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Remember the season two premiere of The White Lotus when Daphne Sullivan (Meghann Fahy) runs screaming from the beach? She’s just seen some corpses—R.I.P., Tanya; ciao, high-end gays—and between the dead bodies and filthy rich husband, she’s obviously distraught. But along with the corpses and cuckolds, there’s one less obvious reason to panic: Turns out, that gorgeous Missoni Mare bikini she wore in the water is actually dry clean only, with a label that reads, “To get the best from your Missoni Mare beachwear, we advise that you do not wear it to swim.” (Mare translates to “sea” in Italian.)
“I see that dry clean only swimsuit tag all the time!” laughs Ashley Graham. The supermodel has made a career out of beach chic, starting with a Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover in 2016. “When I want to dress up or I know there will be photographers around, if it’s not wearable and durable, what’s the point?”
Graham just collaborated on a swimwear line with Knix to make sure that, when she’s chased by paparazzi this summer, her beach looks are structured and sexy—and she can still swim out from the sandbar while wearing them. “Literally, I told Knix, they need to look amazing and they need to be easy to throw in the wash. I have three kids. I can’t wear a bikini that can’t get wet. It’s kind of like wearing a sneaker that can’t touch the ground.”
The astonishing thing is that the luxury swimwear market isn’t touching the ground at all—in fact, it’s totally taking off. Thanks to the uptick in post-pandemic travel, sales have hit nearly $250 million; meanwhile, online searches for designer bikinis have spiked thanks to viral pool party moments from The White Lotus, Euphoria, and Emily in Paris. (Stay tuned for more when And Just Like That… continues to flit its way through our summer viewing…) The TikTok reels of swimsuit idols like Kendall Jenner, Gabrielle Union, and Hadid sisters are equally influential.
“Vacation isn’t just a thing to do now; it’s a whole aspirational aesthetic,” says Laura Zapata, a stylist who’s worked with celebrities like Selena Gomez and brands like Sephora and the user-generated shopping app LTK. “If you’re someone who loves clothes and puts style as a central part of your identity, a beautiful beach look can really enhance your experience. In some cases, it can even be its own experience. And unlike a red carpet moment, you don’t need an occasion like a wedding for this type of style. You can do it during every long weekend, even if you’re just going to your friend’s pool.”
Un-swimmable swimwear isn’t just a fast pass to online engagement, or to para-style relationships with celebrities. (Although, yes, there’s a small seaside thrill to experience by wearing the same dry clean only YSL bikini top as Hailey Bieber.) It’s also hitting three trends at once: There’s “revenge dressing,” the practice of wearing the flirty vacation outfits we can finally flaunt sans masks; “mermaidcore,” the Ariel-inspired beach looks from the recent movie; and the Mugler-ian bodycon movement that upgrades the humble tankini from country club staple to nightclub must-have. For New Yorkers, if your Dries Van Noten swimsuit can also impress the crowd at The Mulberry when paired with jeans and heels, maybe keeping it out of the Dumbo House pool isn’t that big of a deal?
“Honestly? I don’t love that,” says Shannon Savage, a co-founder of the swimwear brand Left on Friday. “We live in L.A. We see celebrities and cool girls wearing their fabulous black swimsuits with denim all the time. But if you’re investing in a piece, the whole point is its multipurpose.”
But for those determined to wear a runway-worthy swimsuit this summer, perhaps the angst is misplaced. While trying to wash away various sins in the Mediterranean, I swam straight into a front row influencer in a Louis Vuitton bikini. As we dog-paddled ashore, I asked her if the $1,200 suit was somehow exempt from the label’s dry clean only advice. “No,” she laughed, “But I’ve worn it into the ocean and then washed it in the shower for the whole summer. I understand why a brand would want us to be careful with their work, but come on. It’s a bathing suit. I think it’s okay.”
Editor at Large, ELLE.com
“Her beauty and her brain go not together.” —William Shakespeare