There is a machine in South Brooklyn that looks like a transparent coffin and whirs like an industrial fan. Its metallic innards flit and glide until, within an hour, it releases a swimsuit, dropped from the machine’s underbelly like an egg.
It is a high-tech process that seems simple: Click a button, get a very nearly finished swimsuit. In a way, it mirrors the automated, on-demand, two-day-shipping experience that defines shopping for many people in 2022.
Yet dozens of decisions were made before the idea of that swimsuit became a tangible thing — decisions that ultimately led to its being priced around $250 and not $25, which is roughly the amount an adult woman spends on a swimsuit in the United States, according to the market research analysts at the NPD Group.
But what do those decisions entail? What makes a swimsuit, in this economy, worth that much?
Fabric, for one. In this case, a soft yarn sourced from Japan after years of trial and error by the designer Anna Berger of Deta.
Ms. Berger’s specialty is knitted swimwear — imagine if a bikini mated with a ribbed sweater vest. As such, her yarn needs to be special: quick-drying, so the suit maintains its shape, and resistant to sun and chemical damage, yet just as stretchy and durable as nylon, a much more common swimwear fabric.
Then there are labor and manufacturing costs. Last fall, after the knitwear factory Ms. Berger worked with in Los Angeles abruptly closed, a friend recommended that she bring her designs to Tailored Industry, a company in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn that produces whole pieces of made-to-order clothing on computerized knitting machines — those egg-laying coffins.
According to Ms. Berger, having a swimsuit manufactured at Tailored Industry costs about $65, not including the yarn she provides — comparable to the price she paid for production in Los Angeles.
But compare that with the much lower cost of production outside the United States. While very few companies disclose their pricing structure, Everlane, the multimillion-dollar basics brand, says it pays $3.90 for labor on a single one-piece swimsuit made in Sri Lanka. A small German swimwear company called Wonda says it pays 15 euros (about $16) for labor and manufacturing on a bikini made in Portugal.
Once a garment is made, most designers try to sell pieces in bulk to retailers, like boutiques and department stores. To set their wholesale prices, designers typically double (or more) the total cost of making the garment, including, for example, sewing, materials and transport, which is how they make a profit. But stores then use similar math to make their own profits, meaning that the final retail price a shopper sees can be five times the cost of actually making the item.
That is how a swimsuit that costs $65 to produce becomes $250 to buy — not even an exceptionally high markup. And that has been the hardest part of getting her business off the ground, said Ms. Berger, whose brand did not make a profit last year, despite some support from magazines and celebrities.
“Pricing,” she said. “We are used to everything being really cheap, and people don’t understand how expensive it is to make.”
Buying a Swimsuit Used to Be Simpler
A decade ago, Victoria’s Secret was a powerful player in the swimsuit market. When it stopped selling swimwear in 2016 — the category was declining but still made up 6.5 percent of the company’s business, or about $500 million — competitors saw an opportunity.
“That left a huge hole,” said Jenna Lyons, then the president and executive creative director of J. Crew. “But I think people were really longing for something else. It was so restrictive in terms of the way they were speaking to the customer.”
Instead of trying to be the “sexiest game on the beach,” J. Crew positioned its swimwear as more classic and simple, selling a more “natural sexiness,” said Ms. Lyons, who left the company in 2017 and is now the founder and chief executive of LoveSeen, which sells false eyelashes.
Today the swimwear market is crowded with young brands targeting every type of shopper — athletic, minimalist, tropical party girl, shiny party girl — with prices that generally range from $100 to $400. The options can be overwhelming, amplified by the already emotional nature of swimsuit shopping.
“For a woman, the most vulnerable time of the year is swimsuit season,” Ms. Lyons said, ticking 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’s the same kind of anxiety around walking out onto a pool or beach. Everyone’s looking at me! Maybe they’re not, but they might be. And because of that, swimwear is a place that women will spend.”
Some swim labels have built their identities around these insecurities. The Instagram-popular brand Summersalt is dedicated, its co-founder Lori Coulter said, “to enabling women to feel the joy we all felt at the beach as children,” and “making sure they’re comfortable in the swimwear they’re wearing and the body that they have.”
Summersalt’s best-known suit, a super-compressive one-shoulder design that extends to size 24 and was developed using measurements from the scans of 10,000 women’s bodies, costs $95. That’s largely because the company sells directly to consumers, avoiding wholesale markups.
“The truth is, no matter what income bracket you’re in, nobody wants to pay $400 for a swimsuit,” Ms. Coulter said.
But they may do it anyway. Kristen Classi-Zummo, an apparel analyst for the NPD Group, said that in recent years, quality had become a top priority for shoppers, more than price. “We’re seeing consumers shift focus to longer lasting, better constructed apparel,” she said, “swimsuits being one of those main categories where we know fit and construction are very important.”
Once, during Ms. Lyons’s tenure at J. Crew, the company decided to offer some suits in a lightweight Italian fabric, higher quality than its typical nylon Lycra, driving the retail price well above $100. Executives were concerned; the brand had to place high minimum orders for its swimwear fabric. But there was “no resistance” from customers, Ms. Lyons said, and the suits became best sellers.
Smaller brands can’t always afford that kind of risk. Riot Swim, founded in 2016 by the model and influencer Monti Landers, typically chooses fabrics based on what’s already offered by its Chinese factory.
“Customizing a fabric is great because you get your perfect color,” Ms. Landers said, but the minimum order requirements can be staggering. “What happens if that color doesn’t do well for you? Then you have all that extra stock.”
Because of the steep increases in textile and shipping costs related to the pandemic and inflation, Ms. Landers had to raise prices recently. Her most popular design, the Echo one-piece, with a deep V-neck, high-cut leg and a thick band of ruching at the waist that took several months of tweaking samples to perfect, was $99 a year ago. Today it costs $150.
“We had been eating those costs on our own for so long,” she said.
So far, customers haven’t revolted. “They know that you get what you pay for,” Ms. Landers said. “Would you rather go to fast fashion and pay $20 for a suit that you’re only going to wear once? That was me. Before I started my brand, I was always the girl that had to have a different swimsuit every time I went to the beach.”
The Ethics Surcharge
Becca McCharen-Tran is used to getting DMs on Instagram from people wanting to collaborate. Usually it means they’re offering to post about her brand, Chromat, in exchange for a swimsuit from her futuristic, architectural line.
But that’s not what happened when the activist Tourmaline reached out; she wanted to collaborate on swimsuits for trans women who don’t tuck their genitals. The suggestion was exciting to Ms. McCharen-Tran, who has long prioritized inclusivity.
But once she began incorporating Tourmaline’s ideas, new challenges arose. The software her patternmaker used to make templates for the designs had only two options for 3-D modeling on avatar bodies: men or women. (Her factory, too, asked her if the swimsuits were for men or women, Ms. McCharen-Tran said.)
It may not have cost Chromat any more money to produce the collaboration, which included one-pieces priced from around $150 to $200, but it cost time: extra hours of market research, finding solutions and providing explanations. (Chromat is another brand that sells only direct-to-consumer online, but that is a recent development. A few years ago, when the label was sold in stores, its swimsuits were priced from $250 to $400.)
Ms. Coulter of Summersalt estimated that there were 40 design components in the average one-piece swimsuit: the thread on the straps, the fabric of the lining, the boning or cups that give it shape, the hooks that close it, the type of elastic sewn into the leg holes. Each component brings more questions: How do you make a one-piece in size 8 that can fit both an A and a D cup? How much tension in the stretch is too much? How long is the torso? How wide is the crotch?
“Now that is a very specific measurement,” said Dana Davis, the vice president for sustainability, product and business strategy at Mara Hoffman, a women’s wear label in New York. “If it’s a little too wide, like a quarter of an inch, that’s going to really change the fit of that swimsuit.”
At Mara Hoffman, a one-piece swimsuit costs about $300, a price attributed in part to how the brand creates its signature bold prints (digitally engineered so each swimsuit has the same print placement) and customizes its fabrics, which are certified as recycled and free of harmful residue. This year, it will introduce its first swimsuit made from cellulosic, or nonsynthetic, material. The timing could scarcely be better, considering that lead time for orders of recycled nylon, its main fabric, has grown from eight to 10 weeks to 40 to 50 weeks, Ms. Davis said.
Yet for designers with sustainable values, the cost of making swimwear doesn’t actually start rising significantly until production begins, after the design is already set.
“If you want to pay your sewers a living wage, that’s where the cost comes,” said Araks Yeramyan, the creative director of a namesake line of swimwear, lingerie and loungewear. “If you’re not going to make in China, and you’re not going to make a million gazillion pieces, it’s the actual sewing that costs the money.”
Ms. Yeramyan produces her label at factories in New York City, where the minimum wage is $15 an hour, and New Jersey, where it’s $13 an hour — that’s about the cost of a one-piece swimsuit sold right now on the fast-fashion website Shein (before markdowns).
But New York isn’t a popular market for swimwear production, meaning there are fewer specialized sewers there who know how to work with fabric that is smaller, stretchier and more slippery than, say, denim.
“My factories always tell me that everything looks really simple but it’s so complicated,” Ms. Yeramyan said. “You’re paying for people. The better quality labor, the higher quality swimsuits.”
Still, she understands that not everybody can pay $365 for a swimsuit, which is the upper range of her one-pieces. But in her experience, to make a swimsuit, especially with the kind of cutout designs she prefers, is, she said, “to fight with the body and the fabric.”
To do it ethically? “That’s really hard.”