“When my careers adviser asked me what I wanted to do when I was 15, owning a swimwear brand wasn’t top of the list,” laughs Richard Emanuel, the Glaswegian entrepreneur who has just relaunched French swimwear label Réard. Emanuel proudly shows me a photograph on his iPhone of the vintage Réard poster he spotted on a wall in Berlin – an image that stayed in the back of his mind until, intrigued by its history, he engaged in a spot of “desktop research”. It was then that he uncovered the fascinating story of Louis Réard, the man who invented the bikini.
Réard was born in 1897 and originally trained as an engineer, but in the 1930s he took over the small Parisian swimwear boutique that his mother ran. “He was quite the marketeer,” continues Emanuel. “After the second world war he designed a two-piece in a newsprint fabric and named it after the Bikini Atoll [a US nuclear test site], because he knew it would create an explosion.” Réard then planned a fashion show to launch his scandalous, midriff-exposing garment at Parisian art-deco pool Piscine Molitor, on July 5 1946. Thousands of people turned up, and the bikini garnered masses of news coverage and a huge public response. “The exotic dancer [Micheline Bernardini] who wore the bikini received 50,000 letters, including one from the Vatican,” says Emanuel, “both positive and negative feedback. I’m not sure how that would translate on Instagram today.”
On Réard’s retirement the brand was dissolved, but now more than 70 years later the headline-grabbing newsprint bikini has been revived, both in its original two-piece form (£220) and reimagined as a one-piece (the ITB V-Plunge swimsuit, £375, available in gold and newsprint). Emanuel has employed French designer Celine Adler to help bring it back to life. A Sorbonne graduate who has worked for French swimwear brands Huit and Princesse Tam Tam, as well as Chloé and Nina Ricci, she has also created other reinterpretations of Réard’s midcentury heritage swimsuits, including the Marilyn (£395), based on a one-piece worn by a model shown sitting on Réard’s desk in a 1940s archive photograph.
“An obsessive focus on quality and fit” was required to reintroduce Réard as a luxury brand. “It has to be beautiful but technically resilient,” says Emanuel. “I can’t think of another product that takes such a beating.” These updated bikinis are made from Lycra Xtra Life, a high-tech material with 38 per cent Lycra content, and each is rigorously fit-, wash- and bond-tested – the Jane nautical-inspired halter-neck (£375) was examined over 30 times to ensure the perfect panel and strap placement.
Initially available only online and through French lifestyle store Colette, Réard plans to roll out wholesale and retail in 2018. Emanuel’s ambition is to create a successful luxury lifestyle brand “like a Moncler for summer”, he says, though the Glaswegian businessman admits that re-establishing this iconic label brings with it a feeling of responsibility. “The Réard story still has meaning and I want to keep hold of that thread with the past, to carry on that spirit of innovation across the business, from fabric technology and sustainability to social media and content. If I can do that and gain the trust of our first customers for 50 years, that would be wonderful.”
Alyson Walsh is the author of Know Your Style: Mix It, Match It, Love It, published by Hardie Grant on September 7. She blogs at That’s Not My Age. To read more of her How To Spend It columns, click here.