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“A social designer can build bridges through design”

Dutch designer Cindy van den Bremen says that before 1999 there was no such thing as a sport hijab. She invented one almost 17 years ago when she discovered a girl was being expelled from gym-class due to her supposedly unsafe hijab. After working on four different sport hijab designs that were recognized with a ‘Good Design Award’, Bremen launched Capsters brand in 2001.

She shares her thoughts with FashionUnited about modest fashion in today’s world and Capsters’ journey from her decision to dive into the sensitive matter of veiling to a company, that today empowers hijab-wearing sports women and girls worldwide.

What was the idea behind launching a modest line of clothing?

Cindy van den Bremen: During my graduation research at the Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands, I stumbled upon the case of a girl being expelled from gym-class. Her teacher thought that the hijab was not safe and though her parents tried to solve the issue with the teacher and the principal, they couldn’t reach a solution. The case was debated in the court of law, where the girl even performed a roll over to show that the hijab was safe for gym activities. But for the first time in the Netherlands, hijab was forbidden in a gym-class due to safety reasons, if a teacher was not comfortable letting girls wear one. As an alternative to hijab, it was suggested that the girls could wear a swimming cap and a turtleneck top.

“A social designer can build bridges through design”

I was amused at the solution offered and as a designer, decided to do something about it. I couldn’t imagine girls wearing a swimming cap in a gym class that could result in excessive sweating and a big red face. I wanted to resolve the problem with a solution that would not only take care of the safety issue, but also cater to the needs of those girls, who wished to cover themselves.

Tell us more about yourself and the Capsters label. Its designs, collections, retail presence and so on…

I have always been interested in other cultures and religions. Being raised in a warm social humanist family, I related to minorities in my country. The veil was a hot topic in the ‘90s due to a lot of discussions surrounding it, in political circles and the society as a whole. A lot of people in the Netherlands expressed their thoughts against the use of veil in the western atmosphere. I didn’t understand how people could judge the needs of others and decided to dive into the sensitive matter of veiling.

During my graduation project, my research not only involved desk research (where I read about the verses in the Quran that addressed the veil and also the media coverage on the subject) but also did field research. To my surprise, the voices in general (both media as well as non-muslims) expressed that veiling was a way of oppressing women. But the hijab-wearing women, I personally spoke to, were well educated, outspoken and often very ambitious. And they were very convinced about their choice of clothing, which they said was not forced by their father, brothers or husband.

I decided to redesign the veil by integrating it more with the western wardrobe, leaving less room for critique but making it part of the whole identity and outfit. My teachers at the academy weren’t too thrilled about this idea, so I continued my search for a more concrete problem with the veil in order to design a solution.

I chose four different sports to design a sport hijab for. I looked at the current sport fashion per sport: leading brands, materials, supplies, colours etc. I started sketching and making styling overviews per sport. Together with this I went back to the girls and women that I had spoken to before. I asked them for feedback and comments. This is called co-design where the users become part of the design process. Even today that’s how I develop my designs for Capsters.

“A social designer can build bridges through design”

In June 1999, I became the inventor of the sport hijab by presenting the four designs for my final graduation project. It became national news: in papers, magazines, television and radio shows etc. I was invited to write an article about the sport hijab for the ‘International Institute of the Islam in a Modern World (ISIM)’, which published my piece internationally. Underneath the article was my email address and through that address, I began receiving orders.

Please elaborate on the journey of Capsters from its inception to the present day....

I never had the intention to start a hijab business or company. I just wanted to help this Dutch girl who was stopped from wearing hijab in gym-class…but the hijab and sports appeared to be a universal issue. I received mails from all over the world: a girl in Malaysia thanked me for designing a tennis hijab specially for her since she had been playing tennis her whole life and this was what she needed. A student at the University of New York wrote: ‘with your designs I can show I’m willing to integrate yet within my own norms and values’. This was exactly what I had in mind when designing the sport hijabs!

I received orders from school principals, gym teachers, girls themselves, and also their relatives who wanted to order a sport hijab for their daughter, niece or cousin. So I thought, it would be good to approach the big sport brands, I had worked with for my project, to include my sport hijabs in their collection. One brand was enthusiastic, but thought I should do it myself, and strongly recommended to remove the stripes. The other big sport brand wanted to include the outdoor sport hijab that I made of fleece, which looked like a hood and scarf in one, in their winter collection.

Since I had four designs for sport hijabs, and I had orders for all of them, I didn’t want just one of them to become a part of the winter sport collection. So I decided to launch my own brand of sport hijabs called Capsters. For years, I sold Capsters ‘on the side’. I run a social design studio next to Capsters and started teaching at the faculty at Industrial Design at the university in my hometown. There was little time to develop Capsters. Nevertheless, orders kept coming, wholesale requests and the ongoing free publicity continued and I still had so many ideas for new designs. Every time the hijab was in the news, journalists would contact me.

In 2008 the brand Capsters became a limited company which I founded together with business partner Karin Mastenbroek. She is the Managing Director, dealing with production, finances and resellers. I am the Creative Director and face of the company, responsible for the new designs and styles. Together we’ve been running the Capsters studio for the last eight years.

“A social designer can build bridges through design”

Capsters received a Good Design Award in Japan and after the exhibition ‘Safe: Design Takes on Risk’ in 2006, the Capsters sport hijabs became part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I have continued traveling the world from Saudi Arabia to Hong-Kong giving lectures and presentations on my sport hijab design.

Is the label only available online? How do you plan to expand Capsters’ presence in the near future?

We hope to expand the brand in more retail stores worldwide that sell the bigger sport brands so Capsters sport hijabs become more visible.

We sell in over 15 countries worldwide through a network of local resellers and have daily orders on Capsters.com from places like Brunei and Canada. We have local resellers online, but also have brick and mortar shops like Sonee Sports in the Maldives that sell Capsters sport hijabs.

Tell us more about the company's production capacity and various collections created under the company’s umbrella.

After the launch of the brand in 2001, we presented the sports collection with the first four designs. Later we expanded the Capsters collection with a watersports line, a casual line and an exclusive line. We now focus on sports hijabs basically, since that is still a niche. We believe we offer the best quality and design in sport hijabs. We strive to improve, and that is why we ask our fans and wearers for feedback and we also work together with athletes and sport foundations to include more women in sports.

What has been the consumer response and is it confined to consumers of a particular faith?

Up till today we keep receiving positive feedback by Capsters fans and wearers. They thank us for coming up with a comfortable alternative to cover themselves during sport activities. Women that are not used to wearing the comfortable designs of Capsters are often surprised: checking whether their hijab is still on, and feeling the wind blowing through their hair again, due to the lightweight mesh material, a sensation they haven’t felt in years. Usually girls and women wear an undercover and a tight shawl around their head, secured with pins or knots to keep the hijab in place. Capsters offers a safe and comfortable alternative in a readymade fit in a variety of designs and colors where no undercover, pins or knots are needed.

What is the current turnover of Capsters? How do you aim to increase sales? Where do you foresee Capsters five years down the line?

Sorry, we don’t talk numbers because we are still investing in our company. We would like to expand with more presence in the retail world, but in the west, hijab is still connected to a lot of negative connotations.

There is a vast difference between faith and fashion. Fashion is said to be consumerist but faith is in a way against consumerism. How does modest fashion deal with this issue?

It is not only about consumerism, it is about participation and inclusion like it is the case of sport hijabs. There is an urgency to deal with the issue like the FIFA hijab ban that was issued for five years preventing hijab-wearing women and girls to compete on the football/soccer field.

In 2012 we worked together with Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan, vice president of FIFA and responsible for the development of (women’s) football in Asia. We convinced the FIFA Medical Committee to lift their five-year hijab ban on the football field by developing the safe Capsters Football with a Velcro closing that releases quickly when pulled from behind. This design has been tested and approved by Technical Institute TUV in Germany. FIFA now recommends the Capsters Football as a solution to wearing a safe hijab on the football field.

We are now supporting players like Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir and Indira Kaljo in their fight to get the hijab ban lifted at the FIBA, international Basketball Federation.

What do you think of the current state of modest fashion with a lot of brands and designers getting into this segment?

When I started Capsters.com , there were hardly any webshops online, let alone modest fashion webshops. I kept receiving requests from girls and women who wanted advice on how to dress modest yet fashionable. Due to widespread use of social media and the Internet more and more information and ideas are being shared online. Hijab-wearing fashion bloggers are providing updates and reports and even tutorials on how to dress modest. I like the way in which the modest fashion world is enabling growth of fusion fashion that addresses the identity of these girls and women.

“A social designer can build bridges through design”

I have published a book on my research on veiling called ‘Hoofddoeken’ (hijabs in Dutch) and organized a traveling exhibition in the Netherlands: through libraries and community centers. It showcased 25 pictures of the book (by Iranian photographer Giti Entezami) accompanied with quotes, for a month at different locations. I wrote articles on the matter and took part in panel discussions. Often people thought I was a Muslim wearing a hijab but my idea is just to prove that as a social designer you can provide solutions and build bridges through design.

Where according to you is modest fashion headed with controversies surrounding the attire vis-à-vis western brands creating dedicated modest fashion collections?

The modest fashion market is an emerging and upcoming market you can’t ignore. The bigger designer brands already have a presence in the Middle East but also learn to cater more and more to the special needs and wishes of the Muslim consumer and market besides ‘forcing’ a more western fashion image upon them. Otherwise the Muslim consumer segment is an interesting and growing market and it would be foolish to ignore this growing market.

On the other hand, you get to see the development of emerging (local) small modest fashion brands who are going global with the help of Modest Fashion Weeks in Dubai, Istanbul, London and Indonesia through platforms like Haute Elan, Bloggers & Vloggers and exclusive Modest Fashion Magazines that provide the latest trends and styles in modest fashion offered by a number of designer brands.

Anything else that you would like to add....

Put me on a stage and I can talk for hours on the hijab and the development of the sport hijab. Still there are some challenges after being in the business for over 16 years. Lot of girls and women worldwide are facing barriers due to their hijab. Even though we’ve created a safe alternative that has been tested and approved on safety, some sports organisations continue to have rules and regulations that prevent participation of Muslim women, who want to cover themselves.

One of the biggest arguments we hear against hijabs is that it oppresses women but I feel, by excluding these women from sports activities because they wear hijab, you are preventing them from fully participating in the society and playing their part as a role model to inspire other less fortunate girls. I think, a lot of work still needs to be done, to enable hijab-wearing women to participate in sports of their choice. And Capsters hopes to contribute to that!

Pictures:Capsters