Last month, Victoria’s Secret made headlines over its reported decision to eliminate swimwear — presumably to focus on its activewear and beauty categories (in addition to, obviously, lingerie). The news left some of us scratching our heads, and it left some swimwear brands' mouths' watering for a bit of the retailer's $500-million market share.
Worth $20.9 billion in 2014 according to Euromonitor, the global swimwear market is expected to exceed $28 billion by 2019. It's also being seen less as a seasonal category, as demand for swimwear is increasing year-round. As plane tickets have gotten cheaper, year-round travel to warm-weather locations has increased along with the propensity among consumers to document such travels on social media. Consumers' noted desire to spend money on experiences instead of luxury goods these days has also given way to this trend. Still others are straight up wearing swimsuits with jeans! What has the world come to?
As a result of all these factors, new swimwear-only brands are popping up all the time. And because it's 2016, we seem to be in the midst of an online-native, direct-to-consumer movement similar to those we've seen in eyewear and lingerie in recent years.
"It was really inspired by the movement of these direct-to-consumer companies innovating in a specific vertical and swimwear to me just seemed like one that women dreaded shopping for more than any other category," explained Jude Al-Khalil, the former COO of Reformation who launched Bikyni — dubbed the "Warby Parker of swimwear" — about one year ago.
Like most retail "disrupters," Al-Khalil set out to solve a few specific problems she saw in the swimwear market: clutter, over-design and pricing. "There are a ton of [swimwear] brands and I think navigating through that is pretty overwhelming and even just trying to find a simple, well-fitting suit is harder than you would think... and coupled with the pricing, that makes it even more challenging." Bikyni stocks only seven bikini top styles, six bottoms and two one-pieces, each of which are relatively classic, minimalist and functional. They're also all $100 — filling the sweet spot between, say, H&M and higher-end swim brands like Solid & Striped and Lisa Marie Fernandez — made from Italian fabrics and produced in Los Angeles. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Victoria's Secret stocked a quantity of SKUs that some might find overwhelming and last year, the company's ex-CEO blamed lower-than-usual swim sales on overly complex design.)
Bikyni's main competitor in the direct-to-consumer online swimwear space is Cocodune, which launched earlier this year. Similarly, it boasts made-in-LA suits with a timeless, functional design priced around $100 or less. It even has a Warby-esque "try before you buy" option where it will send you four swimsuits for free; you send back what you don't like and get charged for what you keep. "We've approached swimwear as an experience rather than as product alone and I think that's what's helping us achieve the traction we've had," says founder Matthias Metternich. Strong customer service — including features like free shipping, fit guides and hassle-free returns — are benchmarks of both companies, as well as other players in the online swimwear space, like the multi-brand site Bikini Luxe, which launched about two years ago. Founder Candice Galek is playing to the high expectations of today's shoppers: "We expect items to be shipped the moment we complete our purchase, want it to look exactly as it does online, and to fit like a dream all at a good price and including free shipping. We expect to be able to try it on and have the freedom to return a purchase if it isn't everything we had hoped for, and receive a full refund. Basically, we want to have all of the perks of buying at a brick-and-mortar shop with less of a hassle."
The founders we spoke with also mentioned cultural shifts that back up the viability of a swimwear-only brand. "A lot of people are going on vacations where there's a lot of activity involved and we wanted to be a part of that in a more curated, higher-end, high-quality sense," explained Bikyni designer Joanna Faschani, who also pointed out that outside of companies like Bikyni, it can be hard for women to find a swimsuit in months like October. "It's either all on sale and cherry-picked or it's not available and we're there all the time with newness."
"We're seeing swimwear being used as underwear and sports bras and athleticwear," says Metternich. "With the introduction of everything from swimming pools to health benefits of swimming, the introduction of yoga blurring the lines between lifestyle and wellness and the fact that you can get on a plane these days for next to nothing... you're seeing a real shift in the seasonality of the product itself."
So does that mean investors are interested? It would seem so. Both Cocodune and Bikyni have raised outside capital and say they will likely raise more in the future. "The margins can be attractive," says Al-Khalil, who also says she sees people in and out of Bikyni's LA factory trying to start brands. "It's not as easy to develop a web interface the way that we have, so I think that we are an attractive swimwear brand to investors because we're part of a huge industry that has a lot of opportunity and we're part of the web-based, direct-to-consumer business, which is important right now and it's the way that shopping is heading for every retailer."
"Swimwear is an $8-billion market in the U.S. alone. It's as big as the eyewear industry that Warby Parker has built a giant on top of, so I think that it's a category that is poised for [more startups popping up]," says Metternich. "I think there are risks certainly, but I think a category that's worse off than us is probably ice cream and ice cream is a multi-billion-dollar business year-round."
Scroll through for a few Internet-y, innovative swim brands to keep on your radar, all of which, naturally, have a strong Instagram presence. And stay tuned, as we're sure that more will be popping up soon.
Cocodune, which only officially launched in March, boasts simple, functional and affordable bikinis and one-pieces made from innovative, long-lasting Italian fabrics, with a hassle-free online shopping experience, including free home try-on. Prices range from $42 for a triangle bikini top to $182 for a deep-V one-piece.
Bikyni, founded by a former Reformation COO, launched about a year ago and also boasts quality, minimalist swimwear made in the U.S. with an extensive fit guide and free shipping and returns. Prices range from $50 for a top or bottom to $95 for a one-piece.
Launched in 2014 in the veritable swimwear capital that is Australia, Her is also a minimalist line sold direct-to-consumer, only online. Everything is produced in Australia and the aesthetic is chic and feminine, with pieces meant to be worn everywhere — in the water or on the street. Prices range from $150 to $175 for a full suit (bikinis are sold as sets).
While not entirely direct-to-consumer, Ward Whillas has all of its suits available to shop online and offers free shipping within the U.S., where all of the suits are also made. The brand uses high-tech manufacturing methods typically reserved for activewear. All styles are reversible and use compression fabric to "sculpt sleeker silhouettes" according to the brand. Like many newer swim brands, the fabric is also quick-drying, UV-protecting and resistant to chlorine and lotions. Prices range from $150 for a top or bottom to $365 for some one-pieces.
Australia-based Triangl, an OG in the online-only, direct-to-consumer swim space, made a name for itself over the past couple of years with neoprene bikinis in saturated hues, favored by the Insta-famous set. Priced under $100, the suits are affordable and a little flashier than the aforementioned minimalist labels.
Solid and Striped
Another well-known benchmark for the digital swimwear movement is Solid & Striped. While it does do wholesale, it remains dedicated to building out its direct-to-consumer online business. The suits are also classic and minimalist, the selection not-overwhelming, and the brand has steadily expanded into casualwear. Christopher Burch took a stake in 2013.
Launched in 2012, Adore Me is trying to take on Victoria's Secret from all angles. Known for its affordable, direct-to-consumer lingerie, Adore Me also has a growing selection of swimwear that has a sexier, more Victoria's Secret-esque aesthetic than the brands we've mentioned thus far. It also, smartly, has a decent plus-size offering. However, it's recently come under fire for deceptively signing shoppers up for subscription memberships without their knowledge, so be careful. Prices range from about $40-$50 for full suits.
The two-year-old startup Bikini Luxe does not make swimwear, but operates as an online-only shopping destination for an array of swimwear brands and is angling to become a leader in the space through great customer service and lots of social media marketing, from utilizing influencers to controversial LinkedIn posts.
Yes, there's even a direct-to-consumer online swim brand for dudes (with a very different social media strategy than the ones for ladies): Chubbies. Its slightly bro-y marketing is all about a shorts-wearing lifestyle, though it does carry a small range of women's suits. Christopher Burch is an investor. A pair of trunks costs about $50.
This article was updated to include mention of controversy over Adore Me's subscription practices.