Wednesday, June 12, 2013

FT Weekend: Sea Change for Swimwear

Will new collaborations bridge the gap between function and fashion? 
Fashion has spent the past few seasons in love with surf culture, borrowing wetsuit neoprene for everything from cocktail frocks to short suits. Could it be that surf culture is starting to fall in love with fashion? As riding the waves becomes more and more popular with the thrill-seeking smart set – Douglas Bensadoun, creative director of footwear company Aldo; MTV founder Bob Pittman; and Sisley’s chief Philippe d’Ornano are all clients of pro-surfer-turned-teacher Terry Simms – the need to look good on board, while still obeying certain technical requirements, has never been greater.

Consider the fashion brands peddling surf­wear collaborations this season; from the hook-up between Club Monaco and one of America’s oldest surf brands, Katin, to Diane Von Furstenberg and Roxy – which adds classic DVF prints to the surfer-girl line – and Proenza Schouler’s capsule collection for Net-A-Porter, which explores surf-inspired classics such as the board short and the Baja pullover, only in luxury fabrics.

According to Julie Gilhart, former fashion director at Barney’s and obsessive surfer, “Surfing’s connection with natural and healthy living is aspirational and good for brands” – though she also notes that many women’s bathing suits are more suitable for lounging around at “surf camp” than braving the rough surf of Hawaii.
Calavera Swimwear modelled by UK Women’s Surfing Champion Evie Johnston

Gilhart recommends a string bikini, with the strings tied extra tight. “Even then, it can fly off,” she says. She likes Tori Praver Swimwear (tops from $99, bottoms from $93) and Bantu ($180 for a bikini set). Praver, for example, grew up in Hawaii and her partner is surfer/Chanel cologne model Danny Fuller, while Bantu is an African-produced swim brand.

Anna Jerstrom, a surfer and swimwear designer originally from Stockholm, launched Calavera Swimwear (modelled by UK Women’s Surfing Champion Evie Johnston) out of frustration with bikini tops that flew off when riding waves. After quitting her banking job and moving to Costa Rica to learn to surf, she quickly found that fashionable swimwear did not stay on: “It was like having to go to the gym in a cocktail dress.” To make her suits tougher, she has added fillers to the top strings, for less give, and bottoms that have a non-elastic string hidden inside the waistband that can be pulled snug. One design, “the glam twist top” ($49) took six months to perfect.

Mikoh, by the Miller Sisters, Kalani and Oleema, who are half-Polynesian and half-Scottish, is another label with serious surfing roots. The sisters grew up in California where they surfed and modelled for Quiksilver’s women’s brand Roxy. Now in their twenties, they are on the world surfing circuit. “I love going surfing in a more fashion-forward bikini,” says Kalani. Their suits are seamless and hardware free, and the bikinis are double-lined; they have a huge following on Instagram, as well as fans such as Cameron Diaz and the Kardashians.
Swimwear by Cynthia Rowley
Swimwear by Cynthia Rowley

Fabric is key, according to Nicky Zimmermann, who launched her eponymous brand after growing up in a beachside area of Sydney, and who favours nylon Lycra. Cynthia Rowley, the New York designer who offers a full swim collection alongside her ready-to-wear and is also a keen surfer, agrees.

“I think there’s a sporty element, especially because of the escapist fantasy of surfing, and this seeps into swim,” she says, though she also notes swimwear for surfing has technical challenges: does it ride up when you are popping up on a board? Can you move your arms and paddle? It can’t have skimpy little strings, nor can it have a big knot on the top of the swimsuit, or a plastic zipper on the front (wax gets stuck in zippers).

And of course, swimwear that is tough enough for the surf but pretty enough for on-shore also has some advantages for those with no interest in waves.

As Calavera’s Jerstrom says, anyone who plays beach sports, competes in triathlons or has a toddler with a yen for pulling on their bikini might see it as valuable investment.