What makes a bathing suit so expensive?

South Brooklyn has a machine that looks like a transparent coffin and rotates like an art fan. Its metallic internal parts fly away and slip, until within an hour, it leaves a swimsuit, which falls from the bottom of the machine like an egg.

It’s a high-tech process that seems simple: click a button, get an almost finished swimsuit. In a way, it automatically, on demand, reflects the two-day shipping experience that defines shopping for many people in 2022.

Yet dozens of decisions were made before that swimsuit became a real thing – decisions that ultimately cost it between $ 250 and $ 25, which is roughly the amount an adult woman spends on a swimsuit in the United States. Market research analysts at NPD Group.

But what do these decisions do? What makes a swimsuit, in this economy, worth that much?

Fabric, for one. In this case, a soft yarn from Japan was found after years of trial and error by Anna Berger, the designer of Data.

The specialty of the burger is the knitted swimsuit – imagine if a bikini is paired with a ribbed sweater vest. As such, its yarn needs to be special: quick-drying, so the suit retains its shape, and is resistant to sun and chemical damage, yet stretches and is as durable as nylon, a much more common swimwear.

Then there are labor and production costs. Last fall, after the knitwear factory he worked with Berger in Los Angeles suddenly closed, a friend suggested he bring his designs to the tailor’s industry, a company in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn that makes complete pieces of computerized clothing. Knitting Machine – Laying Coffin.

According to Burger, the price of a swimwear made in the tailor-made industry is about $ 65, not including the yarn he provides – comparable to the price he paid for production in Los Angeles.

But compare it to the cost of production outside the United States. Although very few companies reveal their pricing structure, Everlane, a multi-million dollar basic brand, says it pays $ 3.90 for labor for a one-piece swimwear made in Sri Lanka. A small German swimwear company called Wanda says it pays 15 euros (about $ 16) for labor and production in a bikini made in Portugal.

Once a garment is created, most designers try to sell the pieces to retailers, such as boutiques and department stores. To determine their wholesale price, designers typically double (or more) the total cost of making clothing, including sewing, materials, and transportation, the way they make a profit. But stores use the same kind of math for their own profit, which means that the final retail price a buyer sees can actually be five times the cost of making the item.

That way a swimsuit that costs $ 65 to make becomes $ 250 to buy – not even an exceptionally high markup. And that was the hardest part of getting his business off the ground, says Burger, whose brand didn’t gain last year despite some support from magazines and celebrities.

“Price,” he said. “We’re used to everything really cheap, and people don’t realize how expensive it is to make.”

Buying a swimsuit used to be easy

A decade ago, Victoria’s Secret was a strong player in the swimwear market. When it stopped selling swimwear in 2016 – the segment declined but still 6.5% of the company’s business, or about $ 500 million – competitors saw an opportunity.

“It left a huge hole,” said Jenna Lyons, then-president and executive creative director of Jay Crew. “But I think people were really anxious for something else. It was so limited in the way they talked to the customer. “

Instead of trying to be the “sexiest game on the beach”, J. Crew has made his swimsuit more classic and casual, selling another “natural sexuality”, says Lyons, who left the company in 2017 and is now the founder and CEO of LoveSeen. , Which sells false eyelashes.

Today the swimwear market is crowded with young brands targeting all types of shoppers – athletic, minimalist, tropical party girl, shiny party girl – prices ranging from $ 100 to $ 400. While the options may be irresistible, the purchase of a swimwear may be amplified by the already sensitive nature.

“For a woman, the most risky time of the year is the swim suit season,” Lyons says, closing off a familiar list of insecurities: body fat, paleness, cellulite, gravity. “You’re half-naked, and you want everything to be perfect.

“It’s a little bit like your wedding day,” she said. “There are similar concerns around walking around a pool or beach. Everyone is looking at me! Maybe they don’t, but they can be. And for that reason, swimwear is a place that women will spend. “

Some swimming labels have built their identities around this insecurity. Dedicated to Instagram-popular brand Summersalt, its co-founder Laurie Coulter said, “to enable women to feel the joy we all feel on the beach as children” and “to make sure they feel comfortable in the swimwear they wear.” And they have that body. “

Somersault’s most recognizable suit, a super-compressive one-shoulder design that extends to size 24 and is made using measurements from 10,000 women’s body scans, costs $ 95. This is mainly because the company sells directly to customers, avoiding wholesale markup.

“The truth is, no matter what income bracket you have, no one wants to pay $ 400 for a swimwear,” Coulter said.

But they can do it anyway. Kristen Classy-Jummo, a clothing analyst at NPD Group, says that in recent years, quality over price has become a top priority for buyers. “We see that consumers are focusing on durable, improved ready-made clothing,” she said. “Swimwear is one of the main categories where we know that fit and construction are very important.”

Once, during Lyons ’tenure at J. Crew, the company decided to offer some suits in lightweight Italian fabric, which went above its usual nylon lycra at a high quality, retail price of over 100. Executives were concerned; The brand had to place a high minimum order for its swimwear. But there was “no resistance” from customers, Lyons said, and the suits became bestsellers.

Ethics surcharge

In Mara Hoffman, a one-piece swimsuit costs about $ 300, how the brand creates its signature bold print (digitally engineered so every swimsuit has the same print placement) and customizes its fabric, which is certified as recyclable and harmless. This year, it will launch its first swimwear made from cellulosic, or nonsynthetic material. Recycled nylon, its main fabric, increased from eight to 10 weeks considering the lead time for orders of 40 to 50 weeks, Davis said, adding that the timing could hardly be better.

Yet for designers of sustainable quality, the cost of making a swimwear doesn’t actually start to increase significantly until production begins, after the design is already set.

“If you want to pay your sewers a living, that’s where the cost comes in,” said Arax Iramian, creative director of a line of swimwear, lingerie and loungewear. “If you’re not going to make in China, and you’re not going to make a million gazelle pieces, it’s the actual sewing that costs money.”

Iraman made his label at a factory in New York City, where the minimum wage is $ 15 an hour, and New Jersey, where it is $ 13 an hour – this is about the price of one-piece swimwear sold before the fast-fashion website Shane (before the markdown).

But New York isn’t a popular market for swimsuit production, meaning there are less specialized sewers out there that know how to work with shorter, stretcher and more slippery fabric than denim.

“My factory always tells me that everything looks really simple but it’s so complicated,” Iremian said. “You’re paying people. The better the quality of labor, the better the quality of the swimwear.

Still, she understands that not everyone can pay 365 for a swimsuit, which is the upper range of her one-pieces. But in her experience, creating a swimsuit, especially the kind of cutout design she likes, is “fighting with body and clothes.”

Morally to do it? “It’s really hard.”

This article was originally published in the New York Times.

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