It all started with the “fatkini.” In May 2012, blogger Gabi Gregg called on plus-size women to share photos of themselves wearing their two-piece bathing suits, using a term popular among body-positive bloggers. The word still feels a bit taboo. But five years ago, seeing a woman above a size 12 rocking a two-piece that she lovingly called her fatkini felt as invasive as scrolling through her private photo stash. Gregg’s slideshow of real women in their bathing suits for the site xoJane.com quickly went viral. It also sparked a new conversation: If 67 percent of women fall into the category of plus-size, why should it be so shocking that any of them would sport a two-piece?
Within weeks, the plus-size swimwear company Swimsuits For All approached Gregg about designing her own collection. At the time, Swimsuits for All was a small company that offered the same conservative suits as Lane Bryant: black one-pieces and simple swim skirts at affordable prices. (Stylish bathing suits at boutique plus-size retailers like Monif C ran upwards of $100). The company told Gregg it wanted what it already knew its customers would buy: convertible pieces that could either be worn as low-waist, high-waist, a skirt, or all three. But Gregg wanted to bring more flair. Their first collaboration featured a vibrant collection of galaxy-covered bikinis, lip-printed one-pieces, and designs covered in zipper and cutout embellishments. Women who wore these bathing suits wouldn’t just be covering up. They’d be showing off.
The collection was a hit. The release sold out in just two days, crashed the Swimsuits For All website, and instantly increased online traffic by 74 percent. The frenzy of that collection landed the brand huge headlines in places like the New York Post, Jezebel, The Huffington Post, and this very website.
“My collaboration with Swimsuits For All was the first turning point in the plus-sized swimwear industry. That’s when people started to pay attention and realize that women who aren't skinny also want younger, sexier options,” says Gregg. “We were easy to ignore before then. Our line both pushed the envelope and showed the industry that we’re a really profitable market. It’s been like a snowball effect since then.”
In the four years since Swimsuits for All released the GabiFresh collection, the company has emerged as a major player in the largely untapped $20.4 billion plus-size market. Not only selling trendy product to the 67 percent of women who are above a size 12, but also by changing the conversation around them, too. It’s invested in high profile marketing campaigns starring big time names like Gregg and model Ashley Graham, and also popularized slogans like “#SwimSexy” and “#MySwimBody,” which have earned the brand attention and respect for finally placing bikini-clad women of all shapes in major media around the world.
“For so long, society placed unfair standards on women, like you have to ‘get beach body ready,’” says Graham, a face for the company who released her own first collection with the brand in 2016. “I struggled finding suits in my size that weren't matronly, especially when I was in middle and high school, because traditional swim brands assumed girls with bigger hips, breasts and thighs wanted to cover it all up. Swimsuits For All gave me the opportunity to wear string bikinis unapologetically — even with cellulite and back fat — and also create sexy suits for other women to feel confident.”
If it sounds like the company was founded with a mission, that actually wasn’t the case. The brand was founded by Moshe Laniado, a New Jersey entrepreneur who was simply building on the legacy of the family business. His mother and father were both in the swimwear business, with resortwear shops on Virginia and Myrtle Beach, and his mother currently owns Swimsuit Station, a wholesale swimwear outlet in New Jersey. Since this was the age of e-commerce, Laniado decided to start his own company online. He launched Swimsuits for All, selling at the time, literally, swimsuits for all: men, children’s, and plus-sizes.
“When we first launched, there were really only one or two other retailers in the whole country that had maybe a few items in that category,” says Laniado, who admits he gets a lot of surprised faces when people learn the founder of a women's bathing suit brand is a man. “We see the impact of our mission not just in numbers, but on social media, and at the actual beach: curvy women confidently wearing not just swimsuits, but bikinis. I’d say our biggest accomplishment is helping that no longer be seen as something that’s abnormal.”
In the 10 years the company’s been open, it’s increased its offering from 100 suits at any given moment to more than 1,500. They’re continuing to add at least 300 new styles each year, and every collection they release regularly sells out. (Since Swimsuits for All is a private company, it declined to release sales figures.) The company’s VP of creative and branding, Sara Mitzner, says the fashion industry’s reluctance to sell to plus-size women is their loss. “Not serving those customers is not only outrageous, but also just bad business,” she says. “If we were to solely create bathing suits for thin women in their 20s, we’d be leaving a whole lot of money on the table.”
Mitzner has a point. Between 2013 and 2016, plus-size apparel revenue increased 17% (from $17.4 billion to $20.4 billion), compared to a 7% increase for the overall clothing industry during the same period, according to NDP Group. Insiders like Christian Siriano have blamed laziness amongst designers: creating for a wider range of sizes means purchasing and experimenting with more fabrics, more sample sizes, and more models. Translation: It takes a lot more time and a lot more money. That is perhaps the reason why, in the swimwear arena, popular brands like Billabong, American Eagle, and J. Crew only have “special sizes” that stop at a size 16 or XXL.
The other issue, particularly when it comes to bathing suits, is changing the way plus-size women are viewed in our culture. And that’s something that Swimsuits for All has turned into a brand mission. A year after its first collaboration with Gregg, the company released a calendar that recreated Sports Illustrated Swimsuit’s 50th anniversary cover, swapping out thin models like Nina Agdal, Lily Aldridge, and Chrissy Teigen for bigger ones: Jada Sezer, Robyn Lawley, Shareefa Radford, and Gregg.
Mitzner was in charge of the creative direction, but getting photographers to sign on was difficult. “I reached out to a lot of photographers and stylists I had previously worked with in the magazine industry, and they all were excited to work together again, until it was, ‘Oh it’s a plus-size website? I really just don’t shoot plus-size,’” she remembers. “I actually had a photographer say, ‘I wouldn’t really know how to light it, I don’t know how to light someone that size.’ People would pass on a job even though we were paying clients.” Eventually they signed Michael Edwards, a photographer who's worked with Vogue and Glamour.
Then, in 2015, Swimsuits For All signed Graham for its #CurvesInBikinis advertisement, which featured the model in a skimpy black two-piece as a man admired her from behind. The brand placed the ad in that year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, effectively making her the first plus-size model to ever appear in the magazine. The ad’s existence juxtaposed against the more traditional swimsuit models in the issue led to a media firestorm. “SI’s Swimsuit Issue Finally Includes A Plus-Size Model, At Least In Its Advertising,” read Advertising Week’s headline. “Plus-Size Models Give SI's Swimsuit Edition More Curves,” read CNN’s. By the following year, Ashley Graham was on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. Swimsuits For All’s traffic had increased by 135%.
Today, Mitzner says, photographers are begging to work with her. “All the top photographers and stylists want to talk about opportunities or shooting with Ashley Graham,” she says. The language around plus-size swimwear has also changed. Whereas terms like “plus-size swimwear” and “plus-size bathing suit” used to be commonplace on internet shopping sites, Polyvore’s lifestyle editor, Alice Chen, says “high-waisted bikinis,” “crochet swimwear,” and “neoprene bikinis” are the new norm.
And while there is still a lot of room for improvement as far as fashion and retail advertising is concerned, there is no doubt that the depiction of plus-size women on the beach has changed across media. “Seeing women of all sizes in bathing suits on social media and in advertising has become more casual,” says Katie Smith, a senior retail analyst at Edited. “We've moved away from only seeing thin women in this push up, overly pumped up look.” Now, says Smith, seeing women of all shapes and sizes in bathing suits has become almost an expectation, not an anomaly, because we’ve been seeing it more often, especially on social media with the help of popular hashtags like “#PlusSizeFashion,” “#BodyPositive,” and “#EffYourBeautyStandards.”
In the meantime, competitors for some of Swimsuits for All’s market share are quickly springing up: A new brand called Alpine Butterfly Swimwear launched just last week, and Sports Illustrated, Eloquii, Forever21, and Fashion Nova all released plus swim collections this year. Plus-size stalwarts like Lane Bryant and Addition Elle have been diversifying their styles, and brands like Target have gotten more provocative with body-positive advertising, featuring unretouched models in its campaign this spring.
Swimsuits For All is not entirely responsible for this sea change toward beach body positivity, of course. There’s the presence of user-generated self-expression outlets like Big Girl Tumblr, and outspoken personalities like Gregg, Graham, Nicolette Mason, Chastity Garner Valentine, Aliss Bonython, and Nicole Spiezio have long led the charge toward body positivity online and in the media.
“There were so many bloggers and designers that helped this movement, but I think Swimsuits For All’s platform really pushed everything forward,” says Gregg. “Now we’re seeing Sports Illustrated coming out with a line with extended sizes, which is insane. Who would have thought this mainstay of thin women in bikinis would finally be now acknowledging larger bodies? That’s amazing, but I think the true dream is for anyone to be able to walk into any mall or store and find their size in all clothing.”
It started with the fatkini. Now, it’s up to the rest of the industry to follow suit. Fatparrel, you’re up next.