After making a splash with men’s swim shorts, the founder of Orlebar Brown is diving into women’s styles.
Sitting in the west London offices of Orlebar Brown, I’m surrounded by a hive of activity. Known for its colourful and tailored aesthetic, the premium men’s swimwear brand, which specialises in swim shorts, has won an army of discerning gentlemen fans since its launch in 2007, but this month it crosses the divide with its first-ever women’s capsule collection - which will be stocked exclusively by luxury department store Harrods and womenswear etailer Net-a-Porter in the UK, and by department store Barneys in the US.
“But isn’t Orlebar Brown [a fashion favourite among men’s glossies] very much a man’s brand?” I ask its founder Adam Brown as we take a seat in the relative calm of its beach-themed showroom. He replies: “It’s a different dialogue to be had and I think how we communicate that with the customer and our existing customers is something to be aware of.
“We are a men’s brand. But we have a lot of women that come to the website to buy presents for their men, for their husbands and boyfriends. So women do come and use the website more than you think. We’re excited about it but will tread carefully, because we’re still [predominantly] a menswear brand.”
In fact, Brown adds that the 15-piece capsule collection will have the “very same mood and feel” of its menswear, similarly taking its inspiration from tailoring by referencing things such as the side-fastener, and by using the same fabrics. The collection includes three bikini bottoms and tops in a selection of colours, one-pieces, and towelling polos and tunics.
Stewart Mancey, general merchandise manager of sportswear at Harrods, is confident the brand will be every bit as successful with women’s as it has been in men’s. “When Adam approached us about launching his debut women’s swim line we were immediately excited about stocking this. I think it’s great Orlebar Brown is diversifying as its menswear business is one of our anchor swimwear brands on the sports floor,” he says.
Mancey adds that the pricing of the range, which goes from £95 for swim briefs to £225 for a swimsuit, will make it popular with customers. “I have no doubt the womenswear line will perform equally as strongly as its menswear due to the diverse range of products and the price architecture offered,” he says. However, it’s not all about womenswear, or indeed swimwear, with Brown revealing that the brand is looking at expanding existing categories.
Two years ago, Orlebar Brown developed its men’s offer to include T-shirts and polos, with non-swimwear now making up 55% of sales. “That’s definitely where the business is heading. We’ve moved off the beach and into the resort,” he says, adding that the brand is pushing shirts as it is seeing “real traction” in that category.
That expansion is also evident in the brand’s high summer collection, which is dropping into stores and has been inspired by the great resort hotels of Miami such as The Raleigh and the Delano Hotel. This season the brand, which does use a house print but is more known for its block colours, has also teamed up with Gary Malin, a photographer who takes aerial pictures of beaches, for a range of shorts. Coats are also new, with a hooded mac style called the Chandler in a variety of shades.
Brown says so far the reaction from buyers has been overwhelmingly positive, with wholesale orders and total sales up about 90% on the previous year, though he shies away from revealing the brand’s turnover.
This is a world away from how the brand started back in 2007 when, following a career as a portrait photographer, Brown was inspired to launch Orlebar Brown after attending a friend’s birthday weekend. “I was just looking around a pool - it was a friend’s 40th birthday with a whole mix of people: gay, straight, married, single, and the guys all of a certain age group were either wearing briefs or floral baggy boardshorts with their bums hanging out, which is maybe fine on a 17-year-old but maybe not on a man of 40,” he says.
“Then we also had to go and change for lunch for the day, which I thought was a bit stupid, bearing in mind we were in a hotel.
So the whole premise for Orlebar Brown is that we’re a tailored approach to swim shorts. We’re not a swim short in a sports sense of the brand, but we’re a short you can swim in, and that was the inspiration.”
Like many entrepreneurs he began the brand from his spare room, made 1,000 pairs of shorts in five colours and four sizes, and tried to sell them. The brand made its debut online, but the first couple of years were tough. “It was quite a hand-to-mouth existence, with no salaries being paid for two years,” reveals Brown. “I started by myself, we got the product made, I was standing in a storage unit in Fulham Broadway ironing shorts, standing in queues in post offices doing all the customer exchanges. There was no one for two years, it was just me, I did everything.
But that was the best way to learn every element of the business.”
The Shop at Bluebird on King’s Road became its first wholesale stockist, with the likes of Selfridges, which Brown says was “hugely instrumental in the making of [the] business”, Fenwicks and Harrods following in the UK, Le Bon Marché, Merci and Montaigne Market in Paris, and Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys in the US. Today, wholesale represents around 45% of the business, with 30% of sales via the website, and the remainder through Orlebar Brown’s three retail stores in London.
However, Brown has no desire to own numerous stores, and says the business model will remain wholesale: “While retail has a role I don’t see us as a brand that is going to have 35 stores in London. Not at all. I’d love to have a store in the US, in New York and Miami, and I’d love to have a store in St Tropez if possible. Those sorts of key places.”
The brand has also been successful overseas, with 30% of its sales coming from the US, with a localised website and distribution there, and similar sites in Australia, and Germany, for which it provides a German-speaking customer service. “Next year the US is definitely a priority but I also think we need to start coming up with a strategy for how we launch in the Far East or do something,” Brown says of his plans to grow the brand overseas.
He adds: “We haven’t really approached the Far East that much. Yes we’ve got a few wholesale accounts, such as [department store] Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, that we’ve been working with. But it’s a strategic decision
you need to make when you’re ready for it. You’ve got to find the right partners for the brand. I don’t want to set it up to fail.”
Brown says the brand has lots of work to do, having just made the transition from start-up to small brand, but he is confident about the future. He says: “There is so much room for growth and a whole range of opportunities we haven’t even begun. Have we looked at shoes? Have we looked at beach bags? Have we looked at sunglasses?
Have we looked at any of those things? Surely that has to be an opportunity for us somewhere down the line,
I would say.”