26 Aug 2016

Burkini fashion designer: 'What you wear is a personal choice'

4:11 pm on 26 August 2016

The Kiwi designer who has put the burkini on the catwalk has spoken out against bans against the garment, saying women should be able to wear whatever they want.

The burkini on the catwalk at NZFW.

The burkini on the catwalk at NZFW. Photo: Supplied / Michael Ng

As French towns on the Riveria are banning the burkini, Auckland-based swimwear designer Carena West has courted controversy by including one in her show at New Zealand Fashion Week, and says if her burkinis sell she'll look at creating a swimwear range specifically for Muslim women.

The black and white floral print burkini covered the model from head to toe, in the sort of outfit that has divided the French government, with French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declaring the garment represented the "enslavement of women".

The ban by 26 French towns - which followed the July terrorist attack in Nice - has been challenged in the French courts by human rights groups. The controversy intensified this week after pictures of police appearing to force a Muslim woman to remove some of her clothing provoked anger.

But West said she did not see the burkini as a form of religious oppression, saying, "wearing what you want to wear is a personal choice, so whether people want to wear it or not, shouldn't be a debate".

"By France banning a particular item of clothing it makes a statement on their side as well. It's ironic they're trying to force someone to not wear something that they think they're being forced to wear. It seems like a big roundabout".

West, 30, said water safety was also part of her motivation, as she had seen women in the Middle East swimming in full burqas and worried that it was both dangerous and unfashionable.

Assia Benmedjdoub, the editor of Australian fashion magazine Ragtrader, told RNZ the burkini took the audience by surprise when it hit the runway at yesterday's show.

"That was a really nice inclusion. New Zealand as a country has that multi-cultural appeal and is very warm and inviting, so it was great to see that sense of inclusion."

West launched her eponymous label in 2013 and publicity material said it had taken "a social turn", moving its manufacturing from China back to New Zealand.

"Having a brand that is socially responsible is now an integral component of our business - a connection with how each piece is made is incredibly important, as much as the design, fabrication and make," said West.

RNZ fashion podcaster Sonia Sly said the burkini was part of the show's inclusive theme that included few professional models, women of a range of shapes and sizes and the rare sight of "cellulite on the runway". In contrast, the label also showed numerous very revealing bikinis.

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