To kick off Paraiso at Miami Swim Week, showgoers attended the inaugural Upcycle Challenge. Hosted by The Upcycle Project, a program that encourages upcycling by providing fashion schools with discarded textiles and garments, the competition paired specially selected fashion students from Parsons, FIT, Miami International University of Art and Design and Miami Dade College's Miami Fashion Institute to create swimwear pieces made from deadstock fabric donated by Cynthia Rowley, L*Space, Maaji, Vitamin A and Volcom. (Designers from these brands also mentored the students throughout the process.) The students presented their looks to a panel of industry experts (disclosure: I was one of the judges) for a chance to win the final prize of $5,000, which was granted to FIT's Hannah Myers for her Cynthia Rowley creations.
"If you're a designer, you should really understand where your materials come from, what your supply chain looks like and making sure that the clothes that you're producing are made ethically. That starts a sustainable circle of life," says The Upcycle Project Founder Gabriella Smith. "And sustainability, ultimately, starts with the student through education."
Sustainability was a major talking point throughout Miami Swim Week, across brands, runway shows, activities and even the venues themselves. Colombian swimwear label Maaji, which closed Paraiso with a runway show at Brickell City Centre, debuted its Earth Warriors line, an eco-conscious range made from recycled materials. For Vitamin A's Resort 2020 show, a slew of models made their way down the catwalk in "Sustainability is sexy" T-shirts. Cabana, a trade show which moved to the Miami Beach Convention Center this year, highlighted its roster of eco-friendly brands, along with banning single-use plastics, offering reusable water bottles for attendees and providing donation bins for used swimsuits.
Mostly though, swimwear brands stood out for highlighting their sustainability efforts, which has become increasingly important to today's consumer. And with sales declining by 4% to $5.8 billion in the U.S. over the past 12 months — due in part to the late arrival of summer temperatures — the category is in need of innovation to drive future growth, says NPD. For starters, why not aim for sustainability? While some brands have already started offering eco-friendly garments, this conscientious practice is on the rise.
At New York Fashion Week, climate change was top of mind for Chromat's Becca McCharen-Tran, who's been designing sustainable swimwear for the past five years. Her newest collection, titled "Climactic," was mostly inspired by Miami, where she opened a second studio location. "I've never really talked about our own sustainability because we had so many things to deconstruct and I kinda thought our customer didn't care," McCharen-Tran shared in her runway show notes. "But now I see how important it is, and I want to make sustainability a bigger part of our messaging."
We've also seen Madewell launch its first-ever swimwear collection made from recycled plastic in February, followed by Reformation's new sustainable swimwear — also made from recycled plastic waste — in March. Nearly four years ago, Mara Hoffman started to implement sustainable practices within her namesake brand. Her first step? Swapping out one of the standard fabrics used in its popular swimwear line for a textile made of 78% recycled polyester.
Fenton says that sustainable swimwear has become so prevalent because of the quality and easy accessibility of recycled materials, such as Repreve (a fiber made from recycled materials, including plastic bottles) and Econyl, which is made up of regenerated nylon. "They look identical to [synthetic materials]; it's so easy to swap them," she adds. "And I think it's easy to imagine a world, particularly swimwear, where virgin qualities and virgin materials become obsolete."
But beyond using recycled synthetics, what other solutions can swimwear labels apply? "I think the brands that are really winning in this space are almost taking a 360-degree approach, recognizing that sustainability can only be calculated by the entire journey of the garments, so from fiber going right through to packaging," says Fenton.
Natasha Tonić, who founded her own sustainable, hemp-made swimwear label, would like to see more innovation when it comes to natural materials, as opposed to creating more synthetic fabrics. "The idea of regenerating waste from the ocean is amazing, but it still goes back into the water stream," she says. "I would like to see more research for ways to improve even better hemp fabric." For her own brand, she's experimented with textiles made from mushrooms as a possible alternative for padding in bathing suit tops.
Finding a solution for plastic pollution from textiles, however, is pretty complicated, according to Marcus Eriksen, co-founder and research director of the non-profit 5Gyres. "Every human being on the planet is likely wearing some form of a synthetic textile clothing," he says. "On average, there's three or four to 10 garments per person around the world, so that's around 80 billion pieces of clothing that are all shedding microfibers." With that, he's come up with a system that swimwear brands can implement towards a more sustainable business: waste, wear, weave, and wash.
To manage waste, companies can apply a circular economy around textiles, like offering to take back used swimwear. Encourage heirloom culture by advising customers to purchase and wear quality swimsuits — and most likely expensive — that will last much longer than one summer. "I think bringing that back into society is going to help get us away from this single use, make it to break it, canned obsolescence, very wasteful economy that we have on materials," says Eriksen. When it comes to weave, brands can think about how recyclable every detail of a swim garment really is, from the label to stitching. "Maybe a swimwear company can sign on a buyer to take the bulk waste and other remnants from them — all the excess — and re-spin that into a reusable fiber," he adds.
Similarly to Smith's suggestions of Guppyfriend bags, laundering garments can impact the planet, so hand or front-load washing pieces are more friendly to the environment. (Heat from drying your swimwear can damage the elastic, too, which can potentially cause microfiber pollution in the future.)
"There is no more room for waste in the world. We have to shift back to a circular economy. We were in a circular economy when all materials were natural materials — they were made of metal, would rust, biodegrade and go away," says Eeiksen. "Then we began making technical materials with no plan for their life cycle. Now we're waking up to that and consumers are demanding that we don't make things that make trash and that trash the planet."