NEW YORK, United States — Inside the West 4th Street subway station in Greenwich Village, a gaggle of young male tourists meander down a tunnel toward a platform to catch the uptown train. Along the way, they crane their necks to ogle the brightly coloured advertisements that line the walls: nearly life-sized photos of dozens of women sporting candy-hued swimsuits, courtesy of the swimwear brand Summersalt. The models span a huge variety of ages, sizes and ethnicities. On the right, a septuagenarian poses in a hot pink one piece. Further down, a young woman in a hijab and tunic, also pink, smiles.
“Everybody is a Beach Body,” the ad copy reads. “Confidence included.”
Overkill is the point for Summersalt’s founders, Reshma Chamberlin and Lori Coulter. Their latest campaign, launched last month, also includes sponsored Instagram posts, taxi toppers, a 28-page catalogue and a Times Square billboard coming later this summer.
“We want Summersalt to be the brand women think of when they think swimsuits,” Coulter told BoF — a “category killer,” she later added.
It will be a long and expensive road to the top. Global swimwear sales totalled $21.7 billion last year and are growing at a time when overall apparel spending is flat, according to Euromonitor. With no clear market leader, dozens, if not hundreds, of brands are crowding into the category, from venture capital-funded start-ups like Summersalt and Andie to global fast-fashion players like Asos and Boohoo and even Victoria’s Secret, which recently reintroduced swimwear after exiting the space in 2016.
Swimwear is thriving as consumers spend more on travel. The category is at the forefront of the “lifestyle” approach to fashion. Brands hope consumers will associate their bikinis and trunks as part of a memorable experience, whether it’s visiting an exotic beach or lounging by the pool.
Remember you’re not selling swimwear, you’re selling what it looks like to be on a yacht off of the Island of Capri.
“For us, we are not a swimwear brand,” said Adam Brown, the co-founder of Orlebar Brown, which was acquired by Chanel last year and is on track to hit €25 million ($31.4 million) in revenue this year. “We’re using the ethereal theme of holiday — memories, time with friends and families in a fabulous place, that’s really what we sell.”
Plus, swimsuits are tailor-made for Instagram.
The social media platform is ground zero for the swimwear boom, with ever-more brands targeting men and women with low-priced and eye-catching, if sometimes impractical designs. Instagram’s algorithm plays a role; a user who clicks on an ad for a tiny $6 thong bikini will be served up many, many more.
“I've already spent too much on swimsuits. Because of your ads. So [please] replace the swim ads with bank account apps or [something] healthier,” one woman wrote on Twitter.
Small indie brands will come and go, and there is room for multiple $5 million- or $10 million-companies in the swimwear category, said Sam Kaplan, a venture partner at Burch Creative Capital, whose portfolio includes swimwear brand Solid & Striped.
“But if you’re looking to build a major swimwear brand ... I would say the space is too saturated for that,” he said.
Big or small, to garner any market share in this sea of brands today, swimwear companies must find new ways to stand out.
Get the most out of e-commerce
There’s a reason why the internet is rife with swimwear, bra and underwear startups: consumers are reluctant to try on intimate garments in a fitting room.
“People just don’t want to try on swimwear in a store,” said Araks Yeramyan, founder of lingerie and swimwear brand Araks, which is sold by MatchesFashion, Needsupply and Browns, among others.
Selling online comes with its own headaches — customers return swimwear at a higher rate than other apparel, according to Kaplan — but it’s also a chance for brands to engage directly with their customers.
Melisa Denizeri, who launched her namesake swimwear brand online this year, said she offers free returns and exchanges, and take in customer feedback about fit and coverage.
Just as importantly, she said operating online allows her to control the narrative of her products and the world they inhabit: lazy poolside afternoons with friends, and the sun-soaked pebble beaches of the South of Turkey, where she spent her childhood summers.
“There are so many different ways to engage with the customer than just one piece,” from packaging and photoshoots to web design, she said.
We’re living in an oversaturated market and there’s too much of everything.
Having rapport with customers is key, said Elise Labau Topaloglu, co-founder of vacation-centric online retailer Golden Edit. The site, which sells swimsuits, coverups, beach bags and other summer accessories, uses a live chat to help customers through their shopping experience.
“We get really intimate chats about their situation, like ‘this is what my body looks like, this is what my boobs look like,’ and our ability to guide her the way you would guide a friend in an honest way is incredibly important,” she said.
Orlebar Brown also likes to get chummy with its customers, according to Brown. Service representatives will dish out vacation advice and follow up to see how customers’ trips went, even asking for photos.
For Solid & Striped, founded in 2012, Instagram has been one of the most effective tools for customer acquisition through both sponsored ads and being tagged organically by influencers.
Organic traffic is the holy grail, as it means customers find the brand without it having to pay for ads or sponsored posts. Denizeri hasn’t purchased ads on Instagram, but said customers often find her brand through tagged posts. For American Eagle’s Aerie, organic sales on Instagram rose 168 percent last year, Aerie Global Brand President Jennifer Foyle said in a 2018 interview.
But not every bikini Instagram post is created equal. Showcasing product without a lifestyle element will likely result in lower engagement.
“Remember you’re not selling swimwear, you’re selling what it looks like to be on a yacht off of the Island of Capri,” said Kaplan. “You’re selling a vacation lifestyle.”
Nearly all of Solid & Striped’s posts are tagged with locations such as Nantucket, Mass., Barbados, Ibiza, Montauk and other envy-inducing destinations.
Add new categories
Orlebar Brown started with men’s swim trunks, but has since introduced polos, T-shirts and other vacation apparel. Now, about 70 percent of Orlebar Brown’s sales are generated by ready-to-wear. Brown hopes to use swim as an “anchor” to branch out even further, with luggage, sunglasses and skincare potentially on the table.
Solid & Striped launched a sunscreen earlier this year, in addition to relaunching apparel and accessories. Meanwhile, Bikyni is preparing to unveil beach bags this summer.
Grouping these vacation categories together is the premise of Golden Edit, which Topaloglu co-founded with her business partner, Florencia Cavallo, last year. They approach their product mix as items that they themselves would pack on a vacation.
Bigger retailers are taking note. Bloomingdale’s launched a vacation shop this year that groups swimwear with holiday-appropriate ready-to-wear.
In swimwear, what matters is the materials you use and the fits that you offer.
“We're now looking at a breadth of assortment for beachwear, from dresses to rompers to variety of different silhouettes and price points within cover-ups,” said Heather Shimokawa, vice president for fashion direction at the department store.
Keep the edit tight, classic and inclusive
Swimwear options can be overwhelming, with consumers inundated by sponsored ads and influencer-peddled posts.
“We’re living in an oversaturated market and there’s too much of everything,” said Lisa Marie Fernandez, founder of the namesake swimwear line. “We only have one body and there's only 365 days a year.”
Golden Edit’s pitch is that it will narrow the product selection for customers, Topaloglu said.
“[Our customer] very much gravitating toward classic styles — a solid or a delicate print but she’s not going for a crazy cutouts or deep-Vs or frills,” she said.
For Solid & Striped, despite releasing sizeable collections twice a year, the best-selling product remains one of its first: the Anne-Marie scoop top one-piece.
While scoop necklines, high-waisted shorts and bright colours are all trends this summer, according to an Edited analysis of swimwear influencer campaigns on Instagram, some brands choose to stick to their core collections year-round. Bikyni, for instance, currently carries five styles of tops and five styles of bottoms on its website.
“Trends can be a great way to propel your business forward but ultimately your product needs to stand on its own,” said Bikyni’s Al-Khalil. “In swimwear, what matters is the materials you use and the fits that you offer.”
Summersalt focuses on fit by collecting data on customer sizing and preferences as well as using 10,000 scans of women’s bodies to inform its designs. Starting this summer, the brand is also offering sizes up to 24.
Brands are popping up every day, it’s almost difficult to keep up.
Denizeri harbours a similar goal of not only appealing to women of all sizes but also of all ages, pointing to her own 65-year-old mother as an example of someone she’d like to shop her line.
“There could be a size 2 70-year-old and a size 2 30-year-old and the question is, how do you make them both comfortable?” she said.
Inclusivity, in fact, is a required attribute of swimwear marketing in 2019, according to Edited Market Analyst Kayla Marci.
“Promoting a single body type and messaging that women should look a particular way to wear a swimsuit does not resonate here or in any market,” she told BoF in an email.
For what it’s worth, one of Denizeri’s highest engaging posts on Instagram is a photo of the founder’s mom in a halter-neck one piece.
Regardless of competition, swimwear won’t slow any time soon, according to Edited: over the past three months alone, new arrivals of women's swim in the US mass market saw a nearly 30 percent uptick year-over-year, its data shows.
“There is growth but to be visible is harder,” said Yeramyan of Araks. “Brands are popping up every day, it’s almost difficult to keep up.”
Editor's note: This article was revised on 16 July, 2019. A previous version of this story misstated that 25 percent of Orlebar Brown's sales are generated by non-swim items. This is inaccurate. Seventy-percent of sales are generated by its ready-to-wear collection.