France's burkini controversy is boosting the bottom line for Israeli makers of modest swimwear. The country, home to large populations of conservative Jewish and Muslim women, has cultivated a local industry of modest swimsuits, and the full-body outfits that have caused uproar in France have been a common sight on Israeli beaches for several years.
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Marci Rapp was among the first to enter the industry after she moved to Jerusalem from Toronto in 2008. The warm Mediterranean climate presented a fashion challenge because she keeps her arms and legs covered, in keeping with Jewish rules of modesty.
"I had nothing to wear," she said. "I couldn't find something that was suitable for me to feel comfortable when I was more covered."
Rapp started the MarSea Modest swimwear company, which sells dresses, shorts, shirts and head coverings made of lightweight, chlorine-resistant Italian fabric, sewn in Tel Aviv. Business has grown at least 10 percent a year since she started, she said, in part due to her energetic sales tactics – such as handing out flyers to women wearing drenched long skirts at the beach.
Only a few of her clients are Muslim, Rapp says, because they require more conservative swimwear than she offers. The burkini, coined by an Australian-Lebanese designer about a decade ago, covers the head, torso and limbs with lightweight swim fabric. Rapp's swimsuits do not include hoods, which most observant Muslim women prefer, and many of her styles do not reach to the wrists and ankles.
Nevertheless, Rapp said the burkini controversy has drawn attention to her company, which she runs out of her Jerusalem living room, and has bumped her sales by a few percentage points, though she declined to provide sales figures. Her swimsuits sell for about $100.
Rapp said she was baffled by the decision of several French towns to ban full-body swimwear. The ban was later overturned by France's top court, the Council of State. As a result, the ban is likely to be lifted across France, but only once a legal challenge is brought to the local courts of each of the 30 or so French municipalities affected.
"What does a woman do in France who wants to cover up for sun protection or who wants to cover up some scarring, or if she is a little overweight and she doesn't want to wear a bikini?" she asked. "It doesn't make any sense that they are banning a specific type of modest swimwear. It's very racist to me."
Itay Yaacov, a journalist at the fashion site Xnet, estimated that over the last decade, about a dozen Israeli companies have begun making modest swimwear. The outfits have become a global trend, he added, saying even secular women have begun pairing long sleeved shirts with bikini bottoms. Most Israeli companies are small and cater to the local market, he said.
But some have greater reach. Anat Yahav started the SunWay company to make UV-protective clothing for children in 1998 with headquarters north of Tel Aviv. Then, she said, Muslim customers asked her to make an adult model with long sleeves, legs and hoods. Finally, Jewish women chimed in and requested short-sleeved and three-quarter length dresses and pants. Today, Yahav runs three company shops in Israel and exports worldwide via her site, Amazon and distributors in Greece, Germany, New Zealand and the United States.
Yahav said the uproar in France increased her sales and gave her a sense of pride at Israeli acceptance of the conservative swimwear. She boasted that she has never had a case where a customer was kicked out of a pool for covering up.
"Finally we are the normal ones," she said with a chuckle.
Sahab Nasser sells SunWay burkinis at her lingerie shop in Tira, a mostly Muslim town in central Israel. She said she sold burkinis for four years before she finally bought one so she could accompany her three-year-old daughter in the pool. It has been life-changing for her and other Muslim women, she said, because previously they would stay out of the water while the men and children in their families would go swimming.
"The burkini has let [Arab women] go to the beach, spend quality time with the family, to go to mixed gender pools, to swim with their families and feel comfortable, without criticism," she said. "Who said the bikini is the right look for the beach?"