Photo: Saudi Arabia's Sarah Attar prepares to compete in her women's 800m round 1 heat during the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium August 8, 2012. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Responsive, quick on their feet and clued into the needs of Muslim sportswomen, smaller modest sportswear brands may give new big-name entrants stiff competition
Brands, big and small, spend a considerable amount on research and development, which is crucial to create both fabrics and designs that optimise performance. Athletes such as Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari, who has welcomed Nike’s announcement last week of its debut sports hijab, spoke of being “blown away by the fit and the light weight”, in a statement accompanying the Nike announcement.
When discussing common problems they face while working out in a hijab, which include “coming untucked and overheating”, hijabis on forums such as Reddit have shared what they look for, even going so far as sewing what they need instead of relying on standardised hijab available in the market.
One user recommends, “If you can sew, look for fabrics that feel like swimsuit/sport material (microfiber polyester/spandex)”. Among the brands that are popular, stretchiness, thinness and not overheating are listed as prized properties in the right sports hijab.
Fatima Fakier, Founder of Botswana-based Friniggi said that research and innovation have always been an important aspect of creating sports hijab.
Sharing her experience with Friniggi, which retailed sportswear from 2009 until recently, she told Salaam Gateway, “I started the sportswear right at the beginning when the need for Muslim sportswear was a mere spark. I did a lot of my own research and development without a big budget or lab testing. I expect the other smaller brands did the same. We pioneered the way, supported the market and pitched in to develop the athletes, too, at every level. It was active involvement in what was already a cut-throat industry.”
"Innovation requires research and development. Not everyone has the budget for extensive research and development." - Fatima Fakier, Friniggi
The material used for sports hijab is closely scrutinised by customers and consequently is a point of reference for manufacturers and retailers. Malaysia-based Raqtive, for instance, provides detailed specs of the material they use, highlighting microfibres that can be woven into textiles with the texture and drape of natural fibre cloth but with enhanced washability, breathability, and water-repellent characteristics.
Among the factors they choose to highlight are softness on the skin, light weight, no shrinkage, rapid cooling, moisture wicking and breathability.
Raqtive shares a lot of detail about the material with its athlete customers, “Yarns are used as the material which consists of cross-sectional polyester yarn with four-channel capillary construction and it absorbs sweat and dries much faster than conventional polyester yarns ... It also keeps the body cooler by maximising air-flow, which has also helped with enhancing the aerodynamics ...vital while performing high-speed sprint. Its silk-like texture holds on the skin with extreme comfort and grip, allowing users/athletes to perform or manoeuvre with ease.”
Nike too, has highlighted athlete-friendly innovation in its sports hijab, such as light weight, breathable mesh, stretching for movement and use of fluff threads that eliminate rubbing and irritation.
“Nike leads on innovation seeking new products and markets. Innovation requires research and development. Not everyone has the budget for extensive research and development,” Fakier said.
Indeed, Nike has been a reference point in fabric technology. In its Kickstarter video, U.S.-based Veil Garments talks about sportswear brands such as Nike, Adidas and Under Armour using technology to make a difference. Fabric technology is one of the biggest highlights for Veil’s Cool Dry hijab, which is climate-adaptive, cooler than standard, wrinkle-free and water repellent.
Van den Bremen said that from her first product in 1999, she has focussed on user feedback in her “co-design process” to create products that are specific to each sport.
However, creating responsive designs is an area where Nike can anticipate competition from others in the market. Now defunct, ResportOn’s sports hijab, for instance, developed a tight-fitting hood that attaches to a t-shirt with a high collar made of stretchy, fast-drying fabric. An internal pouch would keep the hair away from the neck, and an opening at the back would allow wearers to readjust it.
Cindy van den Bremen, the founder of Netherlands-based Capsters, an early mover, has impeccable design cred, and the brand boasts having its designs in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Van den Bremen said that from her first product in 1999, she has focussed on user feedback in her “co-design process” to create products that are specific to each sport. Having launched the company officially in 2008, it has almost a decade worth of product maturity compared to Nike or any other new entrant.
DIFFERENT STROKES FOR DIFFERENT SPORTS
Capsters’ inventory reflects its maturity. Its bestseller is a hijab for runners – breathable and lightweight with a readymade fit requiring no pins or undercover. Other sport-specific products include those made for swimming and a fitness hijab. Capsters even does customised hijabs for schools in their colours and logo.
Last year on International Women’s Day on March 8, Capsters asked their 7,000-plus followers on Facebook to share what they need if they were practising martial arts, such as jiu jitsu, judo, bjj, karate or another fight sport, with a hijab.
For football, van den Bremen said the design “has a Velcro closing that was tested on safety; when you pull the hijab from behind, the closure releases quickly.”
It may be difficult for a giant to move in such small footsteps to cater to niches within niches. Fakier said, “It will require creativity and some lateral thinking to innovate further. Always seeking to answer the questions of whether the product fulfils the need, can it be done better, more trendy, more functional, better aesthetics – all depending on what the consumer needs. In this industry, regardless of whether it’s modest sportswear or not, continuous improvement and innovation is key.”
Contrast this with a one-size-fits-all approach that Nike may have to adopt, at least to begin with, and the existing brands have their advantage spelt out.
“While major brands may appeal to the athlete, niche brands appeal to the wider market of regular women who want to exercise to stay fit or participate in hobby sports. There are more of these women than there are pro athletes. Finding out what these consumers seek in sportswear, and to build a brand they can identify with, will be the focus for niche brands,” said Fakier.
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