As French towns ban the burkini, some fashion designers embrace it

The fashion industry is producing burkinis that are colorful and modern in an effort to cater to those seeking modest yet stylish swimwear. That might include non-Muslims.

Courtesy of Madamme BK
A model poses in one of the burkinis sold by Madamme BK, a French designer dedicated to fashionable but modest swimwear.

There’s an image of a swimsuit plastered across Paris, but it’s not the “burkini” – the full-body, head-covering piece for Muslim women that’s sent France into a tizzy this August.

It’s a photo of Ava Gardner sporting a bright-yellow two-piece, marking a gallery retrospective: “The bikini at 70 years.”

An intern behind the counter at Galerie Joseph in the heart of Paris’s fashionable 3rd arrondissement points out one of the exhibit’s more ironic displays, given the timing: an old photo of a woman getting a fine for her belly-exposing costume. As he speaks, seven decades later, women are getting ticketed on the shores of France for their concealing two-pieces, after a handful of mayors banned the “burkini” this summer.

But before it gets co-opted as the latest symbol of France’s long-brewing cultural war over expressions of state secularism, designers of the burkini, and of Islamic fashion generally, are fighting to stand above the fray, arguing this is just the latest maillot to hit the plage. And over time – and with vibrant, stylish design – they say the burkini can be seen as a modern Muslim woman’s choice within the “modest fashion” industry that’s burgeoning, not a tool of politics or oppression.

“Like the bikini, the burkini will take time to become natural for people to wear, because it is a fairly new concept to many people,” says Vanessa Lourenco, who started designing them for her Paris boutique MadammeBK in 2012, and sees a role for “haute couture coverage” in that process. “I feel that designers of the bikini were the ones in control of making the new fashion become ordinary and the same will happen with the designers of the burkini. Because in the end, it is just a new type of fashion.”

That’s not the way everyone sees it. The swimwear is not brand new, and has been prohibited from some swimming spots beyond France. But it has become a lightning rod since the mayor of Cannes, some 20 miles south of Nice where a radical killed 85 people by driving his truck into them on the seaside promenade, banned it last week. This week a handful of others have followed or promised to follow suit, citing everything from hygiene to political provocation.

The French government, which bans full-head veils in public and headscarves in schools, has backed their moves. “The burkini is not a new range of swimwear, a fashion. It is the expression of a political project, a counter-society, based notably on the enslavement of women,” said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls this week.

Hijabi fashion

Clicking through the burkinis on the webpage of MadammeBK, it’s hard to reconcile that rhetoric with the offers on the rack. There is a burkini called Amelie Champagne, a four-piece that includes a coral headpiece and a blue headband as an accessory. It sells for 125 euros ($141). There is Paris, pink and rimmed in a shiny silver, that goes over skinny pants and is on sale at 78 euros ($88). All of the fabric is imported from Italy. All of it is made in France.

Ms. Lourenco, a Brazilian, says she often gets asked why a non-Muslim designs for Muslims. She answers that a burkini gives Muslim women whose religious ethos require coverage a chance to do the most normal and liberating of acts: spend a day at the beach, cool down in the water, eat an ice-cream cone afterward. Otherwise they might stay home. And why high-end? “At the end of the day, women are women, whether Muslim or not,” she says. “We all want to look beautiful and feel feminine.”

Today Muslim consumers spend $230 billion on fashion, a number expected to grow to $327 billion by 2020, according to the 2015-2016 State of the Global Islamic Economy Report by research firm DinarStandard.

But the rise of Islamic fashion, which represents part of the Muslim consumer market, is not just about globalization or growing purchasing power among Muslims, says Neslihan Cevik, author of “Muslimism in Turkey and Beyond: Religion in the Modern World” and founder of M-Line Fashion in Turkey, which aims to meld religion and modernity in a clothes style for those ages 18 to 24. She says it’s about increased participation of Muslim women in modern life – from beach sports to demanding jobs – and a clamoring for women to set their own styles.

One of the problems that she sees with the burkini right now is that so many are just “so ugly.” One Turkish columnist likened women wearing burkinis to “ninja turtles” with their drab colors and body pieces full of water. And Ms. Cevik says that high-end design, from the fabrics chosen to the motifs sewn on, could go a long way psychologically toward bridging what threatens to turn into another cultural divide.

“If the hijabi girl dressed just as modern as you are, it’s … less threatening,” she says. “Closing the gap between hijabi and Western women’s styles would make a big difference.”

Her line is planning to come out with a swimsuit concept for Muslims next summer. 

'Just fabric'

Sensing the opportunity, major brands have waded into Islamic fashion. British retailer Marks & Spencer, which first sold a burkini three years ago, did so online for the first time this year. If you search for it though on their website, you won’t find it, explains a spokeswoman at the London flagship. “It has sold out,” she says.

And Islamic fashion appeals beyond the Muslim world, with many women who cringe at “short-shorts” or halter tops sharing a sensibility with “modest fashion.” Aheda Zanetti, the Australian who created the “burkini” after watching her niece struggle to play sports in her traditional coverage a decade ago, says many of her clients are non-Muslims who are drawn to the protection a burkini provides from the sun.

The sales clerk at a small shop selling women’s robes in central Paris sighs. If only it were so simple in France. Her store sells one model of burkini – one version in blue and one in pink for the “girly girly” customers, she says – and they are sold out. But she doubts mainstream French brands would get into the business of burkinis as Marks & Spencer has.

“In England they are more open. There isn’t a polemic like here in France,” she says. “They know it’s just fabric.”

Ms. Cevik says that conceptions of modesty shift, but that they are universal. She repeats the lyrics to “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-dot Bikini,” the 1960s hit that sums up the battle of the bikini that has evolved so much that hardly anyone in France bats an eye at toplessness. She believes the burkini could also win on a different front.

Back at the bikini exhibit in Paris, the intern is not so sure. “This is not just a debate about a bathing suit, but about religion, and women,” he says. He points to another photo: women at the beach in the early 1900s in full dress.  “You can’t enjoy the sea like this,” he says. "It’s a shame to go backwards.”

Indeed, there is no sign that mainstream French society views this as a normal evolution in swimwear, at least not yet. At Galerie Joseph, which begins with the bikini's debut in Paris in 1946, there is no burkini in sight at the end to take us up to the present day.

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