CULTURE

Islam-inspired swimming suits

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – An unusual type of swimwear is standing out on Turkish beaches this summer – Islam-inspired swimsuits – which buck the trend of the past 100 years for swimsuits to get smaller. Turkish businessman Mehmet Sahin has designed what he says is the world’s first Islam-inspired swimsuit and sells head-to-ankle bathing gear to devout well-heeled Muslims, including the wives of Turkey’s leading politicians. «We are the preferred firm of the conservative politicians’ wives,» he said in an interview, referring to members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has its roots in political Islam and came to power in 2002. It is still a small market, but Sahin’s growing clientele is another sign of the rising profile of Islam in traditionally secular Turkey. His brightly colored women’s swimming costumes look like shiny track suits with stretchy hoods, while the racier models are like catsuits with a separate sheath to cover the curves. These costumes are a throwback to the type of swimwear worn before Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman invented and wore the first one-piece swimsuit in 1906. She was arrested in the United States in 1907 for wearing the one-piece suit that revealed her arms, legs and neck. Sahin designed his first swimsuit – for men – while at university in Istanbul studying law. He was fed up with using cut-off trousers and pyjamas to go swimming. Soon he was selling swimsuits to other students. «The idea came as a solution to our own difficulties,» he said. «Not only in Turkey, but in the whole world, there was no such thing. You could say we were the first.» Sahin drew up the first sketches for the crinkly catsuits – which sell for as much as 140 lira ($97) – but the former lawyer now employs two full-time designers at his Istanbul-based firm, Hasema, which has become a benchmark brand in Turkey. He sold 40,000 swimsuits last year and expects to beat that with 50,000 this year. «Now when you say swimsuit, what do we understand? Bikinis or small trunks… Perhaps in 10 or 15 years time when you say swimsuit, Hasemas will also come to mind,» he said. Sahin acknowledges this is a niche market, but he still sees growth potential in Muslim Turkey, where most women wear headscarves although the secular republic’s laws ban their use in public buildings such as at universities and in Parliament. The current AKP government is trying to overturn restrictions on headscarves and since it swept to power in 2002, headscarved women have become more high profile, but it faces stiff opposition from pro-secular Turks. Bikinis are a common sight on Turkish beaches and many Turks are horrified by Islamic bathing suits. As Turks get richer in a growing economy, helped by the prospect of European Union membership, there is more demand for holidays – and swimsuits. But Sahin is also looking abroad and already sells wholesale to the United States, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Germany, and plans a fashion show in Cairo next year.