Cindy van den Bremen created the first sports hijab seventeen years ago, so yesterday’s announcement that Nike will debut sports hijabs for Muslim women in 2018 has been a long time coming. “My initial reaction was, ‘Finally!’” she told Glossy. “We’ve been knocking on doors for the past seventeen years, but it was too early,” she said of her attempts to sell the idea to larger brands, including Nike. “There was no urgency yet from a big brand perspective.”
“Nice idea, but do it yourself,” she said they told her, and so she did. In 2001, she launched Capsters in The Netherlands, where she lives.
Today, along with her business partner Karin Mastenbroek, van den Bremen sells her products in over 15 countries, including Australia and Germany. The initial idea stemmed not from a personal need (van den Bremen is not Muslim), but from a moment of empathy: witnessing a girl get kicked out of her university gym class for wearing an unsafe hijab. The girl was forced to rely on a haphazard turtleneck–swim cap combo going forward, so using her background in design, van den Bremen went to work on creating an alternative.
That was a different time, of course — one in which Muslim communities had much less visibility than they do today and companies were less likely to be blasted for every blindspot through the endless stream of social media platforms. Unlike Capsters, some suspect Nike’s decision is founded more on image control and its bottom line.
A model wears Capsters’s extra-long hijab.
“[This] was probably a business decision based around how much money they thought they could generate [by tapping into] an otherwise ignored niche, the Muslim market,” said Ikhlas Hussain, founder of popular blog The Muslim Girl.
Van den Bremen’s partner, Karin Mastenbroek, is similarly ambivalent: “It took them quite a long time [to realize] that there are women out there who want to participate in sports wearing a hijab.”
Perhaps they are simply paying more attention to demographics — a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center found that the global Muslim population is growing twice as fast as non-Muslims, with almost two-thirds of them under age 30. What’s more, Muslim consumers account for 11 percent of the total global spend on apparel, dishing out around $243 billion in 2015 according to Thomson Reuters.
Van den Bremen also believes that the rising visibility of Muslim women in sports has played a role, citing women like Saudi Arabia’s Sarah Attar, the runner who made history during the 800-meter heats at the 2012 Olympics. Indeed, Nike spokesperson Megan Saalfeld told HYPEBAE the idea came about after the Emirati Olympic weightlifter Amna Al Haddad visited their Sports Research Lab and lamented a lack of well-made sports hijabs on the market.
“Muslim girls are not currently competing in sports at the same rate as other girls,” said Jamie Glover, the president and COO of ASIYA, a sports hijab line founded by Fatimah Hussein in Minneapolis. Hussein launched the company last year in an effort to change that and has worked closely with aspiring Muslim athletes throughout the development process.
A Minneapolis student plays basketball in an ASIYA hijab.
Like ASIYA, other startups like Veil and Oola have been catering to fitness-inclined Muslim women for a while, said Rachel Krautkremer, the director of insights and strategy at Cassandra. But, despite this, it’s still a fairly untapped market. “I’m surprised it’s taken Nike this long,” she said.
The sports hijab is a good start, but all the women we spoke with agree there’s more work to be done. “More and more Muslim women all over the world are [growing] interested in living a healthier lifestyle,” said van den Bremen, who added that they need more well-made, modest athletic wear options in order to pursue that interest.
Hussain agrees: “Most athletic wear, especially for women, is short and tight, and it can be difficult for Muslim women to find clothes that are acceptable to wear for working out.”
Whether brands like Capsters and ASIYA are scared about what Nike’s entrance in the market could mean for their business depends on who you ask. “We’ve wanted the sports hijab to become big for years now — that’s always been our dream — so, on the one hand, we’re very excited that a large sports brand is acknowledging the needs of these Muslim women,” said van den Bremen, noting that Capsters simply doesn’t have the marketing and distribution power of a company like Nike.
However, it’s not that simple, said Mastenbroek: “We’ve been putting all of our energy and effort into this and aren’t being acknowledged [for it]. They could have done all of this fifteen years ago.”