How swimwear lions We Are Handsome stay ahead of the game By Alyx Gorman.
We Are Handsome’s plan to be more than a swimwear brand
Bear is an English staffy. Moose is a staffy crossed with a kelpie. Monty is a shih-tzu. The three dogs are chasing each other around the office of We Are Handsome, running between the legs of a young woman in a bikini who is standing in the middle of the room. Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” is playing at a non-invasive volume in the background.
The whole place is covered in prints. Floral panels hang on one wall, every chair is a different pattern, and up against the back wall there’s a giant photograph of grass huts perched on a pristine white beach.
Jeremy Somers, the founder of the five-year-old swimwear company, cracks a smile. “It’s like this every day,” he says.
From this lively space, Somers and his wife, Katinka, run one of Australia’s most successful luxury brands. We Are Handsome boasts a stockist list any label, from anywhere, would dream of: Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman in the US, Harrods and Harvey Nichols in Britain, Lane Crawford and Galeries Lafayette in Hong Kong and Singapore respectively. And it was all built on a majestic close-up photograph of a big cat’s face.
We Are Handsome started out by digitally printing photos onto one-piece swimsuits and bikinis. This got the attention of some very big names, very fast. Rihanna snapped up and was subsequently snapped in their open-mouthed black panther swimsuit. Beyoncé was shot wearing one of their white tigers, while Tyra Banks appeared on the cover of her own magazine in a roaring We Are Handsome lion.
Where celebrities went, stockists followed. And very soon after them came the imitators. The idea of a vividly coloured photograph printed onto a pair of swimmers probably isn’t that surprising to anyone who has been in a shopping mall recently. They’re everywhere. Brands didn’t just rip off We Are Handsome’s ideas here and there – entire companies popped up that had simply usurped their whole schtick, and were selling it for a much lower price.
Katinka sees this kind of imitation as inevitable. “You’ve got to be kidding yourself if you don’t think it’s going to happen. I see people stealing images every day.”
The first time Jeremy saw his work was being imitated he was a little more incensed: “You think, ‘We’ve got to send a cease and desist!’ ” Then he realised “you can spend all your time and money as a smaller business trying to bring these people down, or you can move on and try to be better and bigger than them.”
After 14 seasons “hammering a niche”, it was time to move on.
“When we started to see appropriators, shall we say, reach a fever pitch, we realised it was time to change what we were doing,” he says. “It was the exact right time. Or actually, we probably could have done it
a season earlier.”
Now the approach is more graphic than photographic. The label is still selling the lions and tigers and bears that made it famous, but the latest collection is teeming with eccentric illustration. From a deep green pattern of tropical leaves interspersed with watermelon slices and rich red lobsters to a fabulous set of pink flamingos wandering across a bar-painted sunset. Jeremy, who has a background in design, not fashion, still creates all the prints himself.
The next collection’s prints are a feverish dream-take on Miami in the ’80s, replete with Knight Rider neons and post-psychedelic pastels, all with a distinctively “spray art” finish. They zigzag between fun and straight-up hilarious.
“It was one of the first times we could actually explore a subject matter and create a narrative,” Katinka explains of the collection. “[Moving on from photographs] allows us a greater range of everything. We can create a new story each season,” adds Jeremy.
“Before it was a bit like, ‘Which cat haven’t we done yet?’ ” Katinka says. “We just took a scattershot approach.”
The way We Are Handsome looks at print isn’t the only thing that has changed over the past year. The shapes of the swimwear, beach coverups and apparel have evolved and, as of January, the label will also sell activewear.
While swimwear will always be the core of the business, it’s far from the only place you can find We Are Handsome prints. Through a series of ongoing collaborations, the designs have been splashed across headphones (Frends), coffee mugs (Vittoria), and created the first beach umbrella to feature a panoramic digitally printed photograph, in conjunction with Basil Bangs. Lining each of the umbrella panels up perfectly to create the image was a lengthy and expensive process, but worth it in Jeremy’s mind because “we wanted to make something really cool”.
The We Are Handsome approach to brand building is thoroughly 21st century. Rather than engaging in traditional print licensing deals (they do a bit of that, but on the whole prefer not to), the label tends to approach potential partners with the offer of “We Are Handsome-ifying your brand”.
It’s quite normal for fledgling high-fashion brands to turn to larger companies for sponsorship – especially just before runway shows – but the way We Are Handsome works with other brands is significantly deeper than a thank-you note at the bottom of a goodie bag. For instance, the label’s social media presence is so impressive it is now on content creation retainers with several other brands.
Their digital publishing wing spans three Instagram accounts, two blogs, a presence on every social media platform you can think of, and crucially, a regular newsletter that focuses more on pushing fun in the sun than shifting product.
The way the label sees it, if people have given it permission to stay in touch, trying to constantly sell to the audience will rapidly sour the relationship. “So our strategy is to talk about summer, all the time. We want to give people things that add value to their lives.”
Mostly, those “things” are hundreds and hundreds of beautiful original images, shot beachside and poolside around the world. We Are Handsome also makes playlists, shares cocktail recipes and writes about its various adventures. But at the heart of the business there’s always a beautiful stretch of warm, blue water.
Perhaps the most telling object in their portfolio is the “Hamilton Island”, a jute-soled espadrille, made in collaboration with Spanish footwear brand Soludos and featuring a photograph shot on the Whitsundays resort island. The image originally appeared on We Are Handsome’s Instagram account. It’s a one-off three-way merger between a destination and two niche but well-known brands. Increasingly, this sort of thing is the future of small-to-medium independent businesses – a cross-pollination effort that hopefully makes something greater than the sum of its parts.
For a brand with deep pockets, such as, say, Chanel, it’s relatively easy to make a surfboard as a one-off just because it’s cool. But if a small-time player wants to do something equivalent, they have to hustle a whole lot harder, which is where collaborators can come in.
Of course, We Are Handsome is helped in its efforts by having a guiding principle plenty of people can get behind: summer. Communicating “summer”, and more specifically a summer that is 100 per cent Australian-made, to its ever-growing audience is a big part of what buffers We Are Handsome against the horde of imitators. The label hopes the people it reaches will come to associate the brand with something more lasting and joyful than just a swimsuit with a cat on it.
We Are Handsome’s plan is to become very much more than a swimwear brand, too. On the back of its “collaboration deck”, a document sent out to potential partners, it says: “If you want to make cool shit, call this number.”
In the studio the phone keeps ringing.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 6, 2014 as "Prints of tides".
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