Just over 70 years ago, Louis Réard invented the bikini. After a three-decade hiatus, the brand he created is reborn this year, but can the team create demand for $650 bikinis?
Richard Emanuel swears that it wasn’t the barely dressed model that drew his attention to the cafe poster. “It was a beautiful vintage art print for some brand called Réard, which I’d never heard of,” says the entrepreneur. “I looked it up, and found it has this incredible history. And that got me thinking.”
Some detective work uncovered that the brand name had been passed around various owners since the company ceased trading in the late 1960s, but had never been revived. So Emanuel bought it – and subsequently found himself in the swimwear business.
It was not an obvious thing to do. Emanuel made his money in the mobile phone trade, selling his company to BT in the late 1990s, dabbling with other businesses and finally relocating to Monaco in 2000. “But I’d always been interested in brands, and their development, so I was still looking for opportunities,” he says. And that chance encounter with some cafe art was the start of a big opportunity.
Réard may be a forgotten name now, but it was Louis Réard – the Frenchman who inherited a small swimwear manufacturing company from his mother in the 1930s – who would go on to revolutionise women’s beach attire.
It was the summer of 1946 and society was trying to get back on its feet after World War Two. Businesses had to make an impression – and fast. So Réard devised the first two-piece swimsuit and named it after Bikini Atoll, a collection of islands in the South Pacific where the atomic bomb was tested. He created the bikini. All 30 inches of it.
Réard’s invention debuted at the trendy Piscine Molitor swimming baths in Paris, worn by one Micheline Bernardini, a nude dancer – because no professional model would go near the job. There was outrage. Catholic countries – and Australia, surprisingly – banned it. The Miss World pageant barred it, too.
“It is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would even wear such a thing,” opined Modern Girl magazine. The French, naturally, loved it. Some 50,000 of them wrote letters of support to Réard. As an early poster for the brand had it, any woman wearing one, well, elle fera l’effet d’une bombe! (would be a bombshell).
“This was when the idea of a woman exposing her mid riff was something scandalous,” says Emanuel. “Since then, of course, swimwear has gone through trends of being so skimpy that it’s hard to imagine the bikini was ever shocking. But Réard was quite the marketeer. That first bikini was made from a newsprint fabric. He knew it was going to have an impact.”
But what could Réard of the 21st century do to garner quite the same attention? How about making your starting price around £200 and work rapidly upwards? Emanuel concedes that these days there are few ways of radically re-designing the look of swimwear, but that, by focusing on fit, functionality and fabrication – using the most advanced materials, for example – Réard, which relaunched for S/S17, can carve itself a niche again.
“We’re aiming for the luxury end of the market in part because the quality of our garments puts it there – design is subjective, of course, but fabric technology, comfort, finish, is more objective and we think it’s the best available,” says Emanuel. “The demand is there, too. There are more than 100 resorts around the world where the room rate is considerably higher than the cost of one of our swimsuits. And as your positioning gets higher, history becomes more important, especially in the social media age – so that’s playing to our strengths. The story behind Réard is amazing.”
Were it not for the fact that, come the late ’60s, bank lending was less buoyant and Louis Réard had no successors, one can imagine that this family business might have continued manufacturing for many more decades. Even more so since, thanks to relaxed social mores and some notable film appearances, including Ursula Andress in Dr. No, it was during the ’60s that the bikini really started going mainstream.
This was the decade of Annette Funicello in Beach Party, the first of a new wave of movies based around a youth trend for surf-and-swim culture. Raquel Welch appeared to suggest that, in fact, Réard was not the first – prehistoric woman, it seemed, also wore fur-trimmed bikinis, or at least in One Million Years B.C they did. And Brian Hyland was on hand to sing about the craze in 1960 in Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.
Bikinis were getting teenie: if Réard had claimed in one ad that it “wasn’t a bikini unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring”, competitor Jacques Heim was pushing his Atome, named for being, at the time, not only the skimpiest two-piece swimsuit yet devised, but also for being something akin to a weapon of mass flirtation.
Emanuel concedes that the story alone is not enough to make for success this time around, no matter how captivating that story is.
“We knew that from the outset the products had to be beautiful, otherwise you have a story but no business,” he stresses. And certainly the first collection – made at specialist facilities in France, Italy, Portugal and Tunisia – is decidedly more classy than flashy, more classic than fast fashion. There’s an Art Deco feel to the pieces, with architectural insets, graphic cut-outs and more modest shapes than Louis Réard might have appreciated. Colours are sophisticated: black and white, navy, olive, aqua blue.
Intriguingly, given the standard procedure to launch a high-end brand with bricks and mortar retail, Réard has made itself available online before it moves into wholesaling, opening its own shops or, in the longer run, extending its lines into resortwear, as is the plan.
“We’re going with e-commerce because we want the customer to be able to have direct contact with us, both so we can get as much feedback as possible, to perfect the products, and because it gives us more reach,” Emanuel explains. “They were slow on the uptake but attitudes to e-commerce among luxury brands is changing. We want to be there, selling around the world from the off.”
Emanuel knows that selling luxury swimwear is a far cry from selling mobile phones. But it’s an industry that he’s keen to get to grips with, not least because the sector is predicted to increase by 35 per cent to US$28.3bn by the end of this decade. For anyone doubting the social standing of the bikini, it’s even been consecrated with its own day of celebration – every year, 5 July is World Bikini Day.