When Candice Swanepoel started working on her swimwear line Tropic of C, which launched earlier this year, she wasn’t on a mission to make it sustainable.
“At first, I wasn’t really planning to make the brand sustainable,” said Swanepoel. “I started making the brand sustainable through the packaging because I began feeling fed up when I would receive product wrapped in plastic. I started wanting my brand to be very conscious of that. Once we started research on packaging it kind of felt natural to see what else was available. That’s how I found out about Econyl.”
Tropic of C is one of many modern, chic swimwear brands that use Econyl, a fabric made from regenerated nylon that is rescued from things like fishing nets, carpets and plastic landfills and remade into textiles for apparel and carpets. Other swim brands using Econyl include All Sisters, Mara Hoffman, Araks, Adidas and Volcom, to name a few. A trademark of Italy-based Aquafil SpA, the fiber was put into development in 2007 and launched to market in 2011.
“When it happened, more than one person told me I was crazy to launch such a challenging project because very important companies in the nylon value chain tried to develop something similar in the past, but unfortunately they failed,” said Giulio Bonazzi, Aquafil’s chief executive officer. “In my case, maybe the timing was better because now the market is for sure much more demanding for such products.”
After years working for Inditex, Patricia Bisbal of All Sisters started to tire of the churn-and-burn style of fast fashion. “They treat the collections superfast, not taking care about the people who were producing, not taking care of anything. Just very fast shooting, selling, and then another collection,” said Bisbal, who’s based in Barcelona. “I was a photo producer for them and I started feeling a little bit sad because I love fashion from when I was a kid.”
She started surfing and saw swimwear as a way to combine her love of fashion and nature. “I wanted to do something that felt good, was well produced, but also good for woman,” she said. “Because it was very difficult to find a sporty swimsuit that I can start practicing surfing in the ocean with a bunch of hot guys.” Bisbal and her sister Alba launched their collection with Econyl four years ago, designing swimwear that’s minimalist but sporty with a few cutout details.
“Everybody loves Econyl,” said Bisbal. “Moms, people with big curves, people with no big curves, and our clients told us that it gets dry very fast. We are still wearing our swimsuits from the first year, so it’s good quality.”
Econyl isn’t the only option for sustainable swimwear. When Amahlia Stevens of Vitamin A started researching sustainable fabrics 10 years ago, she had a hard time finding anything up to snuff. “I was working with an Italian mill and a Canadian mill, trying to get something that looks and feels the way my swimsuits look and feel and have the performance level, but it just didn’t exist,” she said. “It felt like scratchy, heavy workout wear kind of stuff. Where I wanted to go with it, they were saying, ‘Yeah, sure, we can do it if you give us an order upfront for 6,000 meters.’ I mean, do you know how many bikinis come out of 6,000 meters of fabric?”
Eventually Stevens and a California mill developed two fabrics, one recycled nylon, one recycled plastic, that met her standards. She’s since developed ribs and yarn dyed striped fabrics out of recycled nylon and recycled polyester mixes. Stevens has also been working with two Italian mills for bio-based alternatives to nylon, one of which is sourced from castor beans.
“There’s been a lot of challenges, the same types of challenges I had in the beginning of working with recycled nylon,” said Stevens of the new fibers. “It’s doable and achievable from a sustainability standpoint, but from an aesthetic standpoint, I’m still having to put a lot of work into the finishes and performance side of it.”