It took Nike 55 design attempts over 18 months to come up with a suit that caters to hijab-wearing swimmers, paddle boarders, and SPF enthusiasts.
By most accounts the Nike Pro Women’s Hijab has been a success. Launched in December 2017 and targeting female Muslim athletes, the lightweight headpiece has been worn by German boxer Zeina Nassar, American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, and Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari, all of whom fed into Nike’s prototypes. The $35 sports hijab remains popular, according to search engine Lyst, which found that the product ranks seventh in the most-searched-for items in women’s fashion in 2019, alongside Alexander McQueen sneakers, Prada stud-embellished headbands, and Gucci belts.
Now Nike is looking to repeat the trick with modest swimwear. It’s launching a Victory collection on February 1, 2020, in collaboration with athletes such as Lari and British basketball player Ikram Abdi Omar, together with Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s minister for sports.
“When you put that in the water, it doesn’t really function so well,” says Martha Moore, Nike’s VP of design. The loose fit doesn’t hold hair in place and slides back on the head when swimming in water. Adding a separate swimming cap was also out of the question.
The hijab for swimmers had to be redesigned completely and, to do this, Nike drew inspiration from men, or rather men’s underwear. The in-house design team has patented a pouch that is built into the headscarf. “It’s the same idea of support, how do I tuck it in and have it stay in one place,” says Moore. In the final product, a silicone hair band holds the scarf in position, just like a separate swimming cap would normally do.
When trying to create a hijab that fits comfortably around the face and is attached to the swimsuit top like a hood, the designers were met with another challenge: most dressmakers’ dummies don’t have a head. That meant that in order to get the neck distance right, Moore’s team had to get a 3D head printed so that they could attach it to the mannequin.
The idea of modest swimwear, or the burkini, is nothing new but often lacks a hijab and is generally aimed at the average beachgoer, not athletes. For those wanting to cover their entire body and wear a material that dries quickly, these two- to three-piece costumes or robes have offered a lightweight alternative to a wetsuit. Wetsuits, particularly those thin enough to be used for surfing and open-water swimming, have to be tight enough to keep a thin layer of warm water in and provide a streamlined profile—but they also show body shapes.
For athletes it’s all about “drainage.” Nike’s 70-percent nylon, 30-percent elastane mix should repel most of the water but some might still get trapped in the swimsuits. Moore explains that the Nike team wanted to come up with a way to ensure water flows through the suit efficiently so wearers don’t “sit at the side of the pool in a big wet piece of fabric” after swimming.
To this end they added mesh around the neck, under the arms, waistline, and neck to let excess water flow out. It’s a biomimicry approach that, this time, was inspired by the gills fish use to extract oxygen from water. The mesh “gills” are covered by flaps and open up as the swimmer moves through the water.
Nike’s Victory swimsuit might take away the burden of having to wear four or five items of water-repellent clothing to cover up in the pool, but beyond competitive swimmers there’s only so many people who will have $600 to spare for a two-piece costume. To offer something for everybody else, Nike is adding a mix-and-match set of the Swim Hijab [$40], Swim Tunic with built-in sports bra [$70], and Swim Leggings [$68] to its modest swimwear collection.
Time will tell how many swimmers will be interested in a modest swimsuit that’s easy to put on, offers enough coverage and drains of water efficiently. The women who are most likely to afford a breathable, aerodynamic swimsuit are professional athletes—and, with another iteration aimed at competitive swimmers currently in development, they are precisely Nike’s next target.
This article first appeared in www.wired.com
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