NEW YORK — Asking Speedo executives if Fastskin — its most recent innovation in swimsuit fabric technology — is the end of the line in terms of swimsuit advancements is like asking Valentino if he’s maxed out on making red...
NEW YORK — Asking Speedo executives if Fastskin — its most recent innovation in swimsuit fabric technology — is the end of the line in terms of swimsuit advancements is like asking Valentino if he’s maxed out on making red dresses.
In both cases, the answer is an obvious, “No.”
Through its unrelenting research and development department, Speedo has sustained its position at the forefront of competitive swimsuit technology, something from which swimmers benefit in many ways. During the last Olympics, for example, 80 percent of swimming medals were won by athletes wearing Speedo.
Though the company spent much of the century focusing on making suits as small and snug as possible, it later realized this was not the best approach, due to fabric developments. However, there were several breakthroughs along the way that led up to this discovery.
One of the first innovations that gave Speedo swimsuits an edge over others dates back to the 1932 Olympics, when the company began making suits out of silk. It was the first time a swimmer won a gold medal wearing a Speedo, but it was clearly not the last.
After the war, in 1948, the shape of a racing suit was shrunk down to a brief due to the belief that human skin was the material with the least drag or resistance, a concept about which Speedo has drastically changed its view today.
Speedo replaced silk with DuPont’s tricot nylon in swimsuits worn in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. This marked the entry of the modern swimming suit, according to Stu Isaac, senior vice president of team sales and sports marketing. It helped put Speedo on the map, since the brand wasn’t distributed outside of Australia at the time.
“It helped the Australians dominate the Olympics in ’56,” said Isaac. “They were the leading medal winners and it was really that impetus that brought Speedo to the attention of the rest of the world.”
After that point, people in the swimming community began bringing the suits back to the U.S. a few at a time — most notably in 1959 by Frank Metlick, a Pan Am pilot who brought the suits back from trans-Pacific flights to Australia. Metlick and another man, Bill Lee, both had kids that swam at the high-profile Santa Clara Swim Club and the two gave them out to other swimmers at the facility.In 1960, realizing that there was a market to fill, Lee became the first marketing director of Speedo in the U.S. and the suits started retailing in America.
“They weren’t just being smuggled in by swim parents anymore,” said Isaac. “All the parents said, ‘We have to have these to be competitive.’ That really still drives it in the competitive market today.”
Nylon stayed the fabric of choice until 1973, when DuPont created Lycra spandex, and by 1974, all Speedo products on the market were made with the fiber. It was considered a breakthrough, since it clung to the body but still managed to move with it, whereas nylon was not only restrictive but had to be worn tightly to avoid excess fabric that caused drag.
In a testament to how well the suits performed in the water, at the 1974 U.S. swimming nationals in Dallas — one of the first major meets where athletes wore the new Lycra suits — every single American women’s swimming record was broken.
In the early Eighties, Speedo created and marketed the “paper suit” which was basically a microfiber blend of nylon and Lycra. Instead of being knit, it was woven for a much smoother look and hand.
“This woven suit really became dominant,” said Isaac. “It was crinkly, thin and when it got wet it really stuck to you. The fiber was much finer. You could barely see the individual fibers on the garment.”
With the introduction of the paper suit, there was virtually no way to make a tighter and thinner suit, so Speedo looked at the fiber itself to see if there was any room for manipulation — and there was.
Leading up to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the company did research to create a fabric that repelled water in an effort to reduce the amount of friction. The fabric was named Aquaspec and was a polyester-polyurethane blend that fit close to the body and reduced friction with water.
It was at this point that Speedo began to realize the resistance of water on enhanced fabrics was actually less than on human skin. This was not only a major new avenue to explore in terms of research and development, but a contradiction of what the company thought was best for swimmers since the Thirties.For the Barcelona games, Speedo started making zip-up suits out of Aquaspec called S2000 that covered the body, which also ended up being more hydrodynamic, since traditional suit straps had edges that caused drag.
“At that point, it was very clear what the next step had to be,” said Isaac. “Starting from the 1930s, manufacturers kept making the suits smaller and smaller, but in 1992, the Aquaspec fabrics started to make skin not look like the best material anymore.”
The company decided to go further with that concept and by 1996, Aquaspec spawned Aquablade, which actually went back to a Lycra blend. It featured treatments on the surface of the fabric that broke up the flow of water running over the body in a concept Isaac likens to dimples on a golf ball. While one would think a smoother surface would have the least resistance, that’s actually not the case, according to the laws of physics, Isaac said. By breaking up the water molecules, a swimmer has less water going over him.
It was at this time that male swimmers started wearing what are known as “jammers” or suits that completely cover the thighs and stop at the knees.
As the ideas coming out of the company’s research and development department grew more sophisticated, so did the kind of people the department brought in to consult. Aerodynamic engineers, biomechanics, physiologists and fabric and garment engineers were among the types of professionals recruited to help the company develop ultrasophisticated swimsuits.
This led to a move straight out of a sci-fi movie when Speedo began studying biomimetics — the study of applications of animals and their biologies that can be applied to humans or technology.
“We ended up studying sharkskin, which has dermal denticles,” said Isaac. “The faster a shark goes, a series of ridges break out on a shark’s skin to break up the surface of water and help them swim faster. We were able to study this and create the same kind of pattern on a fabric.”
The first trick was making sure the ridges went in the right direction, so the company held tests in wind tunnels and flumes, a water version of a wind tunnel. In 2000, the tests resulted in the product, Fastskin, a nylon Lycra fabric with ridges knitted into it, strategically positioned in different directions to break up water molecules and facilitate the reduction of drag.That’s just the biomimetics part. Then biomechanists and physiologists started to look at compression fabrics that sit tightly on top of muscles, which help muscles return to their original shape as quickly as possible. This helps them perform more efficiently.
But seams became a roadblock, since that’s where a garment stretches the least. So garment engineers solved the problem by creating seams with unusually high stitch counts that ended up stretching as much as the fabric.
“That’s when the suits first went from the wrists all the way down to the ankles,” said Isaac, noting that not one male swimmer made the U.S. Olympic team in 2000 wearing the traditional brief. “We didn’t want the muscles to be constricted, so Fastskin suits looked almost like Spiderman suits. The seams were built around muscle groups that outlined the tendons and ligaments. There were biomechanists, marine biologists, physiologists, aerospace engineers and fabric and garment engineers. It took all that pooling of resources from experts in those fields. People were participating from Speedo Japan, Speedo International and Speedo Europe.”
The Fastskin suits may sound like laboratory accoutrements reserved for hyper-competitive top-tier athletes — and they are. But they also retail for around $300 and Speedo sells more than 100,000 suits a year in North America alone.
“Speedo is all about making suits for elite-level performance, but what made us happier is that it had market viability,” said Isaac. “Ninety percent of the swimmers at Nationals wear Fastskin.”
Isaac said the company doesn’t recommend Fastskin for younger age groups and reminds swimmers that suits don’t replace good old hard work in its marketing and education campaigns.
So, is there any limit to how far Speedo can take its fabrics?
According to the Fédération Internationale de Natation, the global swimming federation, suits that increase buoyancy or suits with appendages that change the shape of the body are against regulations.
“We’ll continue to push limits and bring a lot of different sciences to bear,” said Isaac. “We have a real advantage. We have the best swimmers, coaches and scientists working with us.”
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