With the world seemingly heading to hell in a handcart, retailers concerned about the cost-of-living crisis, and, frankly, winter coming, you might think it was a bit of a tense time to be running a swimwear company known for its flamboyantly patterned and summery shorts. 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, the market leader in luxury swimwear, says. ‘We are a brand of escapism. We are a brand of “let’s enjoy”. And that’s needed more these days than ever before.’
Vilebrequin was born in Saint-Tropez in 1971, at a time when the town was just a small harbour, freedom was in the air and carelessness was de rigueur. Brigitte Bardot, Gunter Sachs and Françoise Sagan all hung out together, and it was where Mick Jagger married Bianca Piérez- Mora Macias (Bianca Jagger). Times have changed now, but Vilebrequin still claims its artistic, stylish, freewheeling 1970s Saint-Tropez roots.
The brand has used its swim shorts – or ‘bathing suits’, as Herlory calls them – as canvases to collaborate with left-field contemporary art-world names, including Sylvie Fleury, Kenny Scharf and John M Armleder. Its latest collaboration, which covers a beach tote bag, a towel and a travel pouch, as well as a short-sleeved shirt and a bathing suit, is with Spanish painter and mural artist Okuda San Miguel, commonly known as Okuda, who has created kaleidoscopic rainbow motifs featuring cats’ heads, turtles, geometric patterns and what a layperson might describe as Day-Glo children’s squiggles.
‘Art removes boundaries between cultures and religions, and to me it’s the most beautiful thing,’ Okuda has said of his work. ‘When I paint faces with these multicoloured geometric patterns, I try to symbolise all skins and races in one, all colours in one. A multicultural world.’
Vilebrequin celebrated its 50th birthday in 2021. Not bad going for any business – let alone one in the fickle world of fashion accessories. Apart from fluctuations in length — ‘a little bit higher, a little bit longer… [but] there is no [broader] meaning,’ Herlory shrugs off any significant changes down the years — the main evolution has been one of materials.
‘When [founder] Fred [Prysquel] was making the first bathing suits, he was using the existing fabrics he could find: cotton and linen that he brought back from markets in Africa,’ says Herlory. ‘The biggest change has been creating fabrics that 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, 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 after the French word for an engine crankshaft couldn’t hinder Vilebrequin becoming the premier name in men’s swimwear (womenswear arrived in 2013; today there is ready-to-wear, kids’ clothes, accessories etc). In fact, we might say that it invented a market.
‘Fifty years ago, this concept that swimwear could be considered “luxury”… this notion did not exist,’ says Herlory, who joined the brand from Hermès in 2012. ‘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 chortles. ‘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 more than 100 countries — has made that its USP. ‘That’s the secret of the brand,’ Herlory agrees. ‘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.’