#SundayFunday: Escape to the Côte D’Azur in Vilebrequin swimwear

Where fantasy meets elegance

#SundayFunday: Escape to the Côte D’Azur in Vilebrequin swimwear
Roland Herlory, CEO of Vilebrequin, reveals the origins of the luxury swimwear company — fantastical prints, French elegance, and at its heart, a love story

When Fred Pascal started the brand in the '70s, he created a new look in the Côte D'Azur with his bright prints. It went against the prevailing fashion of classic trunks at the time. How do you keep that entrepreneurial spirit alive today?

You know, Fred didn't really have an entrepreneurial spirit, but he was a visionary without even knowing it. Vilebrequin's beginning was a love story. Fred was a journalist, as you are, and he was covering car races around the world at that time. He was very open-minded about different influences in the world, and he was in love with a woman living in Saint-Tropez. When you're in love, you tend to focus a lot on who you're in love with of course, and he moved to where she lived to attempt to seduce her. 

It was the trend in Saint-Tropez in the '70s to wear those mini Lycra bathing suits, and he said, "I don't have the body to wear those tiny swim trunks. It looks awful on me and I can't seduce the lady I love." He didn't know it then, but he created the first pair of swim shorts of modernity. He did it purely for himself because he wanted to be comfortable. And as he spent time on the beach, his friends loved his swim shorts, and he started getting requests to make some for them as well.

And that's how the brand grew and developed...
Yes. He approached a few ladies that he knew in Saint-Tropez with sewing machines and asked if they could help him create shorts out of colourful fabrics he brought back from Africa. As the requests snowballed, he propositioned the lady he was in love with to sell his shorts in her store. It came to a point where he needed a name for his line, and he settled on Vilebrequin. 

What does 'vilebrequin' actually mean?
Even in French, people aren't sure what it really means. It's not easy in both writing and pronunciation, it's quite impossible to say no matter what language you speak! It's actually a part of an engine, the crankshaft, which for Fred, was the most important part as it transforms the cylinders into a moving force. He chose that word because cars were his passion. This is how Vilebrequin came about, but he never thought of the international prospects for the brand. There was no entrepreneurial or commercial spirit involved at the start. The girl he loved was his motivator. He wanted to seduce her and marry her, which he did. It's a happy ending. 


But what he created with Vilebrequin ended up transforming the men's swimwear market.
He ended up starting a business but he's not a businessman. He sold the company and some other people really gave the brand an international dimension and industrialised the processes. Ultimately, he is a visionary that invented the first swim shorts of modern time, that's been copied by all the brands. Hartford, Ralph Lauren... everyone has swim shorts like that now. 

How much does this history of seduction play a part in your designs today?
Our history gives us the opportunity to focus less on the market, and more on our values and creating beauty and quality. If that is done well, commercial success is a natural consequence. Sure, we want and can grow strongly, but it's more important to respect the DNA of the brand.

Talking about the DNA of the brand, how would you describe it in a few words?
It's the ability to mix high fantasy and fun with elegance. You can wear a bathing suit from us with green penguins and pink elephants, and not look ridiculous. You'll look elegant. We are also all about family, beaches and vacations — the father and son, mother and daughter bond is important to us.


And how does 'high fantasy' translate into the fabrications you use?
We use a polyamide thread that we buy in Italy and then send it to a factory in Spain to undergo a special weaving process. The fabric is brushed to break the fibres to a create a micro velvet texture. And then we print our designs on this broken fibre, which is a moving fabric, so the whole printing process is extremely complicated because if it's not done right, the ink can smudge. There are only two printers that are able to accomplish what we need — one in Italy and one in France. After printing, assembly takes place in Italy and Bulgaria. 

It's a very arduous process just for a pair of swim trunks.
It's a long process, but at the end, we have a fabric with a great drape, whether you are wet or dry. We also make sure that the pattern on the back pockets line up perfectly with the swim trunk. The pocket is cut, placed by hand, and then stitched to sit well with the rest of the print in a cohesive manner. Clients may not be aware, but the reality is that elegance is simply the addition of very small details: Respecting a print, the density of the fabric, how it drapes. Great quality all around means you can have crazy fantasies and fun, but elegance is introduced with those details. That is the secret of the brand: 32 different processes.

Clients may not be aware, but the reality is that elegance is simply the addition of very small details: Respecting a print, the density of the fabric, how it drapes. 

Tell me about your SS16 collection.
You know, being half naked is not an easy situation for most men. You may spend your entire day in the gym and you want to show off your perfect body, but it's still not an easy situation and the right bathing suit is super important to feel confident and seductive. So for SS16, the inspiration was the smile. We call it 'Happy'. It started with a penguin print and the idea of taking selfies with animals. To just enjoy summer in a fun and carefree way. 

The turtle has been a consistent symbol for the brand, what does it mean to you?
A turtle swimming is really elegant. It's quiet, and there is something peaceful and serene about it. It's a nice symbol for us. Another thing is that, in Chinese mythology, it means longevity and good luck. Wealth too. But we took this print on organically. We usually never repeat a print, we do it for one season and never again. But when we released the turtle print 10 years ago, it was met with incredible success and it just felt right with the brand. So we decided to bring it back in different colourways.


Fondest memory while wearing a pair of Vilebrequin swimwear?
I spent 20 years at Hermès before joining Vilebrequin. But owning a pair of Vilbrequins for me was my dream when I was in my 20s. And that took time to achieve. So for me, the most beautiful memory was my very first pair of Vilebrequins that I bought with money I save from my first job. And that memory is so strong and moving, that I eventually moved from Hermès to Vilebrequin three years ago.

When it comes to your designs, what is more important: Cut and silhouette, or visual aesthetics?
That's an interesting question. Both are important, but to answer your question, cut and comfort are essential to men, followed closely by the aesthetics. I think the biggest strength of Vilebrequin is the functionality and comfort of the product. Our prints and fun colours are definitely key as well, but to me, comfort tops that. When it comes to swim trunks, if men feel comfortable, they feel confident. You keep your clients for a lifetime this way. 

The Vilebrequin boutique is located in the Hotel Lobby of The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, L1-08A.

Text: Norman Tan

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