It all started with the “fatkini.” In May 2012, blogger Gabi Gregg called on plus-size women to share photos of themselves wearing their two-piece bathing suits, using a term popular among body-positive bloggers. The word still feels a bit taboo. But five years ago, seeing a woman above a size 12 rocking a two-piece that she lovingly called her fatkini felt as invasive as scrolling through her private photo stash. Gregg’s slideshow of real women in their bathing suits for the site xoJane.com quickly went viral. It also sparked a new conversation: If 67 percent of women fall into the category of plus-size, why should it be so shocking that any of them would sport a two-piece?
Within weeks, the plus-size swimwear company Swimsuits For All approached Gregg about designing her own collection. At the time, Swimsuits for All was a small company that offered the same conservative suits as Lane Bryant: black one-pieces and simple swim skirts at affordable prices. (Stylish bathing suits at boutique plus-size retailers like Monif C ran upwards of $100). The company told Gregg it wanted what it already knew its customers would buy: convertible pieces that could either be worn as low-waist, high-waist, a skirt, or all three. But Gregg wanted to bring more flair. Their first collaboration featured a vibrant collection of galaxy-covered bikinis, lip-printed one-pieces, and designs covered in zipper and cutout embellishments. Women who wore these bathing suits wouldn’t just be covering up. They’d be showing off.
The collection was a hit. The release sold out in just two days, crashed the Swimsuits For All website, and instantly increased online traffic by 74 percent. The frenzy of that collection landed the brand huge headlines in places like the New York Post, Jezebel, The Huffington Post, and this very website.
“My collaboration with Swimsuits For All was the first turning point in the plus-sized swimwear industry. That’s when people started to pay attention and realize that women who aren't skinny also want younger, sexier options,” says Gregg. “We were easy to ignore before then. Our line both pushed the envelope and showed the industry that we’re a really profitable market. It’s been like a snowball effect since then.”
In the four years since Swimsuits for All released the GabiFresh collection, the company has emerged as a major player in the largely untapped $20.4 billion plus-size market. Not only selling trendy product to the 67 percent of women who are above a size 12, but also by changing the conversation around them, too. It’s invested in high profile marketing campaigns starring big time names like Gregg and model Ashley Graham, and also popularized slogans like “#SwimSexy” and “#MySwimBody,” which have earned the brand attention and respect for finally placing bikini-clad women of all shapes in major media around the world.
“For so long, society placed unfair standards on women, like you have to ‘get beach body ready,’” says Graham, a face for the company who released her own first collection with the brand in 2016. “I struggled finding suits in my size that weren't matronly, especially when I was in middle and high school, because traditional swim brands assumed girls with bigger hips, breasts and thighs wanted to cover it all up. Swimsuits For All gave me the opportunity to wear string bikinis unapologetically — even with cellulite and back fat — and also create sexy suits for other women to feel confident.”
If it sounds like the company was founded with a mission, that actually wasn’t the case. The brand was founded by Moshe Laniado, a New Jersey entrepreneur who was simply building on the legacy of the family business. His grandfather and stepfather were both in the swimwear business, with resortwear shops on the Jersey Shore and Virginia Beach, and his mother owns Swimsuit Station, a wholesale swimwear outlet in New Jersey. Since this was the age of e-commerce, Laniado decided to start his own company online. He launched Swimsuits for All, selling at the time, literally, swimsuits for all: men, children’s, and plus-sizes.
“When we first launched, there were really only one or two other retailers in the whole country that had maybe a few items in that category,” says Laniado, who admits he gets a lot of surprised faces when people learn the founder of a women's bathing suit brand is a man. “We see the impact of our mission not just in numbers, but on social media, and at the actual beach: curvy women confidently wearing not just swimsuits, but bikinis. I’d say our biggest accomplishment is helping that no longer be seen as something that’s abnormal.”
In the 10 years the company’s been open, it’s increased its offering from 100 suits at any given moment to more than 1,500. They’re continuing to add at least 300 new styles each year, and every collection they release regularly sells out. (Since Swimsuits for All is a private company, it declined to release sales figures.) The company’s VP of creative and branding, Sara Mitzner, says the fashion industry’s reluctance to sell to plus-size women is their loss. “Not serving those customers is not only outrageous, but also just bad business,” she says. “If we were to solely create bathing suits for thin women in their 20s, we’d be leaving a whole lot of money on the table.”
Mitzner has a point. Between 2013 and 2016, plus-size apparel revenue increased 17% (from $17.4 billion to $20.4 billion), compared to a 7% increase for the overall clothing industry during the same period, according to NDP Group. Insiders like Christian Siriano have blamed laziness amongst designers: creating for a wider range of sizes means purchasing and experimenting with more fabrics, more sample sizes, and more models. Translation: It takes a lot more time and a lot more money. That is perhaps the reason why, in the swimwear arena, popular brands like Billabong, American Eagle, and J. Crew only have “special sizes” that stop at a size 16 or XXL.
Via Refinery by Adrianna Davis