We’re all doing our best to have a good late-pandemic summer, Delta be damned. And any great summer includes beach days in all their glory: salty waves, sun on your face, sand everywhere, trying to turn the pages of your beach read with wet fingers. What could be better?
But the beach can be a charged place for anyone who has struggled, in the face of diet culture and problematic beauty standards, to accept their body. If you’re religiously observant and want to dress modestly, the question of what to wear to the ocean can feel even more fraught.
Enter Anava — which means “humility” or “modesty” in Hebrew. Anava is a Paris-based brand with a modest swimwear collection started by Modern Orthodox, Jewish-by-choice designer Déborah Couturier (@afroyiddish on Instagram). Here’s how the collection self-describes in a “manifesto” on their website: “Our collection is a concentrate of joie de vivre and diversity where each woman is invited to reveal her femininity in subtlety: from the one-piece to the two-piece, to the swimming costume set, there is something for everyone!” They’re eco-conscious and also partner with a school in Abidjan to donate books.
I spoke to Déborah via email about what inspired her to start Anava, her personal Judaism journey and more.
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
What was your relationship to Judaism growing up? What is it now?
I used to be a Christian. I grew up in a very Catholic environment, living with my mother. Later on, I started to wonder about Christianity. I realized that I had been taking catechism classes since I was 3 years old, but in the end I felt that I didn’t know a lot. So I decided to go deeper.
At a certain point, I started to be interested in Judaism, since the Old Testament of the Christian bible is the Torah. So I wondered what the differences were between the two religions, apart from Jesus. Many of the fundamental principles of Judaism spoke to me much more, and as I delved deeper, I began to wonder if I should convert. I thought I was crazy at first, and besides, I didn’t have any Jewish people around me at the time.
I’ll give you a short version of the story, but one thing led to another and I began to meet people who were instrumental in my journey. While asking questions, I learned about lost souls. I thought to myself that maybe I was a lost soul. Again, I thought to myself that I was crazy. How could I be a lost soul? So again, I put the idea of converting aside. But the more time passed, the more I continued to delve, the more the question of converting to Judaism came up.
Until finally, one day, in the middle of the night, I woke up and decided to look into converting. I was 20 years old. I thought to myself, this is not at all what I had planned in my life. But I said to myself, “You know what, you have always dreamed of going to Israel.” (I am passionate about history and religion.) “Go there and you will see.”
In the meantime, while in high school I had reconnected with my father. We saw each other from time to time. Before I left for Israel, I visited him. He didn’t know that I was thinking of converting. In a random conversation, he told me that he was a Jew from Poland; that he grew up in Alsace, Moselle; that my great-grandparents left Poland for France; that they died the same week. At that time some children were sent to Catholic institutions, which was the case of my father. He never wanted to talk to me about his experience afterwards. But then I thought, maybe I’m a lost soul after all.
So, I went to Israel, alone with my backpack. I met extraordinary people in equally extraordinary ways. At the end of my trip, I had no doubt. I started my conversion to Judaism in October 2016 and I completed it in December 2018.
Wow, that’s an incredible story. Can you tell me a bit more about your family history?
My mother was born in Côte d’Ivoire. We originally come from Ghana, with distant origins from Egypt. And my father was born in France and is of Hungarian, Polish and Portuguese origin.
What was your relationship with fashion like as a teenager? How has it changed?
I have always liked fashion and dressing up. My last name, Couturier, means “tailor” in French. (My great-grandparents changed their original last name for a French one. We don’t know what the original Jewish name was.) My mother often bought me sewing machines to play with, and when I was younger, I wanted to be a fashion designer.
I ended up studying law. I have a master’s degree in business law, and I started practicing as a lawyer in U.S. tax and investment funds. But although I really enjoyed the subject matter, I realized that I needed to do something more creative.
So when did you first think of the idea for Anava?
When I converted, I started dressing more modestly, and it was not easy to find swimsuits that I liked — and especially not to feel stigmatized at the beach. With Anava, when I wear a covered swimsuit, most people don’t realize that I’m wearing it out of religious conviction. They just think it’s a stylish, dressy swimsuit.
Many women during the summer have sent me messages on Instagram saying that they don’t see themselves wearing a covered swimsuit-dress, but at the same time they don’t see themselves wearing a bikini. That’s how I came up with the idea of creating swimsuits that can speak to all women. The idea is to offer alternatives with different levels of coverage.
How have people reacted?
I have had a lot of positive feedback so far. The quality of the fabric is highly valued, which was also missing in the tsniut swimwear market. Many women who are not Jewish or who do not wear covering swimsuits out of religious conviction are interested in the swimsuits — they want to reveal their femininity in a more subtle way.
How is the company eco-conscious?
We try not to use any plastic. We haven’t reached our zero plastic goal yet but we are working on it. For example, our panty liners are still made of plastic but we are looking for an alternative to that.
What is your relationship to the school in Abidjan to which you donate books?
I am of Ivorian origin and very close with the Chabad of Côte d’Ivoire, which is very established in Abidjan. It is for this reason that I decided to get involved in a cause that is close to my heart and that I believe in. I believe that education is the future and that everyone should have access to it regardless of their social environment.
Are there designs you’re particularly proud of? Major collaborations?
The Ella wrap is our best seller. It’s also one of the swimsuits that took me the longest to design because I had to make it so that you can’t see the chest when you lift your arms. It’s really the swimsuit I saw myself wearing at the beach: covered but not too covered, while remaining elegant and really feminine. I sometimes wear it with a skirt for a walk on the beach.
Favorite beachy destinations?
Tel Aviv, Africa — I would like to discover more of Africa — and Bali. (I stayed in Bali throughout the whole pandemic, for a year and a half. I am currently producing my swimwear there.)
Jacquemus and Cult Gaia.
Where else do you draw inspiration from?
The South of France, Bali, Africa, sun and beach!
What’s next for you?
Expanding further in the U.S. – in Miami and California, we already sell in some places in New York — and also in Africa.