Swimwear labels Rye and Camp Cove Swim are taking their memories of Australian beachside holidays to the world, adding modern techniques to nostalgic design. By Alyx Gorman.

Rye and Camp Cove Swim

When unboxing an order from Rye swimwear, customers will go through all the rituals they’ve come to expect from a luxury online shopping experience. Sold through Net-a-Porter, and Moda Operandi,  the purchase will come in an elegant, heavy gauge box. It will be surrounded by tissue paper and neatly folded. When trying on their purchase, they’ll notice the hygiene sticker on the swimsuit’s gusset and, if the label’s designer Alyssa Carter has her way, they’ll let out a little laugh. “Don’t put your box on the bits until you know the bits aren’t going back in the box,” it declares, announcing the brand’s country of origin in a way no “designed in Bondi” tag could compete with. “Australians love that bit of crass humour, which is a part of that laid-back image that we’ve got,” Carter says.

Founded in 2015, Rye wholesales in 11 countries, and stockists include major international department stores such as Selfridges, in addition to the e-commerce giants. Rye’s success stems from its ability to create swimmers that seem cheery, occasionally whimsical, while retaining an almost steely grounding in broader fashion industry trends. One of their most successful styles last season was a deep olive green bikini, with a baby pink trim. It’s a colour combination that has also been popular on Instagram lately – stylists pair powder pink trousers with khaki boots, while thousands of people follow the Instagram account “plantsonpink”. “It just feels a bit more premium and up-market if you’re wearing colours that aren’t traditionally seen on swim,” says Carter. If popular now, it’s a throwback colour combination that might have been seen in a Diane von Furstenberg photoshoot in 1976.

In Rye’s current resort collection, such nostalgia is pushed further. The standout style for the season uses one 1970s trend to beget another. Originally, rickrack trim was a popular dress embellishment for prairie-style back-to-the-landers, but Rye’s “Rick-Rack” swimsuits increase the finishing’s size and use smooth, bonded neoprene rather than tightly braided cotton. Carter has created undulating laser-cut layers in contrasting colours, one stacked on top of the other in psychedelic waves that are more cosmic than down-to-earth.

Recollections of school holidays at Carter’s grandparents’ house in Port Macquarie shimmer through the collection. “It’s all that sense of freedom and nostalgia…” she says. “I named the collection around the sights and smells of all those memories. There’s a bikini called ‘Balmy’ and it’s that feeling of sleeping with the fan on. There’s another one called ‘Chi Chi Chi’ and it’s the sound of cicadas at night ...  All those kind of things that are memories of summers gone by – Australian summers gone by.”

Carter is not alone in finding inspiration in the Australian ache for Christmas breaks spent by the beach. Katherine Hampton, founder and designer of Camp Cove Swim, a Sydney-based swimwear brand started in 2013, feels similarly. A former accessories buyer, Hampton was always drawn to swimming. “I grew up in Newcastle, so it’s very much beach culture and the cool kids at school are the ones that surf, and if you don’t surf then you’re not the cool kid. I grew up in swimmers and I used to swim competitively,” she says. “I’d do swimming training four times a week at 5.30 in the morning when I was 13.” Her mother had a part to play, too. “She would sew me and my little sister little sparkly swimsuits and stuff like that.”

In contrast to Rye’s clean stripes, block colours and simple polka dots, Camp Cove Swim leans unself-consciously towards kitsch. Hampton is a self-taught print designer. “I didn’t even know how to open a new file on Illustrator,” she says. “My first print took three weeks for every step.” Now those prints are what grant her brand its particular sense of place. There’s the very ’80s “I Love Oz” print with navy and pink stripes and lines of colourful, repeating Opera House, kangaroo, Uluru and Australian map motifs. And the “Aussie Wattle”, a bumblebee yellow and brown floral print that’s been particularly popular with overseas customers. “I don’t know whether that’s because they’ve been here and it’s like a nostalgia thing, or it’s just genuinely that they like the print. I can understand if someone would buy [the wattle] and not know what it is. It’s almost like you or me buying a tropical print, we don’t really know where those plants are from, but [we think], ‘That looks good, I’ll have that... I haven’t seen that before.’ ”

Hampton thinks a longing for childhood is part of what is driving a renewed embrace of Australiana among younger customers. “At the time you might have been a bit like, Oh my god, my mum’s such a dag, why is she wearing a knitted jumper with a koala on it? But now it’s a memory, it’s something that people think of fondly … People appreciate how unique it is.” 

Camp Cove’s cuts are also a blend of retro and modern sensibilities. Hampton’s swimsuits tend to sit relatively high across the buttock cheek, but they’re far from skimpy. Many of her bikini bottoms fully cover the wearer’s navel, while her bikini straps are thick enough to provide security to women with fuller cup sizes. Though many styles are labelled small, medium and large, Camp Cove swimwear accommodates women up to a size 16. This is non-standard for premium swimwear, and at odds with some old-fashioned opinions about who does and doesn’t belong in a bikini.

“You see it in fashion as well, brands that only go up to a size 12. I just don’t understand that,” Hampton says. She recalls a conversation she had with an older woman on a train who was watching her work. “She was like, ‘Oh, yes, I don’t think that bigger girls – they just shouldn’t wear swimmers, they just should not go on the beach.’ That’s the attitude … If you’ve got that frame of mind – that only skinny girls wear bikinis – then you make bikinis for skinny girls. Then you’re excluding so many people. But also, you’re losing money.”

At first, women’s swimwear may seem to have significant constraints on innovation. After all, there are only two basic styles accepted: the one- or two-piece. Ideally designs must be fit-for-purpose: obviously they shouldn’t come off in the waves, or break down from chlorine. A style conformity is the result, and when a layer of nostalgia is introduced as well, novelty seems even less likely. However, brands such as Rye and Camp Cove Swim are breaking new ground in some aspects. For Camp Cove, that ground is social, due to their expanded sizing range, but also technological. All of the label’s lining is made from recycled fabric – some of it from old fishing lines – and some of their swimsuits are 100 per cent recycled.

Technological innovation has also enabled Rye to reinterpret the past. “When you’re looking at swimwear back then, there wasn’t the innovation around stretch fabrics or polyesters we have now. Everything was made in these non-stretch, heavy fabrics. I don’t even know how people swam in those – it would be so uncomfortable,” says Carter. “When you’re looking back at those elements, you’re not looking specifically at swimwear. You’re looking at fashion and culture as a whole. When I was looking for references back in the ’50s and ’60s… it was a lot of global fashion references that can be brought forward and then translated into swim.” Thanks to laser cutting and technical improvements in elastics “it’s so much easier to do now”.

Australian brands are well placed to tackle swimwear because the country’s beachgoers are enthusiastic and constantly in the market. But a beachy lifestyle has imprinted deeper on our designers than mere market demand. Long, hot summers have left local designers with a bank of idyllic water-based memories to draw on – some of them personal and some collective. As changing social mores and technological improvements are expanding the boundaries of what swimwear can and should look like, those who already have a firm grasp of where it’s been before may be best placed to lead the charge.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 10, 2018 as "Unto the breach".

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