In 2017, Nike’s Pro Hijab first became available on the global market. The moisture-wicking head covering made sports more comfortable and accessible for competitive female Muslim athletes, a group long overlooked by major athletic wear brands. The winner of Fast Company‘s top design award that year, it has gone on to be a hit: According to Morocco World News, sales of the design rose 125% in the first quarter of 2019.
Now, Nike is releasing yet another garment for Muslim women: a modesty swimsuit.
Technically the suit is made up of separate pieces: a hijab, a tunic, and pants. “We really love to design products for athletes, [especially] when we see an underutilized part of the market, or when people can’t participate in the area they want to participate in,” says Martha Moore, creative director vice president at Nike, via Skype call. “We were fortunate enough to travel to southeast Asia, and do that thing that designers do: observe.”
Moore and the rest of the Nike design team noticed that while they were used to seeing non-Muslim and American women enjoying water activities in string bikinis and skin-tight one-pieces (in co-ed pools and on public beaches), women in southeast Asian and Middle Eastern countries had to swim in women’s only pools, since they had few modest swimwear options that provided full coverage.
Even when total-coverage, wetsuit-style bathing suits are available to women, there is the additional concern that they don’t provide optimal mobility in the water. “When we did see people swimming in Australia in full-modesty outfits, we learned from lifeguards that that’s who they are most concerned about because of how heavy and layered they are . . . it becomes a dangerous issue, [they’re] super heavy in the water,” Moore says. “We thought: What could we do to really facilitate women swimming for their whole lives as a daily habit? Then we went shopping and we saw lots of competitor products in the marketplace, and the competitor products were the lowest common denominator of what is needed to swim in the water: a long tunic top, some pants, and you’d have to wear your own hijab. It was heavy, stretchy, and clingy and pretty much not attractive from our perspective.”
Nike knew it wanted a suit that was aesthetically appropriate, but also lightweight and quick drying. (Anyone who’s been in a soaking wetsuit knows how uncomfortable it is to sit in all day). So the designers tried to create a full-coverage product, made up of a long-sleeve tunic, with a snug built-in hijab and adjustable sports bra, and high-waisted pants that provided support—and a bit of glamour. “One of the things we talk about in Nike design is learn, fail fast, and keep moving. We had a preconceived notion that we could make the most amazing sleek [bodysuit] and make a version for swim. That did not answer or solve the problems of the consumer or the athletes we were going after,” Moore says. Participants in the early design studies defined modesty not only as full coverage, but more importantly, relatively loose fitting. A tight scuba suit, then, could no longer be the goal. “When we started to talk to Muslim women around the world, it is about body skimming, not body conscious . . . so we had to start over. It changed our fabric choice.”
Through several phases of consumer focus groups in places like Indonesia and the UAE, the design team learned that preteen Muslim women stopped swimming around the time puberty began; culturally, this is when they have to become more modest. With this in mind, the team decided to start sizing for the suit at XXS to cater to younger, less developed females, and continue up through XXL.
After the research phase, Nike created upward of 40 different samples of this modesty suit, which is part of the Nike Victory Swim Collection. They also worked closely with Portland’s Muslim community—near the company’s headquarters—to refine the previously released Pro Hijab (which served as a model for the suit) for the best possible fit. The most notable adjustment to the hijab is a handy pocket (or “hair management system”) buried within, designed to functionally hold a long braid of hair so users don’t have to use a swim cap to hold their mane in place underneath a hijab. “We had such great success at the Rio Olympics with the Pro Hijab, so that was of course in the back of our minds,” Moore says. “We knew we could extend that offering to women who wanted or chose that part of the cultural apparel. It inspired us to look at what parts of the market have been underserved . . . we found a problem to solve. How could we create a swimsuit for women so that they could have access to a sport they love forever?”
Obviously, water repellent fabric was a necessity, so Nike designers dreamed up a material ratio (70% nylon and 30% spandex, the generic word for Lycra) that would move with a woman’s body, without clinging to it. “We started from a material and fiber perspective, so we decided to start with nylon because nylon is a hydrophobic yarn—that means it already hates water—instead of a traditional polyester that we would use in swimwear . . . and it’s a four-way stretch,” Moore says. This knit is designed to have structure, yet be as fluid as the water it moves through. And when water hits it, it slips off like a raincoat, thanks to a water-repellent finish that allows it to remain damp, but not soaking wet.
“At key places in the suit, the water goes through the suit and comes through vents . . . the suit [should] never bubble up, so we tried to eliminate this by allowing this water flow system to go through the suit,” Moore says, adding: “It feels like you’re moving through the water and not being slowed down by the water.” This vent system was inspired by real water-dwelling mammals and the way they use advanced gill systems to maneuver through their natural habitat, like fish and sharks. Similarly, and in line with the oceanic theme, the team attached “mermaid cuffs” in an iridescent purple Lycra on the inside of the tunic’s sleeves and pant legs. These subtle yet noticeable details operate as fingerless gloves, allowing divers to swim through the water without worrying about the suit moving around.
Though Muslim women were the primary focus group, Nike’s design team saw the creation of this full-coverage modesty suit as an opportunity to cater to an even broader consumer base, like women who may be looking for sun protection at the beach or a poolside outfit that helps obscure a post-pregnancy belly a customer may not yet be comfortable with. “I think our approach to this is to consider this a training suit for all women who have access to the joy of swimming every single day,” Moore says. “This is not an elite performance suit, this is what you use to get in the water.”
One premium version of the Victory Suit, which will likely cost between $600 and $650 and will only come in a black and iridescent color way, will feature the tunic with a built-in bra, the built-in hijab, and the pants as one complete outfit. The second, more democratic version, will include all three elements of the suit, but as separates—and will cost around $170 total. This version allows for users to mix-and-match sizes and colors. Both will be released on February 2, 2020. “This Victory Suit is really pushing the boundaries of design and innovation to solve a problem for women in the marketplace so they can have access to water sports for their entire life,” Moore says. “It is about being able to move through the water [in a way] you can enjoy and not having to stop when you’re a preteen because there’s nothing on the market that’s beautiful.”