Bridging the gap between swim and adventure, Summersalt becomes an ambitious addition to a swimwear market in flux.
There’s a lot to like about Summersalt, a confident new swimwear specialist hoping to redefine the category. We spoke to co-founders Lori Coulter and Reshma Chamberlin about toning down the sex appeal, and becoming a category killer. (1,371 words)
ST. LOUIS — The swimwear market is in a state of transition. Victoria’s Secret, one of the biggest players in the space, has recently backed out, choosing to shut down their swimsuit operations. Meanwhile, several new brands have sprung up, and though each brings a unique perspective, not all are swimwear-only. Activewear upstarts ADAY have recently jumped into the pool, so to speak, with their debut of a small line of swimsuits — so to have Lively, a lingerie brand. These expansions are natural progressions in both cases.
Two new swimwear-specific brands, however, have arrived just within the last two months: Andie Swim, which specializes in basic, straightforward one-pieces, and Summersalt, which offers a broader product selection, and is hoping to bridge the gap between swimwear and everyday activewear. Both are strong brands, but between them, Summersalt has a unique, overlooked advantage: It’s based, not in New York, San Francisco, or L.A., but in St. Louis. We explain why this is an advantage for them inside the report.
The brand launched on May 23 with $1.25M in backing from a group of angel investors, and since launching, the reception has been strong.
Below, our notes based on our conversation with co-founders Lori Coulter and Reshma Chamberlin.
Chamberlin and Coulter form a strong team.
Lori has an extensive background in swimsuit design. Reshma has a background in UX, brand consulting, plus experience advising several names familiar with the Lean Luxe crowd: M.Gemi and Rockets of Awesome, among others.
Together, they form a solid, complementary team. They appear to have a good working relationship, and again, two distinct areas of operation: Lori the swimsuits; Reshma the branding, personality, and consumer-facing aspects of the company.
On the advantage of being based in St. Louis, Pt. 1.
Being based in St. Louis, believe it or not, is a big plus. And it’s something that was brought up in conversation. Coulter and Chamberlin are sensitive to the fact that most upstarts and brands tend to focus their attention on coastal customers, those in New York, Boston, LA, or San Francisco. Meanwhile, customers in the midwest and the south are forgotten. While not aiming to only court these overlooked customers, they made it quite clear that they do understand there’s an opportunity to do more there. Being based in St. Louis makes them better positioned to be able to address that gap in comparison to their competitors, most of whom are based in New York.
On toning down the sex appeal.
This is something that we’re seeing more of with emerging brands. Fragrance upstart PHLUR, to take one example, has de-emphasized the sexualized marketing of fragrance, making it more about the technical aspects and lifestyle messaging. “We think our woman is really interested in engaging in life from an adventure perspective, from a fun perspective, and so we wanted to design a collection that met her where she lived,” Coulter told us.
There’s a big lifestyle play here for Summersalt.
As Coulter pointed out above, the key themes for Summersalt are: ‘fun’, ‘adventurous’, ‘active’, and really striking a balance between sporty and sexy, she explained. That mission is apparent in the name Summersalt itself, and from the moment you access the website. It’s bright, summery, upbeat, welcoming, and best of all, straightforward — not dour or serious like you often find with more fashion-focused brands in the space.
Lifestyle is also Summersalt’s strategy to combat the seasonality issue.
As Chamberlin said, it’s about “Swimwear for life, beyond the lounge chair. We think swimwear is not just a seasonal product. Our consumer is traveling all year round. Yes, during summer and resort season, demand heightens — but she’s really traveling all the time.” It’s for people engaging in life, the duo argued. Whether she’s in the yard with her kids in the midwest, or in the Hamptons every weekend, or flying to the Bahamas for the summer, it’s about encompassing what each woman’s sense of adventure is.
This is a smart tactic. By pushing the idea of adventure at every interaction with the brand, this creates a halo for the company, making it just as much about the lifestyle alignment and the way their customers see the world, as much as it is about the swimsuits themselves. In a sense, customers are buying a worldview and sense of identity, not just a swimsuit. That’s key at a time when there are a growing number of competing options on the market right now. The smartest brands tend to do this. Everlane is probably the top example here for our purposes: CEO Michael Preysman has created something of a cult-like, religious sensibility with the brand that certainly appeals to a particular customer set. He’s even gone on record to state that without this sort of mystique, Everlane would be less successful — after all, they’re still selling basics at the end of the day.
Still, we’re not completely sold on Summersalt’s ‘category killer’ argument.
“There are obviously other players that are selling online. That being said, I don’t think that there are any true disruptors that come out from the beginning as a category killer,” Coulter argued. “We’re launching with a huge collection and bringing on new product every week throughout the first half of the summer. That makes us a category killer ready to play with the large swimwear brands right from the beginning. . . . A lot of emerging swimwear brands come out with 7-8 SKUs. That’s just not enough to give women the breadth that they need.”
Coulter and Chamberlin stressed this part. Their argument, essentially, is that since they have the ability to offer a broad array of product, they also have greater odds of making a much bigger splash and emerge as a new king (or queen) of the category. (They have a digitized backlog of 10,000 designs — consider these bullets in the chamber, ammunition to call upon when needed.)
No doubt, this is a sensible tactic, and compared to a competitor like Andie Swim, which specializes in one-piece swimsuits, and currently offers only three options, that approach certainly sets Summersalt apart. Yet a wide product selection alone doesn’t necessarily make you a category killer, and it also comes with two distinct drawbacks. First, you run the risk of losing a sale altogether because the customer, overwhelmed by one too many options, becomes frozen by indecision, and ends up buying nothing. Secondly, due to the many SKUs, you must have more inventory on hand than a leaner operation would, which increases the risk of overhead and bloat — doubly so when the customer is faced with indecision. The lifestyle and adventure play certainly works in Summersalt’s favor — compared to other brands that are simply making it about buying just a swimsuit. Still, the company has a far tougher road ahead than Coulter and Chamberlin seem to believe before we can truly start considering it as a category killer in the space.
On the advantages of being based in St. Louis, Pt. 2.
Space is one. “We can grow really large without spending as much money on office space,” Chamberlin said. This allows them to dedicate that extra bit of money towards customer acquisition, hires, and marketing. Tapping into lake culture is another advantage. “It’s alive and well in the midwest, from Michigan to Minnesota, and all the way down to Texas. We really think being in the midwest allows us unique visibility into what’s happening elsewhere.”
Of course the biggest advantage is direct access to a market that is overlooked due to coastal bias. “We’re able to understand what’s happening here in terms of consumer behavior — and really a huge market share that tends to be ignored.” Coulter added more thoughts on this: “A lot of direct-to-consumer brands are just totally forgetting about that big population base from Houston all the way up to Minneapolis, which is a great opportunity for us. We want to teach those consumers about what’s going on in the direct-to-consumer space.” Shipping is also a plus. They’re warehousing in Hazelwood, Missouri. Shipments take two days ground to New York, three days ground to LA, and in the midwest, just a single day. It’s the only place in the country where you’re able to do that.