Untapped opportunities in modest activewear

Full-coverage sports apparel is in demand among women, with the likes of Under Armour, Adidas and Sweaty Betty entering the industry. We look at the brands who are getting the sector right.
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When it comes to women’s activewear, crop tops, shorts, sheer vests and skin-tight leggings have always been the norm. It’s pretty much all you see in the campaigns and collections of global fitness brands. Recently, however, many are realizing that their lack of diverse activewear options for women of faith who prefer full-coverage clothing comes at a cost, both financially and ethically. 

This year’s annual State of the Global Islamic Economy Report reveals that ‘numerous brands have entered the modest sportswear segment over the past year’ – which is an understatement. Spend 15 minutes browsing modest activewear online and dozens of new brands show up. The same report says that Muslim consumer spend within this sector is expected to reach $311 billion by 2024. 

But while modest clothing is often designed and made for Muslim women, modest activewear is fast becoming a style choice for any woman who feels more comfortable working out in looser fits that are more flattering, made for all body types and leave a little bit more to the imagination. 

Beyond culture and faith, today’s consumers are more conscious than ever and are likely to avoid or boycott brands that fail to represent them or have missed the mark in attempts to do so. In 2018, Nike released its first piece of modest activewear in the form of the Pro Hijab, becoming one of the first mainstream brands to promote Muslim women in sports on an international scale. Although the Nike Pro Hijab was a successful launch, the brand did receive some criticism from consumers who felt that it didn't reflect young and active Muslim women. 

But Nike continued its efforts to tap into the modest market with the unveiling of the Victory full-coverage swimsuit in 2019, whose launch price of $600 proved inclusion and accessibility don’t always go hand in hand (though it was generally well received). Today, other established sportswear brands – including the likes of Under Amour, Adidas and Sweaty Betty – have also taken steps to diversify their audience and cater to underrepresented groups with the recent inclusion of sports hijabs in their core collections. 

But is that enough? ‘Our experience at Modanisa is that women around the globe do not want to be restricted in achieving their personal or professional goals because of their ethnicity, culture or religion,’ says Samim Surel, marketing and brand development director at Modanisa, a modest-fashion online sales marketplace based in Turkey. 

‘We want women to be inspired so they can live their best lives,’ he says. ‘If we give them the right outfits, more women can participate freely in sports, fitness and leisure activities, without feeling inadequately dressed. Although modest activewear is a relatively new category, it is growing very rapidly and we recorded a 200% increase in sales this Ramadan compared with 2020. Our sales data shows modest activewear is growing three to four times faster than modest fashion as a whole.’ 

Over the past few years, there has been a growing demand for modest activewear thanks to influencers, athletes and models using their social media platforms to share style inspiration for women who choose to cover when participating in sports or physical activities. This demand is largely being driven by young adult consumers. Taking advantage of this early, British Vogue put Somali-American model Halima Aden on its cover in 2018, which was the first time a woman wearing a hijab had appeared on the magazine’s cover since it was founded more than a century ago. Other titles have since followed Vogue’s lead. 

Yet whereas some retailers are keen to tap into the modest activewear boom, others are yet to adapt their collections to become more inclusive. ‘Many brands have missed a huge opportunity in this sector by not catering to women who choose to dress modestly,’ says Dina Basharahil, global talent director at Modest Visions, an influencer agency representing Muslim women in the UK. ‘Now it’s time for them to catch up.’ 

The appropriate solution here, however, is not – as ever – fast fashion. Muslim bloggers can easily influence the purchasing habits of followers as they put products to the modesty test in the digital space. ‘If brands are trying to tap into the modest fashion industry, firstly they need the right counsel, especially as they are entering a market that they have no prior knowledge of,’ says Dina. ‘So, it’s important that they go out and seek it. The future for modest activewear is that every mainstream brand will eventually have a modest line. Muslim consumers reach far and wide and we can’t be ignored right now – because if we are, we take our money elsewhere.’

So, what is modest activewear?

A new sector within the sportswear industry, modest activewear aims to fulfill the needs of women who don’t feel comfortable showing skin when exercising in public spaces because of personal preference or, in the case of Muslim women, religious practices. From sports hijabs and turbans to longline tops, loosely fitting trousers and full-coverage swimwear, modest activewear takes women’s sportswear to new heights with style innovations designed for durability and maximum performance. 

‘These innovations have meant more women are able to enjoy activities, such as swimming, that they may have previously shied away from,’ says Samim Surel of Modanisa, which sells modern Muslim womenswear, accessories, jewelry and beauty products. ‘Designers that are stocked on our site have built on these developments to create a wide range of desirable and practical modest sportswear options for women,’ says Samim. 

Where brands go wrong – and how Nike got it right  

1. Tapping into the modest activewear market might seem like a smart play for brands – but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. This customer base is typically far more loyal as they have a meaningful reason for their fashion choices, which are often closely linked to their beliefs. So brands have to think extra hard about the nuances of this diverse and global customer base who have big spending power. 

2. Yet, despite the increasing interest from mainstream brands, 86% of Muslim women believe they are being ignored by high-street fashion brands, according to a 2019 analysis of 500 Muslim fashion consumers by the creative agency ODD. For Anusha Couttigane, a fashion analyst at Kantar Consulting, there’s a tendency to treat the modest shopper as a sort of ‘other’ demographic with completely different needs to consumers generally. Meanwhile, the Muslim influencer Dina Tokio, who has more than 1.2 million Instagram followers, has questioned why brands rarely ever consult with the modest community before creating a product: ‘You can see the sales power that this marketing tool of modest fashion has, so why half-ass it when you know you’re going to get your money back?’ 

3. Given the purchasing power of Muslim luxury consumers, western brands need to make more effort, and they could learn from Nike. When the sportswear giant released a line of modest swimwear in 2020, featuring a hijab that stays in place during swimming, it went through an extremely long design process. At first, Nike was planning to design something that was like a jumpsuit. ‘But we were schooled,’ said Martha Moore, Nike’s creative director behind the design. ‘We were basically told: no, it’s not about body conscious, it is about body skimming. And that really was a new paradigm for us to think about. What would that mean in terms of fabric? What would that mean in terms of fit? What would that mean in terms of support? And what would that mean in terms of hair management? That’s really where we started, those four big ideas.’  

4. The design team studied cultural nuances and worked to find the right fit for modest swimmers. The finished suits are made from nylon to avoid the fabric filling with water and to reduce drag, while mesh ‘gills’ allow water to drain, and the built-in bra provides support. It took 55 rounds of design to get it right – a level of attention to detail that other brands would be wise to try to emulate.

Three modest activewear brands   

1. Under-Râpt. Founded by British-Egyptian creative Yasmin Sobeih, Under-Râpt is making modest activewear and loungewear more accessible, no matter the body type, sporting ability or faith. Past advertising campaigns have featured inspirational Muslim women such as Halima Aden and disabled athlete Omneya Elyamany.

2. Mumine. Launched in 2015, Mumine is a modest activewear brand known for its functional fabrics and innovative technologies, including CoolFit. Designed by Swiss company HeiQ, it’s made with intelligent thermo-regulation that triggers a cooling function when it senses body heat, to control sweat and minimize body odor.

3. Lannuk. Established in 2018, Lannuk blends contemporary fashion with full-coverage beach-ready styles. Made in the Philippines, from a high-quality fabric mix of nylon and spandex, Lannuk’s range comes complete with built-in UPF50+ sun protection. Its swimwear and accessories are adaptable to other fitness activities. 

This article was first published in Courier issue 42, August/September 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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