You might think that running a swimwear company during a time when your customers can’t go on holiday, fly anywhere or, indeed, swim in a swimming pool might be cause for despair. If so, you would be reckoning without the eternally sunny disposition of Roland Herlory.
“For me the future is super-bright!” the CEO of Vilebrequin, makers of flamboyantly patterned swim shorts, says. “I really believe people will take their revenge on all these restrictions. We are a brand of escapism. We are a brand of ‘let’s enjoy’. And that’s needed more these days than ever before.”
Perhaps Herlory’s optimism is helped by his lockdown location. Zooming in from an airy workspace one afternoon recently, asks where he’s speaking from.
“This is my office,” he beams. “And this” —spinning his iPhone 180 degrees to the window — “is the view”.
Sun-drenched palm trees, clear blue sky. He is in St Barth’s. Though Herlory has had a home in “the St Moritz of the Caribbean” for over two decades, he usually spends just 10 days a month here, dividing the rest of the time between his native France and Switzerland. Thanks to The Current Situation he’s been stranded on the white-sand island since November. I’m sure you can sympathise.
Location aside, we may put Herlory’s Tigger-ish bounce down to the fact that he has something to celebrate. Vilebrequin turns 50 this year and is marking the occasion by releasing a collection of 50 pairs of swim shorts — or “bathing suits” as Herlory calls them, a phrase entirely improved by a robust French accent — revisiting its archives and reissuing one design per year, from 1971 to 2021.
“For each year, we really tried to find what was the spirit of that year,” he explains. “When you look at the history it’s like looking at bathing suits as part of memory. We focus on quality to make something that you are going to keep with you for your whole life. And because it’s a nice object it carries memories. When you open your drawer and see a print, you can jump back into your holidays in Portofino seven years ago.”
Indeed, as much as the history of style over the last five decades possibly be told through men’s swimwear, then Vilebrequin’s “50 Prints” collection fulfils the brief. (Or, indeed, briefs.) So, the reissues include groovy shorts in printed denim (1973) and styles covered in poptastic pink flowers (1985) and sporty athleisure stripes (1994).
Apart from fluctuations in length — “a little bit higher, a little bit longer… [but] there is no [broader] meaning,” Herlory shrugs — the main evolution has been in fabrics.
“When [founder] Fred [Prysquel] was making the first bathing suits, he was using the existing fabrics he could find: cotton and linen he brought back from markets in Africa. The biggest change has been creating fabrics which are fast-drying, easy to wear, and about the drape, so they do not stick to your leg.”
Developments in fully sustainable materials, plus innovations such as water-repellent fabrics —that still feel nice on the beach — are ongoing. Vilebrequin was established in St Tropez, so the story goes, when Prysquel, a sports car journalist and photographer, doodled a design for a new style of trunks on a café tablecloth. Longer and looser than the budgie-smugglers of the day, they were also brightly coloured and designed to dry quickly in the sun. The fact that (a) Prysquel was colour blind and (b) named the company for the French word for an engine crankshaft couldn’t hinder Vilebrequin becoming the premier name in men’s swimwear (womenswear arrived in 2013). In fact, we may say that they invented a market.
“Fifty years ago, this concept that swimwear could be considered ‘luxury’… this notion did not exist,” Herlory, who joined the brand from Hermès nine years ago, says. “There was no such thing as ‘luxury swim shorts’”.
Nowadays you can take your pick of brands inviting you to splash out £200-plus on a pair of mid-length, floral-print “tailored” trunks. “There are more and more!” Herlory says. “But, I mean, no problem. We have competitors because it has become a concept by itself.”
Luxury fashion and fun don’t always sit together. Vilebrequin — today shipped to over 100 countries — has made that its USP. “That’s the secret of the brand,” Herlory says. “You can be a bank manager, a bank CEO, and wear [shorts with] a vivid pink background with green elephants. And you feel comfortable! It is the French Riviera touch that makes it comfortable. Despite the pattern! Despite! That is why Vilebrequin is Vilebrequin.”
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