For American women it’s a summer ritual: walk into a clothing store, pluck a playful swimsuit from a throng of brightly colored cousins, flip over the price tag—and hastily return the suit to its rack, lest it automatically charge itself to your credit card. The price of a women’s swimsuit—that uniform of summer vacations and sweltering poolside afternoons—can easily hit $100 or more, even at stores not found on Rodeo Drive. How can a scant handful of fabric squares, strings, and clasps go for such a hefty sum?
For all their skimpiness, women’s swimsuits are complicated garments whose prices are tied up in the complexities of global manufacturing, seasonal retailing, and designing for a wide range of activities and body types.
“Constructing even a simple swimsuit is every bit as complex as constructing a dress,” says Nancy Stanforth, a professor of fashion merchandising at Kent State University. Designers must push the latest trends, while carefully considering fit: A survey by the NPD Group showed that fit outranked comfort, style, quality, and price for women when purchasing a swimsuit. Ideally a swimsuit will compress some places while revealing others. It won’t ride up and won’t come undone with the first wave or jump off the diving board—all while making the wearer feel comfortable and confident. “Because the customers are wearing less, they’re more critical of their bodies. We’re working on a small canvas, so it’s more challenging to create a suit that feels good and … is innovative and fashion-forward,” says swimwear designer Karla Colletto of Karla Colletto Swimwear.
Another reason swimsuits are costly? They’re stretchy. Stretchable fabrics, which revolutionized women’s swimwear in the 1960s, are more expensive than many other materials (including, for example, the sturdy nylon or cotton used in men’s swimwear). In addition, manufacturers need special machines to handle the spandex, Lycra, and similar fabrics typically used in women’s swimwear.
Swimsuit material is also expensive because much is required of it. These fabrics and other swimsuit components, such as underwires, must stand up to a wide variety of elements—water, chlorine, sand, salt, sun—and activities. “It is just as important that the style looks great as it is that the item is technically stable and able to withstand swimming, sunbathing, etc.,” says Samara Fetto, who manages the swimsuit division for the online retailer ModCloth.
The relatively brief amount of time swimsuits spend on store shelves also contributes to the garments’ higher prices. Peak customer demand is limited to a few months of the year, so designers have less leeway on the time needed to get garments manufactured overseas and sent back to the States. The tight timetable and smaller orders mean they get fewer manufacturing discounts. Designers whose output is a fraction of the blockbuster brand names’ output also pay more to produce their limited-run suits—Colletto, for instance, has taken the unusual step of manufacturing her suits at her Vienna, Va., facility to avoid the hassles and high costs of manufacturing overseas.
Although seasonality may slap a few extra bucks onto the price of your new bikini, it’s not as hard as it used to be to find a suit off-season. Purchasing a swimsuit used to require a trip to the department store sometime between the last snowfall and the first blast of air conditioning, but the rise in online shopping has made swimwear a year-round venture. Online retailers can sell bikinis to Australians planning beach vacations while Americans are stockpiling winter coats and snow boots. Web-based stores can also offer more sizes, particularly plus sizes. “Plus-size swimwear at ModCloth has been a huge growth opportunity and something we have seen tremendous success with,” Fetto says. Unfortunately for consumers, longer shopping seasons and a greater range of sizes haven’t translated into lower prices.
But swimwear, like swimming itself, has long been democratic, says Christine Schmidt, author of The Swimsuit: Fashion From Poolside to Catwalk. Just as you don’t need a trip to the French Riviera to escape the heat, you don’t need to empty your savings account for a suit that feels like a million bucks. In the 1920s you could make a swimsuit at home from a store-bought pattern, or you could purchase a suit from one of the newly created collections of elite French fashion designers. Nowadays the swimwear industry—a $3.5 billion-a-year-and-growing business, according to the NPD Group, with women’s swimwear accounting for 70 percent of the market—is rife with competition. Retailers such as Target and H&M sell lower-cost alternatives for even the most basic of suits—the little black bikini—that retail for double at Victoria’s Secret or tenfold with a Dolce & Gabbana tag. More competition brings lower prices—and more excuses to hang out at the pool. Just don’t forget the sunscreen.
Thanks to Tori Praver of Tori Praver Swimwear for her insights on the swimwear industry.