Roland Herlory, CEO of luxury swim label Vilebrequin, is apologising for his English, blaming jetlag for barely noticeable pauses in our conversation. “I was in the Caribbean last week, and I just landed in Paris this morning. I spent the night on the plane”. For the record, his English is exemplary. But Herlory’s apology sums up his old-school demeanour to a T: considered, elegant and totally charming. Much like the label he oversees.
Heading up Vilebrequin regularly takes Herlory from his home in St Barts to the brand’s European headquarters and beyond, so it’s no surprise that time seems precious to the Frenchman. Perhaps that is why the Vilebrequin world is so well understood by the man at the top; he sees the importance of time spent with family, a value placed at the core of the label. “It’s the absolute DNA of the brand”, Herlory explains. “Bathing suits are related to the beach and holidays, and holidays are a moment you spend with your family. This idea really built the brand.”
Before joining Vilebrequin, Herlory spent 25 years at storied French maison Hermès, where he learned the meaning of luxury and the value of heritage. Herlory humbly credits this period with helping to shape his approach to timeless design which is driven by history, but brought into the now.
“Hermès is a master of how to integrate the DNA, how to build on the tradition, and how to compose with innovation. It’s not something that is complicated, but it’s something that requires not getting pulled into the mood of the moment. Having a history is a huge asset and it’s also a duty. You need to respect it, and you respect it by always asking yourself, ‘Am I right by doing this with the brand?’” Moving onto Vilebrequin was simply the end of a cycle in his life, he says. And from the end of one cycle is the beginning of another.
Vilebrequin came to life one sunny day in 1971, as Fred Prysquel sat out on a terrace in St Tropez and sketched a pair of swim shorts on a corner of his tablecloth. From then on, the brand has typified the essence of that St Tropez era; filled with energy, colour and elegance. Most importantly, quality has been at the forefront of the Vilebrequin vision since the beginning. “The secret of the brand is to get the meeting point between elegance and fantasy,” Herlory shares. “Wearing Vilebrequin swim shorts, it’s fun because you have bright colours, because you have the patterns, because it’s a holiday mood, but also it’s elegant because of the quality of the fabrics, the quality of the manufacturing and the quality of the print.
“Quality is about every detail and every component. In the last four years we have completely deconstructed the bathing suit and we have looked at each element, each component, to see how we can make it more durable; how to resist the salt and the sun. And so we took each of them – from the cord, to the tips, to the elastic, to the yarn – all this has been studied in order to elevate or to improve further the durability and comfort. That’s the secret of the recipe. You have no elegance without the quality.”
With printing in France and Italy done by expert hands that understand how to get the best from the fabric (“polyamide is a very specific printing process”, Herlory is quick to point out, “you need specific inks and specific know-how, and as it’s a moving fabric it makes the process of printing more complicated”), the manufacturing which follows – also in Europe – takes equal amounts of time. In fact, Studio Vilebrequin has confirmed that even the back pocket on each pair of shorts is cut individually, in order to complete the perfect fit to the pattern, a detail that is so delicate that Vilebrequin is currently the only brand in the market that insists on doing so. It’s this attention to the smallest detail that has helped propel Vilebrequin to the pinnacle of luxury swimwear labels.
With such market-defining success in the past – Vilebrequin’s iconic father-and-son shorts have spawned a wave of copycats – it would be easy for a brand with a less focussed leader at the helm to drift on the wave of previous accomplishment. Herlory is not that sort. “It’s endless, [we’re] always searching for innovation and new technology. We are looking for a yarn that would be fully hydrophobic; it’s not only finding the yarn but having the whole process and printing which makes it more complicated. But we are looking at that. The same for the inks, it’s very difficult to print turquoise and to get the colour fastness, and so we need to innovate.
“And there is also an ethical side, which is for me very important – to try to be more green, and to be more ‘eco responsible’. We have created the first – what I believe is the first – bio-sourced polyamide. It comes from plants. We are very open minded and I have people looking around the world at the new technology and how we can improve. For me, innovation can be something that is very discreet. It’s not obvious, not shouting.”
Product innovation is also coming with the arrival of sunglasses and watches that are being added to the spring/summer 2017 line-up, and Herlory muses that there are plenty of other market opportunities for a brand with such a recognisable aesthetic, but he is quick to add that he has a duty to respect the brand’s history and grow at the right rhythm. Beyond Vilebrequin’s strides forward in construction quality and additional line releases, the label has made bold partnerships with artists over the years – starting with photographer Massimo Vitali, a man who Herlory credits as bringing the beach into the contemporary art vocabulary, followed by The Rolling Stones and West Coast artist, Alex Israel. Arguably bigger names are yet to come.
The next collaboration? “It’s not an artist, it’s a world”, says Herlory, smiling. Indeed it is. In May, a unique collaboration with fashion legend Karl Lagerfeld will be released. Vilebrequin styles across the brand’s menswear, womenswear and accessories lines will come painted with the Paris-based designer’s iconic profile. This titanic partnership between two inimitable lifestyle brands reiterates Herlory’s devotion to guiding Vilebrequin in brave new directions.
With fresh partnerships and relentless product innovations, Vilebrequin continues to push boundaries and seek out new opportunities to bring an even better experience to its loyal clients. Yet the driving values of the brand will not be lost, Herlory says emphatically. “Fashions have changed, the aesthetic has changed in terms of combination of colours and things like this, but all these changes are very superficial. The behaviour of being a gentleman or just looking for elegance and quality has not changed. It’s just respect; the gentleman respects himself in order to respect others. It’s an attitude of elegance. And elegance is timeless.”