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Why Is Swimwear So Freakin’ Expensive?

Well, do you wanna look good and feel comfortable while you’re mostly naked, or nah?

Often with swimsuits, less is literally more. More money, that is. Guys’ trunks aren’t cheap — designer labels will charge hundreds of dollars for, basically, water-ready shorts! And have you ever seen the price of women’s swimwear? Why does so little material cost so much money for clothes you get wet in? As it turns out, there’s a lot more to why swimsuits are so expensive. Alongside Michael Leva, a former senior vice president at Victoria’s Secret and co-founder of Sea Star Beachwear, we dove deep for answers. Cannonbaaaaaall!

Seriously though: all that money for nylon or Lycra or whatever?

It’s not that simple, cabana boy. First of all, Leva says it’s a rule of thumb in any part of the apparel design business that the bigger you get, the easier it is to manufacture it for a lower price. In other words, economies of scale! But outside of big-box department stores and fast-fashion shopping mall chains, the swimwear industry is full of smaller brands making smaller lots, which is always going to be more expensive. So there’s that. Plus, people just buy fewer swimsuits than they do for other articles of clothing, like T-shirts. 

Okay, but a bikini is just triangles and string, right?

A good one isn’t! This is super important. All the nice swimsuits, particularly women’s swimsuits, are engineered, Leva says — “the lines, the fitting, the inner structures.” In a swimsuit, fit is crucial.

Think about it — it’s the number one type of apparel (apart from undergarments) where people feel the most self-conscious wearing it. Most of your body’s showing, and so a swimsuit — its fit, cut and profile — has an outsize effect on how you look. Look at the difference between a long-inseam, stovepipe-leg swim short made by a big sneaker company versus, say, the “Bond, James Bond”-like style of an Orlebar Brown swimsuit. The former looks like a couple of goddamn church bells, while the other radiates sex appeal (or at least, makes you look like you’re not completely clueless about what looks good on a human body). Obviously you’re gonna pay for the difference, along with some other things we’ll get to in a moment.

And spare a thought for women in bikinis: a lousy one will ride up or sag — anything but stay in place. By nature, bikinis conceal some things and reveal others. Engineering the fit takes time and money, and for both men and women, the fit is one thing that separates cheap and expensive swimwear.

Fit and production size, got it. Why else are they expensive?

Current market trends! Leva points out that for prospective new brands, most of the venture capital money for fashion out there is interested in sustainability — it’s the buzzword of the moment in fashion. Customers will pay a higher price for something that’s made in Italy out of recycled fishing nets, for example, than for a garment churned out of a sweatshop in some heavily exploited country. 

Then there’s the body positivity movement, which continues to gain momentum. A certain segment of women have gone unaccounted for in swimwear for so long that of course they’ll pay a little more for a thoughtfully designed swimsuit engineered to make them look better.

What about the materials?

If you’ve ever owned an inexpensive swimsuit you likely know all about this — the testicle-shredding abrasiveness of a cheap liner, an elastic waistband that, one day, just decides it’s done stretching for good or nylon that just doesn’t feel soft at all. But while men’s suits can be made of lots of materials — cotton and seersucker, to name a couple besides nylon — the materials in women’s suits are extremely important for the fit to be right.

Beyond all that, there’s durability, which nicer suits will demonstrate down the line. Same goes for decent boardshorts, which are meant to withstand the rigors of surfing: paddling, sitting for long periods of time, getting tossed around in the whitewater, peeing. But any decent suit, men’s or women’s, also needs to withstand UV rays, chlorine and salt water. Bonus points if that same material feels soft or luxurious!

What’s with those crazy expensive swimsuits, though?

Some of those are from designer labels like D&G or Tom Ford, so of course they’re going to be expensive. But women’s swimwear has its own expensive labels, like Norma Kamali, or Eres, which is one of the more expensive brands in the world — one suit could set you back nearly 600 bucks. “But when you see an Eres suit, it’s amazing,” Leva says. “It helps the wearer look their best.” And they use expensive materials like crepe yarn that’s exquisite to the touch, almost like double-faced satin. “There’s a total luxury of fabrication,” he says.

Still not convinced that that isn’t an insane amount to spend on swimwear, so tell me, what’s the best value in swimsuits?

Leva says it’s the performance brands — ones like Speedo (keep in mind, these brands make much more for men than just the Olympic-style racing briefs that everyone simply calls “a Speedo”). “They’ve been at it for decades, their engineering is wonderful, their fabric development is wonderful — performance is a really good value,” Leva explains. That all makes perfect sense. But he does lament one thing about this segment of the swimwear industry: Performance brands don’t have much of a fashion component, or a fashion house within the company. If they did, he thinks it’d be lucrative. “But very few brands like to step outside their comfort zone — especially when they’re successful,” he says.

So with swimwear, you kinda, mostly get what you pay for?

If what you want to pay for is looking good and having a suit that won’t hurt you or fall apart, yes. The economies of the swimwear industry, the time and labor that goes into the all-important fit, plus the materials — whether they’re simply for comfort or luxury, or for durability or even performance — it all adds up. If you look good in a chintzy swimsuit and the lining doesn’t kill you, lucky you, because these things tend to cost money. But since it’s the only thing covering your nearly-naked, imperfect body in front of others, the cost is pretty much worth it.