Shorts story: the swimming trunks that have us all in the swim

What (and who) makes a pair of swimming trunks worth £160? Stephanie King traces the incredible life and times of M. Vilebrequin's dazzling beachwear

There is no denying that price is steep when it comes to splashing out on what you're wearing beach or poolside. Especially when you consider that the world's largest online retailer of designer lingerie and swimwear, figleaves.com, is bursting with labels such as Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger and has an average "basket" spend of under £20 on men's swim stuff.

But Vilebrequin, where prices start at £75 and escalate to £160, is the Cartier of swimming trunks. You only have to look at the roll-call of well-heeled sorts that sport them, such as George Clooney, Hugh Grant, Prince William, Jack Nicholson, Nick Faldo and, erm, our Tone.

And the shorts have advanced somewhat since car fanatic (Vilebrequin means a car's crankshaft in French) Pascal's day, although he did develop the super-fast drying "spinnaker canvas" fabric. Aside from the quick-dry cloth, Vilebrequins cleverly contain two air holes at the back which prevent the shorts from puffing up like a balloon on impact with the pool. Most importantly, they have a super-fine, cotton mesh brief-like lining for holding tackle in. A nifty little plastic wallet sealed in the back pocket means you can take your money for a swim, especially handy if you happen to be at a hotel with one of those Miami Vice-style pool bars. And the shorts come with an accompanying navy poche that you can put damp shorts in.

Vilebrequin's signature is vibrant print and colour and they earnestly make sure both are unique to them by employing an in-house designer. But there are those who can't stand to see others wearing the same thing as they do, even if such upstart copycats include rock stars and royalty. For those quite so pernickety there is a VIP range where certain styles are produced in limited edition amounts, with silver finishes to the draw strings.

And, of course, like all posh nob goods and designery effects, people in-the-know like to be able to recognise and even nod to those in the same clique. For Vilebrequin, the identifiable sign is a visible blue label with the name in white stitched onto the back at the waistband. The company has been sold twice since Pascal founded it, and only under the present part-owner, Pierre-Alain Blum, of the Ebel watch dynasty, has the brand's luxury item potential been tapped.

"It was Blum who thought it was a remarkable business and wanted to take it to an international level," says Carolyn Haden-Paton, Vilebrequin's English director who owns (in partnership with Vilebrequin) the two London stores on Fulham Road and Piccadilly's Burlington Arcade. And Blum has accomplished his mission. Vilebrequin now has 40 own-name stores across Europe, America, Africa, Asia and Australia, with more in the pipeline. And numerous independent boutiques in millionaire playgrounds such as Puerto Banus and Juan-Les-Pins stock their shorts.

It's not difficult to understand how a store that sells brightly coloured swimming shorts might go down a bomb in Sydney, for example, but here in rain-sodden Britain, does that really work? Are the nation's men really into buying snazzy swimwear and paying quite so handsomely for them?

Ms Haden-Paton laughs when asked that, as did her bank manager when she approached him with regard to the venture. "You'd be amazed," she says. "We sell thousands. They're a really easy purchase for a man for a birthday or Valentine present. And our best time of year is Christmas, when we sell between 50 and 60 pairs a day because a lot of our customers go on holiday in January and February." They're off to Mustique then, not Margate or Mallorca.

Even if they do have more money than sense, it's still hard to imagine British men shopping so seriously for swimwear, especially for such fanciful creations. When you think of the Brits abroad, images of Ray Winston in Sexy Beast spring to mind: think lobster-red paunch protruding over basic black Speedos. It just isn't in the British male psyche to dress up for the beach, a fact even the fashion ardent tends to agree with.

James Sleaford, a Paris menswear show stylist and contributing fashion editor to Arena, magazine says: "It's all about function for most men buying swimwear because we've been brought up buying trunks to splash about in pools, not for swanning about beaches. As a kid in Britain, you got your swim shorts from a sports shop, not a boutique. Or you were really unlucky and your mum took you to those old gents' shops where they pulled out awful trunks with things like repeat prints of motorcars on them."

But Sleaford does concede that times have changed. As well as more people travelling abroad, fashion houses such as Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren introducing swimwear collections have made it more of a fashion item for men. Figleaves have had sales of their men's swimwear increase by 165 per cent from 2004 to this year.

Amid all this fashion talk, Vilebrequin doesn't consider itself the Prada of men's trunks. "We're more like the Hermes of swimwear," Ms Haden-Paton says rather grandly. "We do have 80 patterns to choose from but we're not driven by trend and we don't change things drastically from season to season." In fact, they don't follow the usual spring/summer and autumn/ winter routine; instead they have summer and cruise collections.

Still, it seems unlikely that the British will part with large amounts of hard-earned cash for an item of clothing worn only rarely. We don't, for the most part, have the skin tone to parade on the beach. Neither have we been brought up in the Brazilian fashion, spending days on end by the sea.

But a celebrity name can do for an awful lot for even the most ghastly fashions. Figleaves featured a pap shot of David Beckham on holiday this summer in skimpy Speedos and almost overnight they had 100 orders for DB-style minuscule trunks. On the other hand, Tony Blair's appearance in Vilebrequins have reportedly done nothing for the brand, because not a single one of his apple-print shorts have been sold since his picture was splashed all over the press.

Sleaford does point out that Beckham's tiny trunks really are only for the perfect of torso and is more in favour of Blair's swimming attire. "They are far more flattering," he says. "The fact that they are loose-fitting and have a draw-waist means more men can wear them."

He also says the draw-waist has an additional advantage via a bit of strategical positioning. "With a draw-waist you can pull the shorts up to sit just at the start of your tummy, which is far more flattering than a tight trunk that sits under the stomach and only acts to accentuate the girth."

Ms Haden-Paton agrees. "Our short shape flatters the wearer and we have different leg lengths and finishes to suit different physiques. If someone is particularly small we'll suggest the shorter leg length 'Master' style. We equally have a longer 'Okoa' shape and if someone is extremely trim then they can afford to wear the flat-front 'Malibu' short. But in general we'd recommend the draw waist."

And Ms Haden-Paton sees all ages shopping for trunks, from teens (whose parents obviously fork out for them) through to 70-year-olds. "But really Mr 35 to 45 is our perfect customer," she adds. In the end, Ms Haden-Paton admits that a lot of her customers are southern European and American. But not all of them. She does bear in mind the British complexion when buying her stock.

"The Burlington Arcade shop has a lot of tourists so I can afford to be a bit adventurous with pattern and colour for there," she says. "Whereas for Fulham I do tend to be a little bit more conservative in my choice and will pick out plain navies as well as subtle prints."

So what of Mr Blair in his fruity, green, apple-print swimming kecks, which are the classic Vilebrequin Moorea style incidentally, seemingly popular with older customers and those not wanting to flash too much leg. The Hasselhoff shape is undoubtedly more flattering than something tiny and tight, especially for someone his age.

And, as Sleaford points out: "The environment is an obvious consideration. If he were on the Isle of Wight they would look ridiculous."

Given that Blair is in the Caribbean, the apples are passable, if childlike. And let's be honest, it could have been so much worse. Remember Peter Stringfellow's thong? Enough said.

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