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Swim fan: How luxury swimwear became big business

While swimwear has always been a big part of any superyacht owner’s wardrobe, a recent boom in the luxury swim market suggests the rest of the world is catching up. Zoe Dickens investigates.

If you spend the best part of the year following the sunshine from the Caribbean in winter to the Med in summer, as many superyachts and their owners do, then having a wardrobe full of colourful bikinis and printed swim shorts may not seem out of the ordinary. For the rest of the world, however, buying just one or two new pieces before a big vacation was the norm. Until now.

According to data from Allied Market Research, in 2017 the global swimwear market was valued at $18.4 billion. This is expected to rise to $28.1 billion by 2024 – a huge boom for a product once considered seasonal and non-essential. And, while the majority of this will come from mass market brands, the luxury industry is taking a significant slice. High end e-tailer Mr Porter, for example, has tripled the number of swimwear brands it stocks since 2011 with buying director Fiona Firth citing both the emergence of new specialist brands and established fashion houses adding swimwear to their collections as a key driver of this expansion.

“We often compare the current swim market boom to the athleisure market boom, where we are seeing a surge of new brands enter the market, as well as established brands adding the category to their collections,” says Danielle LaMotte, COO of US-based Flagpole NYC. “It feels like the entire category has been injected with a fresh sense of creativity after laying dormant, stuck between Speedos and string bikinis for so long.”

So what is driving this interest? Certainly the upswing in global leisure travel, especially from Asia-Pacific which accounted for 20% of global sales in 2017 but is expected to outpace all other markets in the coming years, is a factor, with retailers and brands alike agreeing that demand is now year-round. However, LaMotte also argues that there may be a generational factor, explaining, “As millennials gain spending power, it is apparent they are more interested in experiences than saving up for an expensive bag. The ability to travel is becoming a marker of one's social status and social media documentation has become an important cultural phenomena. Most people do not want to showcase their trip with boring or repeated swimsuits.”

The ability to travel is becoming a marker of one's social status and social media documentation is important. Most people do not want to showcase their trip with boring or repeated swimsuits.

For Jemima Boost, who co-founded men’s swim brand L’Etale with her husband in 2016, the relative ease of the modern marketplace coupled with increased interest from the menswear sector has been instrumental for small brands. “We live in a world where setting up your own business is much more accessible. It’s easier to communicate with manufacturers around the world and digital marketing and social media mean you don’t need a huge marketing budget. It’s been exciting (and admittedly frustrating) to see the huge number of luxury swimwear brands launch in the last five years. The choices men used to have were floral-casual or fitted-modern trunks but now there are some really great designs out there.”

This focus on a specific gender has been a key trend for new brands entering the swimwear market. While Flagpole targeted the already strong women’s sector (which currently accounts for two thirds of swimwear sales) when it was founded in 2014, more recently it is menswear which has seen the bulk of new launches. Love Brand founder Oliver Tomalin, who created his own swimwear line after becoming frustrated with what was on the market, speculates that increasing consumer knowledge is a big factor. “Blogs and social networks are convincing us that men are fashion-conscious and can spend money on grooming and lifestyle. Women's swim is so well represented. The demand was for men.”

Boost agrees but also adds that, for L’Etale, women’s swim has always been on the agenda, “In swimwear the cut has to be perfect as (for most people) it’s the most exposed you’re ever going to be in public. For women it’s just that bit more complicated and we want to make sure that the cut and style are perfect.” In accordance, many of these previously targeted brands have expanded into new areas on the back of their initial success. Flagpole launched a capsule collection of men’s swim shorts last year while L’Etale offers a bespoke service and children’s swim shorts and Love Brand plans to expand to a whole range of resort products.

But as they become more homogenised how do these companies plan to stand out from the crowd? Sustainability, a fashion industry buzzword that looks set only to grow in importance, will be key. “A good product is not enough anymore. It's about story and emotional buy into brands, not just function,” says Tomalin, whose Love Brand has aligned itself with elephant conservation schemes since launch. Its best-selling Staniel swim short uses a fabric made from 53% recycled plastic bottles while Boost says that L’Etale is also exploring recycled fabrics and aiming to reduce its environmental impact.

In any market though, keeping up with consumer tastes will always be priority number one. “When we started we were told by buyers that women didn’t want one-piece suits or high-waisted bikinis,” says LeMotte of the styles that have made Flagpole such a hit, especially with women who felt ignored by more traditional swimwear brands, Similarly, L’Etale has seen success with its quirky prints, often featuring disparate objects such as croissants or aliens. Meanwhile Firth predicts that, alongside heavy hitters such as Tom Ford, Orlebar Brown (pictured top) and Vilbrequin, new labels like Atalaye, which creates smart styles inspired by the chic French town of Biarritz, will be popular for Mr Porter this season. The only question now is what will you be wearing poolside this summer?

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