The sportswear giant's plan to launch hijab for athletes has multiple implications for smaller companies already catering to the niche demand
Scepticism, anger, optimism. Social media has been in an uproar since Nike announced it would debut sports hijab by Spring 2018. Loyal customers have come out in support of their chosen brands.
“Who needs Nike...” posted Aida Othman, who describes herself as an “ultra-runner, finance professional and blogger,” in that order, declaring support for “reliable trustworthy and versatile @Capsters”. Capsters considers Othman their “role model and friend.” The company is a pioneer of the sport hijab, launching in 2001.
Who needs @Nike when I got reliable trustworthy and versatile @Capsters #hijabi #performance #nike #Athletes https://t.co/OpD8lydsoO
— Aida Othman (@_AidaOthman_) March 8, 2017
On the other hand, there is recognition that the entry of a brand like Nike may positively impact the advocacy efforts towards overturning hijab bans currently applied in many professional sports, including basketball. The announcement also has implications for product development and greater retail availability.
Fatima Fakier, Founder of Botswana-based Friniggi, said she had mixed emotions over the announcement. “Nike can influence more sports hijab bans to be brought down with their sports partnerships. But I also feel that the risky work at the infancy stage of the industry, when brands pitched in to help bring down hijab bans, all the market research and development etc were already undertaken by the smaller existing brands.”
COMPETITION HEATS UP
Reacting to the announcement as competition, many brands have responded by declaring impromptu sales. The Netherlands-based Capsters offered their sports hijab on a 15 percent discount for two days globally.
Turkey’s Modanisa offered a clearance sale of up to 80 percent via Google ads that show up with search terms such as ‘sports hijab’.
“Of course, a big brand like Nike changes the playing field,” Cindy van den Bremen, Founder and Creative Director of Capsters, told Salaam Gateway, while conveying her belief in “the diversity of available sport hijab out there.”
Ahmad Ghanem, Founder of Veil Garments, who said he wanted to be the “Nike of Islamic wear” when his Kickstarter-funded climate adjusting cool-dry sports hijab was announced in 2015, told Salaam Gateway, “I'm extremely excited. This is what you dream of as a start-up... to one day go up against the giants. Veil is locked and loaded, ready for the challenge 100 percent.”
For smaller brands that have struggled for years to gain acceptability in the world of organised retail, Nike’s entry may, in fact, be good news. An international brand can pave the way for greater visibility and inclusion in sports as well as create shelf space for companies that have found it difficult to crack that segment.
Fakier said, “Nike could be the influencer putting a stamp of approval on modest sportswear. In a way their participation validates the need for modest sportswear to the greater community. This may encourage regular sports stores to stock modest sportswear which is a dream come true [for hijab-wearing athletes] to be able to walk to your nearest mall and shop for sports hijab along with your gym gloves! It could create a higher demand from retail stores for multi-brand sports hijab, which could be positive for the smaller brands.”
Despite there being proven demand for sports hijab, it has still not found its way into multi-brand sportswear stores in most markets. Capsters, for instance, is available online and sees demand from all over the world. Yet, their physical presence via resellers in 15 countries is largely based in boutiques or specialised Islamic product stores, despite being one of the earliest entrants into the market.
“Over the years we've experienced that the biggest hurdle is to enter this market of large sports apparel retailers. All smaller brands could benefit from the attention on sports hijab and it could raise an interest from larger retailers,” van den Bremen said.
The support on social media for smaller brands such as Capsters, Friniggi (which no longer retails sportswear) and Veil, among others, underlines the relationship between profitability and advocacy that has marked the genesis of modest sportswear brands.
Shireen Ahmed, a sports activist for Muslim women, tweeted a common sentiment.
But before Nike, there were companies doing this work. @Capsters @Resporton_Hijab and @friniggi + more who have been doing this A LONG time.
— Footybedsheets (@_shireenahmed_) March 7, 2017
For many of their customers, these first movers have made the difference between participating in a sport or not and they perceive them as more than just sports accessories. Big name brands, whether Nike, Adidas or Puma, spend millions on marketing campaigns designed to create such emotional connection with the customer.
“Niche brands have the unique advantage of having close relationships with their customers. On our Twitter feed and Facebook page, it seems the community remains very loyal to the smaller existing brands, giving recognition to the pioneering work done over the last decade, often in very difficult circumstances,” Fakier said.
Speaking of the early days of her project in 1999, Capsters’ van den Bremen said she “wanted to bring the designs to the market through the bigger sports brands, but unfortunately they were not interested (perhaps too sensitive a subject 17 years ago?) and told me to bring them to the market myself.
“Lately, we’ve started knocking on the doors of the bigger sports brands to ask for collaboration with the appearance of Muslim athletes on the world stage like the Olympics, without any result. We’ve put a lot of time, money and effort into reaching the world, approaching upcoming female Muslim athletes long before Nike spotted them, but we cannot offer them contracts like the bigger sports brands do,” said van den Bremen.
The consumer perceives these companies as advocates due to very real reasons. Advocacy has been part and parcel of much of their work, which includes overturning hijab bans in key sports.
“We’ve been knocking on doors of international sports federations like FIFA (soccer) and FIBA (basketball) to lift their hijab bans, by showing safe and reliable alternatives to the traditional hijab. This is how we, together with Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan, have been able to lift the hijab ban on the soccer field in 2012, enabling women and girls worldwide to compete in soccer matches,” she said.
The International Basketball Federation's (FIBA) hijab ban still stands but the federation said on Jan 30 that it "favoured a modification of the rule and issued a mandate for the Technical Commission to come forward with a proposal that would allow headgear to be worn safely by athletes." This will be looked at in May.
The smaller brands have a large share of consumer hearts. As Fakier said, “Consumers do not just buy a product; they buy a way to fulfil a need. Some of these needs are purely functional sportswear. Sometimes it is community they seek, or connectedness, or identity...”
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