance swimwear for the modest woman. If you’re thinking, “It’s a burkini,” it’s not. While the design is somewhat similar – covered head-to-toe, but not clingy like a wetsuit – its innovative technology is the first of its kind. “I think it’s really cool that Nike has designed such swimwear,” adds Muhammad. “They have filled a void.”
The 2016 Summer Olympics gold medalist fencer is part of a group of women, including athletes and models, who trialed the Victory swimwear ahead of its official launch this month (available for retail in February). Amongst the latter, hijabi model and former Vogue Arabia cover star Ikram Abdi Omar, can’t help but beam when discussing the collection. “The swimwear actually makes me feel really powerful – I feel like a superhero,” she says. “It’s amazing; it’s like a whole outfit.”
The sense of empowerment is something all the women agree on. “To have a brand respect all religions, choices, and backgrounds makes me respect Nike more,” says Saudi diver Nouf Alosimi, founder of Pink Bubbles Divers. While the garment is more targeted towards Muslim women, the design is also aimed at women who not only prefer a more modest silhouette when taking part in water sports but also women who want to protect their skin – the suit is SPF+40.
While Nike reaped considerable praise when it launched the Nike Pro Hijab in 2017, its swimsuit has been a long time coming with modest women feeling under-represented in the interim. Ghizlan Guenez, founder of The Modist e-tail site, blames the lack of representation, particularly with modest swimwear, on brands failing to look at the bigger picture. “Most brands focus on mass market as opposed to niche. However, some niches can be extremely attractive commercially and are quite substantial in size,” she says. “The modest dresser has been stereotyped, whether intentionally or not, for someone whose activities are restricted and limited but the truth is that one’s choice to dress modestly doesn’t, and shouldn’t, hinder living life to the fullest, and participating in all activities including the workplace and the sports arena.”
“You know there’s a ton of people out there who use the lack of modest active wear, and the lack of performance hijabs as an excuse not to be active?” says Muhammed siding with research that confirms that a lack of adequate clothing choice prevents some women from connecting. Further studies also reveal that for women who wear a hijab, specifically in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, the opportunity to swim and participate in water sports is significantly limited by the lack of access to modest swimsuit solutions. “It gives me goosebumps to see the representation that exists now,” adds Muhammad. “I’m not someone who’s an avid surfer or kayaker. But I know that I want to wear it to the beach. I think it’s leading to a healthier Muslim community.”
For Manal Rostom, an Egyptian athlete and Nike + Run Club Coach, she’s optimistic that this could help alter the misconceptions about modest swimwear. Something that has led to humiliating experiences in the past. “[The burkini] is banned in some posh hotels and resorts,” she explains. “So in order to avoid embarrassment, I usually take the easy way out by avoiding these venues. [But now], the next time I am being banned from entering a resort or venue, I know I’m backed 100% by a giant brand that appreciates and honors my existence.”
The swimsuit’s technology is its USP, and what separates it from burkinis. “The swimsuit provides all women and athletes with a light and fast silhouette that offers both performance and style,” says Martha Moore VP creative director and lead designer of the Nike Victory swimsuit that comprises of a tunic with an attached hijab and a built-in bra, worn on top of leggings. The outfit skims the body; it doesn’t cling otherwise it wouldn’t be modest. Moore, who doesn’t wear a hijab, explains the product was tested over a period of 18 months on “different people in the pool, the lake, and the sea,” with extensive tweaks made where required.
One of the biggest issues women previously complained about was the weight of a burkini. “Traditional burkinis wear you down,” explains Rostom, “and the material flaps in the water making it difficult to tolerate for a long time when doing laps.” Alosaimi and Abdi Omar also complained of the drag issues, commenting on how the fit of the Victory swimsuit, in comparison, offers grace in the water. “It I feel like I’m wearing something better than regular clothes,” explains Abdi Omar.
While the overall aesthetic is important, Moore is quick to point out that the science behind the swimwear is the real hero. “The Nike modest swimsuit uses a patented warp knit construction fabric developed in Italy,” she explains. “The product revolutionizes modest swimming engineering with an innovative head-to-toe drainage system and a lightweight, breathable quick-dry material. It’s inspired by the strength and beauty of our athlete heroines; the dress has a minimal aesthetic, alluding to warrioress armor.”
Though the innovations are vast, some of the most impressive features are the head piece and in-built bra. “For the head piece we wanted to make sure it fit lean around your neck, so we built in the gills in the back,” continues Moore. “Also important is hair management. The integrated hijab comes with a fitted headband-gripper with hair pocket management designed for zero distraction when she moves in water. As for the bra, we know how important support is, so we worked with the bra group at Nike to [help] build in Nike technology and make it right for swimming, and have it attached to the suit so you have one piece.” The bra has adjustable straps depending on your bust size, and removable padding.
While the swimwear is an innovation, there’s still room for improvement. It is not yet elite performance-ready, meaning it can’t be worn to compete in sporting tournaments such as the Olympics. The inescapable fact about the modest swimsuit – that it doesn’t cling to the body – means that using it competitively feels counter intuitive. While the Nike Victory swimsuit offers a giant step forward for modest swimmers, in both aesthetic and tech, the fact remains that it still creates a drag and carries extra weight for the swimmer. Using it in a sport where milliseconds can be the difference between first and last, well, who knows, but Moore remains undaunted. “I do believe we will get to that level [Olympic], I really do,” she says. “Of course, there’s also a bigger conversation as currently full body swimsuits have been banned at the Olympics.”
But while the tech will continue to be developed, the greatest research and information will come from the people wearing the outfit. Activewear requires you to be active in the first place. This is something that Mohammed feels strongly about. “When I wanted to fence I wasn’t necessarily saying, ‘Oh I can’t do it because I don’t have a performance hijab,’ I just did it. You have to find innovation in your own closet. I had a very resourceful mom who found a hijab that worked for me.”
But while the ‘just get out there’ message should resonate. There’s no doubting the sense of pride to be felt when seeing your representation in the real world. A validation perhaps not essential, but loved none the less. Muhammad explains, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could go into a store and find a top that’s not super clingy, that is a bit more free flowing, and not just for Muslim women it would be great for that to become more commonplace in these retail stores.”
Read more: Hijabi Cover Stars Highlight the Power of Choice and What Modesty Means Today