On the Beach

How Vilebrequin made the swimsuit cool

Vilebrequin bathing suits are the Hermes ties of beachwear, distinguished by their witty patterns of flora, fauna, and frivolity. They're not simply worn on the beaches of St.-Tropez or Southampton, they are collected, the object of a near-cultish obsession. Each season brings the premiere of new patterns, and when that season is over, those patterns are never sold again. Which means that at this very moment someone may be depleting stock of this year's papaya-print boxer, jeopardizing your chance to own it—ever.

"Our customers are more than a little bit devoted," admits the president of Vilebrequin's U.S. operations, Thierry Prissert. "They collect the suits and the patterns and brag about what they have and what other guys don't." Photos tacked to the wall behind the register at the Madison Avenue outpost prove it to be an intergenerational fixation: There are numerous shots of all the men in a family lined up on a beach, each sporting his favorite Vilebrequin trunks.

And though fans flood the stores in search of wildly patterned suits—sea turtles, pineapples, kiwis, lemons, and limes—the Vilebrequin is not simply a matter of style. They last a lifetime and are specially designed to aid the "rapid evacuation" of air and water, preventing the universally unflattering "balloon effect." For many fans, the best part of the swimsuit is its patented waterproof wallet—ingeniously crafted to keep your money dry.

It all began, they say, in 1970, on a beach in St.-Tropez. when one local scoured the town's shops for something chic for a swim. But, it being the '70s and this being St.-Tropez, he found endless varieties perfectly constructed for the beach-club scene, but none appropriate for actually swimming at the beach. And so, legend has it, he pulled the checkered cloth off a café table and stitched a suit of his own. The line has stayed true to the bold pattern of its invention, though cotton was soon traded in for a quick-drying spinnaker canvas, a material often used for sails. The suits were soon spotted all over Pampelonne Beach, but they remained a stylish secret until Thierry Prissert brought them stateside in June 1999.

When Prissert arrived in New York there was no men's swimsuit store in the city. After the suits had a successful stint at Barneys, he opened the first Vilebrequin store in SoHo. "The realtors all thought I was crazy," he says. "I couldn't get anyone to give me a lease. When they found out what I was selling, they all thought I'd be out of business in two months."

Never bet against a Frenchman who wants to make you better looking on the beach. Within a year, Prissert had set up Vilebrequin shops in Southampton, Palm Beach, and on Madison Avenue. "In December 2002, we sold close to two thousand suits at the Madison Avenue store alone," he says. To keep up with the American man's apparently insatiable demand for sea horse- and lobster-print suits, Prissert plans to open stores in Boston, Miami, Las Vegas, and Beverly Hills over the next two years. (The last location should especially please the bold-face names—Brad Pitt, Paul Newman, Rob Lowe and Hugh Grant—that have been spotted in the suits.) The company will introduce a custom line in 2004.

And though Vilebrequin steadfastly refuses to venture into the women's market, Prissert estimates that his clientele is more than 70 percent female. "Women buy for their men. Women always want their men to look good. Especially on the beach."

After spending some time in the Madison Avenue store, a small replica of the Côte d'Azur original, it is clear that he's not exaggerating. Women come in and buy two, three, four suits at a time. Many of them, it turns out, are buying suits for all the men in their lives: the junior boxers for their sons, the traditional cut for their fathers, a slightly shorter version for their husbands.

"Everyone loves coming here," Prissert says, as one particularly elegant woman sweeps into the store. "And why not? They're always in a good mood; they're about to fly off to some wonderful place, and they're going to have our suit and look good there. It makes for a great job."

Well, almost. "It does get a little hard listening to all the great places people are about to jet off to when it's January or February and I'm stuck here."

Men's suits, $100-$140; boys' suits, $57-$75. At 1070 Madison Ave., New York; 888-458-0051, 212-650-0353; www.vilebrequin.com.