Steamy subway cars and overcrowded beaches aside, the place it feels most aggressively like summer right now may in fact be on Instagram, where bronzed bodies, blue waters and, yes, inflatable swans have turned my feed (and, I'm guessing, many of yours) into a never-ending pool party, shrunk down to 750 pixels wide. Nowhere is this truer than among the fashion influencer set, for whom the sandy shores of Ibiza and the sprawling backyard of a Hamptons estate are only a brand-sponsored trip away. Naturally, this kind of lifestyle requires an extensive swimwear collection that can hold its own against the scenery — and, increasingly, some are taking matters into their own hands.
Two years ago, Shea Marie, the 30-year-old blogger behind Peace Love Shea, launched her swimwear brand SAME at Miami Swim Week, unveiling a collection of bikinis featuring distinctive triangular stitching, luxe, Italian-made fabrics and price tags that reached north of $300 per suit. Unlike most influencer-fronted lines, SAME was neither the product of a licensing deal nor a collaboration, both of which offer relatively low-risk routes for those with sizable followings to try their hand at design. Instead, Marie invested her own money and, along with a business partner, started the brand from scratch, positioning it firmly in the luxury space, despite the higher profit margins promised by mass lines.
As "the quintessential California beach blonde," she says, swim was a natural fit for her first foray into launching a brand, although she did consider other options as well — even getting as far as touring leather factories in Italy for a potential handbag line before deciding against the accessories category. "If someone is going to spend a lot of money, they want a bag that people are going to recognize," she reasons.
Swimwear, on the other hand, is still an evolving market: Many of the independent labels that are now fashion darlings are less than five years old (Solid and Striped, Flagpole, Kiini), while luxury brands like Proenza Schouler, Jonathan Simkhai and, most recently, Rosie Assoulin are increasingly dipping their toes into the space. Marie noticed this swell of interest, especially among her peers. "With social media, [especially] Instagram, girls care more about their vacations and what they're wearing," she says. "Swim was kind of looked down upon in the past … and I was like, it's really, really going to become big with this vacation craze and this whole resort lifestyle craze."
With over a million followers herself, she knew what would click on the platform. "I kind of built the concept of the brand off of what the girl on Instagram wants to post," she explains. "I know because I'm her, you know? I design for myself. I want something that people are going to see and be like, 'Wow, that's amazing. That stands out. You could literally post a photo of that swimsuit by itself against a white background and people would be into it, because it's captivating on its own.'"
Sure enough, the suits are a constant fixture on the feeds of her Insta-famous friends, including Caroline Vreeland, Ashley Moore and Sarah Snyder; Kendall Jenner and Hailey Baldwin were photographed in them even before the brand had the budget to send out freebies (a boost most fledgling designers would kill — or at least drop a few grand — for). "Starting a brand is so expensive — a round of production could be $250,000. Once you put your money into that, you don't have a lot extra to be sending out tons of free stuff or hiring PR," she explains. And while her team does send out gifts to a select few influencers now, Marie says she pointedly doesn't ask them to post the product, hoping instead that they'll love it enough to photograph it of their own accord — a lesson she's learned from years of having brands send her stuff "all day, every day" and pushy PR reps pressuring her to feature their clients.
According to a 2016 Google study, 64 percent of women shopping for apparel on their smartphones are more likely to purchase a product they see in use, and Marie's not the only one banking on the power of their platform to spark the interest of legions of swimwear shoppers: Bloggers Natasha Oakley and Devin Brugman, the powerhouse duo behind A Bikini A Day, launched their brand, Monday Swimwear, in 2014, and boast follower counts of well over a million apiece on their personal accounts, along with 650,000 and 271,000 for their blog and brand, respectively. While initially produced through a partnership with a Los Angeles-based manufacturer, the pair took full control of the brand after its first season sold out in two months, writing that the original agreement only gave them control of design, and that they were "so used to being a two woman team and being in control of every part of our businesses, [that] even if it was going to be a huge challenge for us to take on alone, we knew it was what we needed to do to really have Monday Swimwear as a part of us."
Now, they release collections biannually and have expanded into beachwear, as well as introducing a permanent "Signature Collection" of black and white suits. Oakley and Brugman have also launched a standalone activewear label, Monday Active, and continue to rack up an impressive list of collaborations with brands big and small, including Guess, Missguided, Wildfox, and Beach Riot. The specificity of the blog's premise means that they have a captive audience of followers who already expect swimwear content all day, every day, while the mass appeal of two gorgeous 20-somethings gallivanting around the world in bikinis gives them a platform that extends far beyond the niche enthusiast.
"When we started, we were a unique platform for swimwear brands to promote themselves — no one was doing what we were doing," Oakley told Forbes last year. "The very premise of 'A Bikini A Day' allowed us to give a voice to a different bikini brand, 365 days of the year." Today, their own brand's is (naturally) the loudest, and they share behind-the-scenes snaps, lookbook images and photos from their travels around the world wearing various suits from the line.
Repetition, at least according to Marie, is key, especially when it comes to building up trust. "I think the problem with influencer marketing today — and I tell this to brands I work with — is they do so many one-off projects, where they'll hire one girl for one post," she says. "Me posting one time for a swimsuit brand is really going to do nothing unless someone is like, 'Oh my god, I'm obsessed with that one piece. I have to have it.' But that's usually not how it works. It's people seeing something over and over, and when they do, they're like, 'Ok, this person really, really loves this.'"
This trust is especially important when you're asking your customer to drop a few hundred dollars on a bikini — or, alternatively, when your customer might never have worn one before, or when society tells her she shouldn't wear one at all.
Such was the inspiration for Gabi Gregg's debut collection for Swimsuits for All in 2013, which launched in the wake of the media frenzy around the plus-size blogger's "fatkini" posts on her own blog, GabiFresh, as well as xoJane. Though the retailer specializes in extended sizes, its product offering then skewed largely towards more covered-up styles like one-pieces and tankinis, and certainly didn't include the neon, mesh and unapologetically loud prints that Gregg brought to the table for her initial collection, which ranged from sizes 10 to 24. Buoyed though the brand was by the positive media attention, the collaboration was still a leap of faith at the time, says Swimsuits For All's VP of Creative and Branding, Sara Mitzner: "It definitely brought in a new customer for us. It was a customer that Gabi believed was out there, and we believed was out there, but you just don't know until it sells."
But sell it did — so much so that the website crashed for several hours and one style, the galaxy-print bikini modeled by Gregg in the campaign, oversold in a day. Jezebel reported the incident as an illustration of "the plus-size supply and demand problem," wherein the former vastly and habitually underserved the latter. Mitzner admits the first collection was a "test," and since then, the retailer has increased its inventory buy from less than a thousand pieces per item to a much deeper stock, as well as added larger cup sizes (G-H) and more boundary-pushing styles. The collaboration, which is going into its sixth season, has evolved largely thanks to the feedback Gregg gets from her readers, along with the hyper-detailed fit and sizing notes she gives on her blog and social media. These give potential customers insight into how the suits might look on their bodies even before they buy, and take a uniquely personal tone (Gregg, for instance, shares her own sizes and notes where certain details, like the width of a band or shape of a cup, may look different on other body types).
"Swim fit is very specific and it's tough," says Mitzner. "There's a lot of emotion around swimsuit shopping. You know, you're basically in your underwear on the beach. People have a lot of reservations about it … so I think having someone like Gabi as part of our brand, both as a resource for us as well as a resource for women out there, has had a tremendous impact on our business and on women, because she speaks really specifically about the items and I think that makes people feel more confident in their purchase."
The success of the line has been such that it's progressed from a one-time collaboration to a contract licensing deal, says Vanessa Flaherty, partner and SVP of talent at Digital Brand Architects, the influencer agency that reps both Gregg and Marie. The brand just renewed its three-year contract with Gregg, and this spring, the collection launched at Nordstrom (for 2018, the retailer will carry several exclusive styles). As for why they decided to venture into wholesale, Faherty explains, "Gabi wanted to reach a different consumer. She's very in tune, through her blog and her affiliates and things of that nature, where her customer is, and she felt that while obviously she has a huge customer base through the existing Swimsuits for All consumer, and she's brought a lot of her personal consumer over to Swimsuits for All, she also wanted to have a presence at a prestigious department store, and access to that consumer, and Nordstrom felt the exact same way."
Marie, too, has chosen her wholesalers carefully, steering clear of swim boutiques and partnering instead with luxury retailers like Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Selfridges and Kirna Zabête, tapping into the contacts she made over years of blogging to secure the initial meetings. While the line is also available through online-only retailers Shopbop and Revolve, Marie says the end goal is to drive sales from SAME's own site, which yields nearly four times the profit for the brand. The direct-to-consumer e-commerce model has been Monday Swimwear's modus operandi from the start, along with that of Sahara Ray Swim, the three-year-old line created by model and bikini-clad Instagram star Sahara Ray. For SAME, Marie says, retail partners have offered invaluable brand positioning and awareness— both of which will be particularly important when it launches resortwear next season. But ultimately, the customers for all of these brands live first and foremost online, and plenty will click on a tagged photo and follow a link in bio that would never have stepped foot in Saks.
"People have a sort of voyeuristic nature about them," says Flaherty. "They don't want to see someone doing their laundry; they want to see someone on the beach in Anguilla or on a yacht and looking amazing and flawless in a bikini."
And while the white sand beach and professional photographer may not be within their reach, a new swimsuit is just a few taps away.