Inside The Luxury Swim Shorts Boom

How tailored trunks became big business

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Alton Towers recently took the step of banning Speedos.

In France, there’s the opposite concern: step into a lido, water park or public piscine in anything other than small, tight trunks and they’re liable to alert the authorities.

A law dating back to 1903 bans swim shorts on hygiene grounds: whereas swim briefs may only be used for swimming, goes the thinking, Bermudas and other styles of shorts worn outside the pool are more likely to get dirty and contaminate the water.

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There are genuine reports of noncompliant foreigners being fished out by lifeguards, baggies first.

Men’s swimwear is a tricky thing.

On the one hand, the market has been characterised by nine-inch board shorts and graphics targeting teenagers, on the other are the dreaded budgie smugglers.

Even if swimming happens to be your job, the style authorities haven’t always been helpful: Stella McCartney joked that the hardest part of designing the Team GB kit for the 2012 Olympics were the trunks — there was nowhere to put the logo. When brands have targeted customers who aren’t sixth formers or athletes, they tended to have a specific demographic in mind: the surfer on Bondi Beach, the gay man in Mykonos or the old boy sailing round Capri.

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There was little going for the regular guy who just wanted to feel comfortable (or at least, not too uncomfortable) by the pool: the style-literate demographic who had the rest of their wardrobe sorted, but who’d never paid their swimmers much heed. But the last few years have seen a new wave of brands rising to fill this gap: luxury men’s swimwear is now a booming market.

These days there are labels who recognise men’s swimming trunks as a broader lifestyle proposition, one that can be produced and promoted like any other designer product.

Indeed, the evolution of the market has been compared to that of denim, 15 or 20 years ago. Brands like Orlebar Brown, whose tailored trunks are not so much swim shorts but “shorts you can swim in”, Frescobol Carioca, a label set up by two British stockbrokers inspired by Brazilian beach culture, and Dan Ward, “swimwear designed with an urban edge and flow effortlessly from beach to deck or to elegant summer cocktail”, established in 2012 by a former design and merchandising boss for Dunhill and Hermès.

There already existed the luxury Saint-Tropez brand Vilebrequin, whose flamboyant printed shorts have been kitting out the private-yacht set since the Seventies and whose prices range from the expensive (£120) to the extraordinarily so: their limited-edition Golden Turtle trunks are embroidered with 24-carat gold and retail at £5,300.

The global swimwear market is expected to reach $19.3bn by 2018, driven to a large degree by male customers and the luxury brands now catering for them. Men as a whole are cottoning on to the idea it would be good to put effort into choosing their beachwear, something women have had to deal with since the invention of the bikini.

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In that respect, we may factor in a new body consciousness for men, driven by diet, grooming and sports stars (David Beckham has launched his own swimwear line), and an increased scrutiny on the holiday wardrobes of the rich and famous (David Cameron’s annual denim-shirt-and-loafers fish-market disaster, for example). When the online retailer Mr Porter opened for business in 2011, it stocked two or three swimwear brands. Today it sells a dozen. In 2014, Vilebrequin had one of its busiest years yet, turning over £12m.

Another online retailer, matchesfashion.com, has launched a dedicated “vacation studio” on its website, created, says menswear buyer Damien Paul, “as a response to the increased demand we were seeing for luxury swimwear. Men have come to realise that a tired, baggy old pair of shorts won’t cut it. A flattering, neatly cut pair of swim shorts is now viewed as a wardrobe essential. Our clients look to brands like MYO, Robinson Les Bains and Thaddeus O’Neil.”

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But it was Orlebar Brown that revolutionised the market.

Launched in 2008 with 1,000 pairs of shorts sold from a spare room in its founder’s Earls Court flat, the London brand steered away from the youth demographic to market itself to affluent professionals who were versed in the language of smart clothes and were comfortable (or at least, not too uncomfortable) putting down £125 for a pair of trunks.

It stood apart for other reasons, too. Orlebar Brown’s products displayed a level of tailoring more typical of suit trousers: they were based on a 17-piece pattern, with a four-part waistband, a zip fly, darts at the back, zip back pockets, two-deep side-angle front pockets and carried distinctive engraved metal side fasteners replacing the internal drawstring. (Can it be coincidence their most recent London store opening overlooks Savile Row?)

They were made of unbrushed polyamide fabric and came with a lightweight mesh net lining designed to be both flattering to the figure and quick-drying, hence the idea of them as “transitional shorts”, as suitable for sipping a beer by the pool as pouring the wine over dinner. They came neatly pressed and folded in their own cloth bag (later this was changed to a water-resistant version) emblazoned with their smart modernist logo.

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The emphasis was on classic design and premium materials: shorts that weren’t age or place specific, but would look equally good on a yacht in Saint-Tropez or the Blue Marlin in Ibiza.

“Orlebar Brown was one of the first new brands for a long time to define ‘best in class’ in a particular category,” says Terry Betts, director of menswear at Selfridges. “Combining both technical development to fit, there is a stylish sexiness to the brand that means it has captured two sides of the swimwear market.”

Even if you were packing them for a trip no more glamorous than taking your toddler for a swim at the local pool, they were a pleasure to pull on: with a comfort and a fit reminiscent of a favoured cashmere jumper.

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It wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine yourself in a Slim Aarons pool scene, or the notion you were tapping into a piece of Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr Ripley or Alain Delon in La Piscine.

The jet-set agreed, and Orlebar Browns were soon sported by celebrities including Jay Z and Cristiano Ronaldo and, clearly taking notes, David Cameron. When 007 Daniel Craig wore a pair of sky-blue Setter Orlebar Browns during a Shanghai pool scene in Skyfall, sales quadrupled: the effects are still being felt now.

They remain one of the company’s best sellers. “Orlebar has become the swimsuit of the moment,” approved Vanity Fair. “You’d be hard-pressed to go to the Hamptons without seeing all of the chic men wearing these.”

Today, the band is stocked in more than 250 stores worldwide, including Selfridges, Harrods, Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys New York, as well as the company’s fast-expanding directly operated retail network. In 2014, the business turned over £12m, up from £7m the year before.

Orlebar Brown’s founder, Adam Brown, had the idea for the company in 2005. Appropriately enough, he was on holiday at the time.

Orlebar Brown Founder Adam Brown

“I looked around the pool and I realised that while the women all looked great, the men didn’t,” he says. “It was a big group. Ages ranged from 25 to 50, and every one of the men had to go and get changed for lunch. So that was the key first observation, the key moment I realised that when men went from pool to bar they were either looking incongruously scruffy, or were having to go off and get changed.”

Brown had no fashion or retail background, so he started from scratch. A course at Central St Martins helped him “learn how to draw” and was followed by a three-day Start Your Own Business session at London’s Portobello Business Centre. He partnered with an old college friend, Julia Simpson-Orelebar (who left the business amicably in 2008), and using a storage unit in Fulham, they began selling their shorts in four styles.

Brown used savings, bank loans and remortgaged his flat. For the first two years he did everything himself: from ironing the shorts to standing in queues in post offices doing the customer returns. He says he was confident he had a product that was unique and would sell.

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Indeed, much like “winter sunglasses” before them, he had effectively invented a category no one knew they needed until they knew they needed it. And once you cross that line, it’s difficult to go back. (Brown says a significant percentage of shoppers are repeat customers buying the same shorts in different colour ways, or to gift to friends.) Today his styles include Bulldog, Springer and Dane II (Brown owns dogs) with prices ranging from £125 to £245. “Two-hundred-and-fifty pounds is a lot of wedge,” he concedes.

The brand has been saturated in summer azure from the start.

Bathe in the balmy glow of orlebarbrown.co.uk, and spotting what seduces so many men to spend so much actually proves reasonably straightforward. The most expensive come in a series called Editions, a name which pretty easily communicates the fact that the number of each design is strictly limited – hence the exclusivity.

Each set of Editions is uniquely decorated. Most are printed with photographs, while some come embroidered with figurative line drawings – variously tattoo whorls (a bit Maharishi-esque) and cityscapes. The photographs are by far the best: in these swimmers, you’d be wearing your dream holiday even if you’re not yet living it.

Contemporary Australian photographer Jon Frank – an unironic Down Under Martin Parr – has provided a dreamily soft-focus sea and skyscape whose horizon bisects the shorts at the crucial equator of waistband and hem. (Orlebar Brown is big on collaborations. Other limited runs have seen it pair with Bill Amberg, Eley Kishimoto and Alan Aldridge.)

Others are digitally imprinted with vintage images found by someone with an excellent eye from the depths of the Hulton/Getty archive.

These seductive vistas include an aerial view of a Riviera marina taken from so high that the yachts seem like a finely drafted pattern, via a school of surfers dropping in on the same endless Oahu wave, to a mid-century waterskiing vista shot from a boat off La Croisette.

Somehow every cropped element of the image is stitched in perfect fit with its neighbour to ensure the wearer has a flawless, 360-degree panorama of each still-life paradise around his unmentionables.

This is the OB USP. You could easily forgo some Editions shorts and get yourself down to John Lewis where they’ll sell you a pair of Speedos for £20. But, hey. They might be swimwear’s equivalent of the £5 pint or the £1m studio flat – items that breach a hitherto unimaginable price threshold – but these are shorts so beguiling and so beautiful that it barely seems to matter.

At my screen, staring deep into a Slim Aarons-shot pair of OB’s whose mise en scène features a couple chilling on a palm-fringed beach alongside a glorious scarlet Morgan, jet-set fantasies stir.

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Jet-set fantasies don’t necessarily involve an early-morning EasyJet flight to a factory in Portugal, but nevertheless that is where I’m heading.

This morning, I find myself outside Petratex, the factory where Orlebar Brown’s swim shorts are made.

I’m here with Brown and some of his chief OB lieutenants – production manager Alyona Bounetska and production assistant Francesca Pink – to observe the development of those photo-print designs as they proceed down the production line. Petratex specialises in producing high-spec ready-to-wear for both men and women.

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Over the next few hours, I see garments that were mid-production for what looks like an impressive portfolio of Spring/Summer 2015 clients – that foliage print must be Marni; the raised, ridged neoprene looks like Alexander Wang’s Balenciaga and that plisse, surely, is Chloé.

Supplementing these titans of womenswear is the high-performance sportswear: I spot Rapha jackets and unmissable – thanks to a hoarding downstairs – is the revelation that Petratex co-developed and manufactured the Speedo LZR full-body swimsuit in which Michael Phelps won so many golds at the Beijing Olympics. (It was later banned for being an unfair advantage.) I’ve languished in many a fashion manufacturing facility in my time, and of all of them, only two top-tier in-house Italian factories – MaxMara and Canali – matched this Portuguese upstart for tech-heavy R&D.

Petratex's Photo Printer

Over a canteen lunch, Petratex’s profoundly caffeinated CEO, Sergio Neto, explains that once he realised some years ago that the company’s less-exacting clients would inevitably decamp en masse for low-cost Asian manufacturing, his best option was to carve out a niche at the very top of the market. “Now,” he says during one of his regular 20 espressos a day, “we are expanding.”

Which is where Orlebar Brown comes in. Until a few years ago, Adam Brown’s swimwear – which back then, pre-Editions, were all plain or pattern-print polyamide – were rustled up in a small factory in North London. But as the OB formula took shape and the brand’s reputation grew, demand outstripped the supply that London could offer. Bounetska (whose mother runs the London factory), was established as the conduit contact between Orlebar Brown’s headquarters in London and Petratex just outside Porto.

Today, Bounetska and Neto ensure that every pair of Orlebar Brown swim-shorts pass through a minimum 12-stage manufacture process. Italian zippers on the fly and the back pocket are applied by hand, although the pocket itself and darts are machine applied.

The wide, tailored waistband that is such a key OB feature (neither elastic nor drawstring will ever unattractively cut into the waistline of any OB man) is made of between four and six pieces of material, to ensure it rests just so. Also hand fitted are those side adjusters, made in Italy from a metal compound whose shininess will resist tarnishing by both chlorine or salt, and which allow for the most delicate adjustment as the wearer’s silhouette ebbs and flows.

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As we admire a Willy Wonka-esque hydraulic logistics system, I spot an enormous large sack of those side adjusters waiting for their turn to be fitted on the production line. Neto reckons Petratex has nearly 50,000 side fasteners in stock, “and we will need many more than that this year”. Ergo, Petratex is making a great many of these high-end swim shorts.

Producing exclusive, photo-print Editions shorts is the most labour-intensive brief on Neto’s books. In part, their premium price is due to the fact that every pair is made of two layers of material. The images are printed on a thin outer layer then heat bonded onto a nylon inner. Brown is frustrated that as yet he has not found a fabric, like the beloved French-sourced polyamide used in his first generation shorts, that are quick drying but retain an almost organic, cotton feel, and which can take a print directly. “When we do, though,” he says, “it will be perfect.”

The further price-spiking aspect of OB Editions – licencing costs notwithstanding – is that for every different size of short, each photograph must be individually templated to ensure that key 360-degree panorama is unblemished from seam to seam. So, say, if one Editions design features 200 pairs of shorts in ten sizes, every panel that makes up every run of 20 needs to be separately scanned and cut before sewing.

The Petratex technician responsible for this is hunched over his Apple, mouse in hand, deliberating the finer points of an image showing a sea of sun umbrellas.

Does it take a long time to make each image fit each size of each short? “A long time?” he repeats. “You could say that, yes.”

As for Brown, at first he seems startled to see that a large, exclusively OB office has been set up since his last visit here. Inside it, working solely on his company’s orders and production flow, are eight Portuguese staff members he has never met before: like Pink, like Bounetska, and like the 100 Orlebar Browners who now number his staff in London, here are still more people whose livelihood is OB-based. Brown suddenly appears nervous to meet them. He is very English — but proud.

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And yet, Brown might be just a smidgen nonplussed by all this swim short emphasis. Since 2012, Orlebar Brown has reshaped his company to no longer live exclusively by the pool, beach, or promenade. Back then, his non-swim offering comprised a few shirts, some bought-in shoes and a cut of chinos so flattering – they’re called Griffon – they deserve an article of their own.

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Today, Brown's company has evolved from water-based minnow-with-prospects to bona-fide trans-seasonal contender. They now produce a great deal of clothing – more than 300 pieces – of an impressive scope and quality: piqué-cotton polo shirts, own-brand shoes, Harringtons, cashmere and lambswool knits, sunglasses, even jersey-necked down gilets. According to Brown, more than half of his sales are now non-swimwear.

At Selfridges, Terry Betts estimates that broadening its selection has helped Orlebar Brown increase sales by 50 per cent between 2013 and 2014. Either way, this burgeoning empire was built on swim shorts. And until the brainwave that began Orlebar Brown hit him, nothing especially much suggested that here, in Adam Brown, was the stuff of a menswear tycoon-in-waiting. Apart, maybe, from an inordinate fondness of clothes: “I love shopping, and have always loved fabric. I’ve spent way too much on clothes in the past.” His was a career that had eddied from fundraiser to another love, photographing society girls, children and, of course, dogs. “I became a rather bad portrait photographer – I was rubbish!”

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In London, Brown went hunting for swimwear smart enough to bear that transition: instead he found his own. “I went up and down Bond Street, and to the department stores. And the main thing that struck me was that while Ralph Lauren and Prada and almost every designer brand had swim as part of its collection, it was always an aside, an afterthought, never the focus. And yes, there were brands like Vilebrequin, Sundek, O’Neill, Mambo, Hot Tuna… but they all had either a very strong surf element or a very strong Riviera element.”

Brown had a glimmer, he sensed, of two gaps in the market. In swimwear, nobody made shorts that were seemly, smart, fitted and sleek. “And from the ready-to-wear side, the fashion side, nobody had ever thought to look at swim and think, ‘What is the life that goes on around that?’”

The Orlebar Brown website went online in March 2007, offering four lengths of Brown’s design in five colours.

But the company’s first sale happened five months earlier in a branch of Starbucks on Kensington High Street: “I’d had the shorts made up, and they were sitting in a storage unit. I met with friend of mine from Oxford Polytechnic. She bought a pair of Dane [OB’s longest short, with a 26cm inseam] in sky blue, size 36, as a Christmas present for her husband. I don’t know if he still has them, but the receipt is framed in my office. They were made in London, in Alyona’s mother’s factory.”

A month later, Brown reports: “I was in Soho House Miami sitting around the pool on a Sunday afternoon, and I looked around and counted 18 pieces of Orlebar. That gave me a huge kick. And what I loved was that it wasn’t just shorts and T-shirts.”

Quality fabrics key in the production process

Fashion, though, is ruthlessly self-referencing: and thus the company that discovers that men are willing to shell out for even the most basic of necessities, provided the quality is there, have found themselves flattered by imitators.

There was Marcello Conti, which three years ago produced a louche but lovely collection of gold-zippered, mother-of-pearl-buttoned, print swim shorts, made in China, which now seems to have faded away. And in 2012, Dan Ward founded his eponymous luxury swim brand that charges up to £175 on Mr Porter for its mid-length shorts. Perhaps most akin of all to the OB model is Frescobol Carioca, which began as a Brazilian wooden bat-and-ball beach-game project run by two schoolmates turned City financiers.

They recruited Oliver Benjamin – a gifted tailor and clothier whose shop at London's Ludgate Circus, near Fleet Street, is well worth hunting down – to make an FC short whose waist-adjusters are buttoned instead of buckled, and which, when plain or patterned (in prints lifted from the mosaic pavements of famous Brazilian beach promenades), sell for £145.

With only eight staff members, Frescobol Carioca has established a wholesale network of 300 retailers around the world and opened two stores of its own, both in London. Its products are extremely fine.

“Adam was the pioneer of the tailored trunk, and it’s great what he did – it has opened people’s eyes to tailored swimwear,” says Max Leese, one of FC’s founders. “We come at it from a different angle, though. Our customers love the uniqueness of our prints, particularly their origin, coming from the sidewalks seen along the Rio beaches, Copacabana and Ipanema. Everyone loves Brazil and wants a piece of it.”


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Back in the Petratex quality control lab, as our group discusses the finer points of Neto’s online garment-tracking and review system, I watch Brown drift to a rail of samples and flick idly through. The label on one pale linen shirt makes him throw up his hands in mock horror. That label says Frescobol; Neto looks fleetingly sheepish, but not very. Despite the competition, Orlebar Brown’s position seems established, its future sunny.

When I hypothesise that some heavy-investing super-fund might at some point step in to snap it up, Brown doesn’t recoil at the idea of being left to devote more time to his husband and his dogs – and to muse poolside in search of the next big idea.

On the plane out, mid-croissant, he had run through a draft of the speech he had planned for the next office party. He gave me a taster: “I think we’ve grown from being a toddler and we are now reaching adolescence: ultimately we are progressing in life. We are definitely at that stage now where everything is growing very fast. So we are thinking about retail concept, about planning – are there gaps in the range, unit costs, different territories, supply base issues? All those things become increasingly important.”

After a chew, he added: “Whereas at the beginning, all you want to do is get a product made and sell it. At the beginning you are just grateful to be alive.”  

orlebarbrown.co.uk

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