Swimsuit, 'slim-fit' burqini (R), polyester, Ahiida(TM), designed and made by Aheda Zanetti, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 2011
Aheda Zanetti is the founder and designer of Ahiida(TM) one of Australia's best known swimwear and sportswear brands. Designed to assist Muslim women to comfortably and modestly take part in competitive and recreational sports, her swimwear is also in demand from women who want sun safe garments and styles that provide more coverage.
Zanetti's designs and story have resonated culturally, socially and politically both here and overseas and appear in some surprising contexts. The name of her modest swimwear design, the burqini┬«, was selected as Macquarie Dictionary Word of the Year in 2011 and her story was adapted for the short play The Modest Aussie Cozzie by award winning writer Alana Valentine. Zanetti's first name is listed on the online parenting resource BabyCenter India under the article for baby names inspired by fashion designers. Aheda (Zanetti) appears alongside Stella (McCartney) and Gabrielle (Chanel). In 2008, Bahraini sprinter Roqaya Al-Gassra wore Aheda's modest Hijood(R) sportswear when competing at the Beijing Olympic Games.
It was the aftermath of the riots between Lebanese Australians and white Australian youths at Sydney's Cronulla beach in 2005 that transformed Zanetti's small business. The federally funded ┬?On the same wave' program run by Surf Life Saving Australia aimed at building bridges and increasing the ethnic diversity of Surf Life Saving clubs by running training programs for young Muslims. Mecca Laalaa was one of their first recruits and when the media posted a photo of her wearing the burqini(R) in SLSA colours on Cronulla beach the image went viral and Zanetti was inundated with orders. The Australian Trade Commissioner even credited her with rebuilding Australia's international reputation as an egalitarian society after the racist perceptions generated by the riots.
Aheda Zanetti's work reflects a relatively new sector in the Australian fashion industry - the modest fashion market. She is part of a small group of Sydney based Muslim entrepreneurs who are designing, retailing and marketing stylish clothing for the growing number of Muslim women who want to dress creatively and fashionably while still expressing their faith. This swimsuit was acquired as part of the 'Faith, fashion, fusion: Muslim women's style in Australia' exhibition (2012-2013).
Aheda Zanetti, the founder of Ahiida(TM), was born in Lebanon and migrated to Australia with her family when she was two years old. Before entering the design and fashion industry, Aheda trained as a hairdresser and spent much of her life working in sales. "I produced my first garment at the age of ten... I liked producing things for myself when I was growing up... I call myself a creative sewer!".
It was during Aheda's time as a stay-at-home mum of three young children that she came up with the idea for designing modest sports and swimwear. She used to reflect on the types of recreational and sporting activities she couldn't participate in as a child because of her modest dress requirements, most of all swimming. "It got me thinking in regards to clothing", says Aheda. "What will our kids do in the future?... Somebody invited me to watch a netball game and I saw my niece playing in this match. She was the only one veiled. Looking at her, she was all red, red, red ...she wore a pair of tracksuit pants and a skivvy top underneath her uniform... this is when I felt I needed to do something". Initially, Aheda wanted to import goods from overseas but she discovered that not only was there nothing to import, but there was a huge demand for modest active wear all over the world.
Aheda began looking at different fabrics. "I thought, if I was playing netball, for example, what would I want to wear if I participated in something like that? It was a design that was created through the thought of me, how would I feel comfortable?...I think the design also came from the fact that I wanted it to be adaptable with Western culture. So the symbol of the veil with excess fabrics and tucking and so forth did not suit me at all in regards to sport".
The first product Aheda designed was an undergarment known as the hijood. The hijood was intended as a long sleeve top with attached hood which could be worn under a team sports jersey, made from a very breathable, anti-wrinkling fabric that would sit around the wearer's face and enable her to freely move. "She could do hand stands and cartwheels ...there's no excess fabric ...it's got all the wonderful ingredients that go into making you feel as comfortable as possible without worrying about [anything]".
Once the hijood had been designed and manufactured, Aheda started looking into different fabrics to suit other conditions, including swimwear, from which the idea for the burqini emerged. "We looked overseas to find fabrics that would suit ...a swimsuit which was going to be modest wet or dry. That was the whole thing, first design, then modesty ...but the biggest problem was how to keep your chest modest, how to not make it cling onto your body whilst wet". To overcome the latter, Aheda introduced graphic transfers thick enough to prevent the feeling of being exposed. "We wanted to introduce a design where a Muslim woman was going to feel very comfortable wearing it.'
The burqini, which is a play on the words ┬?burqa' and ┬?bikini', was one of the first modest two piece swimsuits designed specifically for Muslim women. "When we first produced the garment, it did extremely well from the first day. We produced samples and took order requests and I would sew them and deliver them within two weeks ...It seemed like it was very difficult for women to swim with their children because of the clothing they were wearing. [The] Cronulla riots [also] turned up which wasn't so far away from the launch of the design ...on the business side of it, it did very well for me because everyone stopped going to the beaches. They were getting threatened and there was a bit of fear. So, where did they go? ...to the pool, [but] you are not allowed to enter the pool wearing clothing". It wasn't long after this that Aheda was approached by Surf Lifesaving Australia to produce a burqini for Muslim surf lifesaver Mecca Laalaa. "When Mecca wore the swimsuit ...it went viral. I had no expectation of this and I was not prepared ...I didn't have enough stock. I was still sewing the swimsuits myself at this time ...I died. We [received] thousands of emails and our system broke down ...it was unbelievable ...including thousands of wholesale enquiries which we couldn't [initially] fulfil".
It was this which transformed Aheda's business from a hobby to a global enterprise. Now, Ahiida retails all over the world. " ...We've got a world map in our office ...we've gone to Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Brazil, Chile, we've sent to Greece, we've sent to Italy, France ...Sudan, Tanzania, South Africa, the Middle East ...everywhere ...you name a country that I haven't sent to and I tell you I have. Unbelievable, we've sent parcels to countries that TNT can't deliver to. So we have to send it through other avenues ...!"
Apart from the burqini, Ahiida also designs and retails modest swimwear for non-Muslim women, including the Sun-Safe 3/4 swimsuit. Recognising the need for swimwear that offered sun protection and more generous coverage than the average swimsuit Aheda created a two piece swimsuit with elbow length sleeves and knee length pants. "I could see that the swimsuit itself was becoming a fashion item ....there were not many modest swimsuits around catering for women in general who want skin protection ...it didn't matter what race, religion, size or colour ...every woman deserves to go and swim and enjoy the sun, surf and sand the Australian way".