The changing shape of men’s swimming attire over the past 100 years offers an interesting insight into the prevailing social codes and outlook of any given time. The one-piece belted swimsuits worn in the early 20th century (see Robert Redford’s striped number in The Great Gatsby) reflect the period’s modest mindset; the racy, tight and barely there trunks of the 1950s and ’60s echo a free-spirited viewpoint; while the baggy, sporty board shorts of the ’90s, for which David Hasselhoff was the poster child, prove the decade’s macho, athletic mindset. 

Swimwear brand Vilebrequin, which turns 50 this year, has witnessed and helped shape this ever-changing phenomenon. The brand was conceived in the late ’60s in St-Tropez, at a time when Slim Aarons was photographing bronzed bathers on the beach, Brigitte Bardot was wandering the cobbled streets and party-goers were flocking to the cavernous, underground club at Hôtel Byblos. Fred Prysquel, a motor-racing enthusiast and Formula One journalist, was knocking around the area in the hopes of wooing Yvette, a fashion designer and his childhood flame. He’d made a pair of radical swimming shorts – inspired by the slightly longer, looser styles worn by surfers in California, which were at odds with the more fitted models prevalent at the time – in the hope of catching her eye.

A pair of Vilebrequin shorts from the archive
A pair of Vilebrequin shorts from the archive

“Vilebrequin is just a love story,” says CEO Roland Herlory, who worked at Hermès for 25 years before joining the company in 2012. “The guy didn’t want to do any business, he just wanted to seduce a lady, and that’s why he did the shorts.” It worked, and together, in 1971, the couple opened their first shop in the fishing town; the spiral staircase within reminded Prysquel of a car’s crankshaft (vilebrequin in French), inspiring the name.

Vilebrequin founder Fred Prysquel in 1971
Vilebrequin founder Fred Prysquel in 1971 © Fred & Yvette Prysquel

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, Vilebrequin is recreating the first model – originally made from African wax-print cotton – as well as a different print or style for each subsequent year of business. “Another is from the first time that we really used synthetics, when Fred met a guy who had rolls of rainbow fabrics that were super-light,” says Herlory. “And we also have stripes in a kind of seersucker that he found.” Some of the vintage styles that inspired the anniversary collection had to be sourced from old customers, because much of the brand’s archive was lost in a storm in the ’80s. “A lot about the origin of the brand has gone because of this big flood in St-Tropez, but we were able to collect old models from old clients, or their sons.” 

A vintage Vilebrequin postcard
A vintage Vilebrequin postcard

Today, Vilebrequin’s most popular style is the Moorea – a loose yet slim-fit short that was first developed in the ’90s – of which between 220,000 and 250,000 are sold each year. The brand is also known for its loud patterns, which have been worn by everyone from Jack Nicholson to Prince William. “Its iconic bright colours and classic shapes continue to be favourites with our luxury-focused customers, especially the Moorea and the Mahina turtle-print swim shorts,” says Damien Paul, head of menswear at MatchesFashion, which has stocked the brand for nearly a decade. “Dressing for optimism has never felt more important than now and our customers are embracing clothing that makes them smile.”

The recurring turtle motif, which first appeared in 2000, has come to symbolise the brand’s sustainability and conservation efforts. In 2016, Vilebrequin began working with Te Mana O Te Moana, a non-profit based in French Polynesia whose aim is to preserve marine environments and save sea turtles. The brand is also continually developing its fabrics and production processes to lessen its impact on the environment. Currently, 50 per cent of the materials Vilebrequin uses in its collections are either recycled or recyclable, with a goal of increasing that to 80 per cent by 2023. The swimwear is also designed to last a lifetime (Herlory, who lives in St Barths, is the brand’s self-professed “test man”) and can be repaired via an in-house service.

Vilebrequin vintage shorts
Vilebrequin vintage shorts
Vilebrequin 50th-anniversary Moorea trunks, originally from 2014, £215
Vilebrequin 50th-anniversary Moorea trunks, originally from 2014, £215

“We question ourselves in two ways, in everything we do,” says Herlory. “Can we find a sustainable solution? Because the responsibility of companies today is to do what they can to protect our resources,” he adds. “And, if we do something, is it in the St-Tropez spirit? The idea of freedom, of lightness and enjoying a sunny life. How can we reinterpret the values of the ’70s in 2021?” Today, men’s trunks are reflective of our hopeful, optimistic outlook.

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