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A shorts story: Adam Brown, founder of Orlebar Brown

Once upon a time men’s swimwear was a scruffy urchin. Now the top men's swimshorts are all grown up and Adam Brown is definitely the hero. Luke Leitch meets the man behind Orlebar Brown...

Safe on land-locked Westbourne Grove in west London, Adam Brown contemplates his Americano, then confesses. “I am not a natural yachtsman. I’ve always loved the sea and I surf a lot, most often in Cornwall. But I’ll never forget learning to sail as a schoolboy in the Solent: that misery of having to capsize, again and again and again, in the freezing water. They thought it was character-forming, I suppose.”

In a way, though, his teachers were correct: the experience formed Brown’s keenness to avoid any chance of repeated dousings. This is ironic given that today his name – or at least half of it – can be found aboard many of the ocean’s finest craft, stitched into the clothing worn by crew and guests alike. 

The idea for Orlebar Brown (OB) washed into Brown’s consciousness while on holiday, by a pool, in Rajasthan in 2005. He noticed that when the time came to migrate from poolside to bar, the men were hopelessly ill-equipped to navigate the transition in style. “We all looked a bit of a wreck,” Brown recalls. “It was garish board shorts, mostly – just not grown up. The women were dressed terribly well by comparison. And I realised that there was nothing to swim in that could take you respectably into a restaurant, or a bar.” 

The result, after two years of research, re-mortgaging and crossed fingers, was a new type of swimming short: robustly constructed of 17 pieces that include a four-part waistband and the side fasteners that have since become emblematic of the style. Emblematic? Absolutely: these London-made polyamide swim shorts in three lengths – recently increased to four – have become the foundation of one of the fastest-growing British clothing labels of recent years. 

Brown, who had previously toiled as a freelance photographer, became OB’s sole captain after his early backer, a lawyer named Julia Simpson-Orlebar, exited the choppy waters of fashion start-ups. 

Today OB has a reach that stretches far beyond poolside, boat and beach. It encompasses womenswear and its Griffon chino is, I reckon, one of the top three casual men’s trousers on the market (the secret’s in the cut, plus it has those side-fasteners). And yet, despite this increasingly broad offering of landlubber clobber, what defines OB is its articulation of a sophisticatedly stylish relationship between man, woman and water.

Brown coalesced his old profession with the new by creating fastidiously seamed photo-print versions of his trademark shorts – called Editions – many of which feature images of Riviera marinas, palm-accented Caribbean vistas or back-in-the day Miami Beach clubs. He aims to bring a contemporary propriety to the life aquatic. “Some of that came from my grandfather,” he says. “One of the photographs that helped me sketch the identity of Orlebar Brown was taken of my grandfather messing about on a boat in the harbour in Hong Kong. He was wearing a terry towelling shirt – they’re wonderful things – and he was part of that weekend culture of going out on a friend’s boat and combining his social life with his sailing life.”

With the proviso that it’s not in the Solent and the chance of a cold bath is minimal, Brown loves watching life on board. Once there, he is a keen observer of cut and jib. “I’m certainly partial to spending time on [boats] whenever a friend is kind enough to invite me. I was on a boat at Christmas in the Caribbean. We were picked up by this RIB and the crew looked so chic that I felt absolutely shabby by comparison.”

Brown says his company “is often asked to produce uniforms for crew. And the question I ask myself whenever this happens is: ‘If we become known as providers of kit for crews, will the guests want to wear Orlebar Brown, too?’ And to be honest I’m not always sure they will”. He is also surprised by the diversity of colour in which aspiring clients wish to uniform their crews. “Boats almost become brands. The people who run them are looking for ways to further their brand – and clothing is a straightforward way of doing that. There is navy and white, of course – the starting point for any nautical colour scheme – but now black is becoming very popular for crew kit and we’ve had requests for orange and grey. There seems to be a growing demand that the simplicity of urban life is reflected on a boat: chic, pared-down clothes.”

More frequently than it provides crew uniform, Orlebar Brown will accept special commissions for guests. “We have been asked to put images of a particular yacht on a run of shorts, which are then given as gifts to guests on board. And we are happy to do that – we’ve done it a few times now. That photography element is something I really like, and the discovery of one-off images that are used in a limited edition. The result is a sign of membership.”

Orlebar Brown is sold in its own shops and department stores around the world, but has four main retail yacht-spots. “There’s Cannes, Saint-Tropez, East Hampton – although you don’t quite have that superyacht mentality there – and we have just opened in Knokke, which is like the Hamptons of Belgium. The polo shirts and the swim shorts do especially well in those places, but so do the lightweight jackets and the rash vests, too. People especially like rash vests. I think that’s because you can wear them in and out of the water (maybe if you are windsurfing off the boat); they stop you from getting sunburnt and they look quite sexy, too.” 

The only incongruous element in Brown’s rise to outfitter to so many have-yachts is that he doesn’t have one himself. Soon, I suspect, he might well be in the position to succumb.

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