Could Swimwear Actually Benefit Marine Life? Garrett Neff and Philip Huang Discuss...

51% of Americans planned to go on vacation in July; most to sunny destinations where you can lounge around on a beach and possibly jump in the water to interact with marine life. But as we all know; the oceans aren’t doing well. Research shows that coral reefs in Hawaii alone are exposed to over 6,000 tons of sunscreen lotion every year. Imagine the impact of synthetic bikinis and trunks!? We sat down with male supermodels and swimwear experts (lucky for us) to discuss sustainability in fashion and if your speedo could ever become beneficial to the world’s waters…

So why did you both start doing swimwear?

Garrett: I think what it was is back before I started the brand, six years ago, Instagram was pretty important. Right? And I was looking at all these old family photos. I was already very familiar with the family photos but because of Instagram I was going back and looking at them even more as sort of like a Throwback Thursday kind of thing. And the images were so strong, because my mom expertly captured this time of my life. And really, she was capturing all the family members, like all of my uncle, my grandfather, my dad, in this very casual setting; swimming, playing lawn sports, getting ready for dinner, crabbing, fishing, sailing. Because that was downtime and that’s when everyone was together, and so she would take a lot of photos. And my dad and my uncle, and my cousins were all wearing their athletic shorts swimming after running around all day. And I just loved that look so much, I thought this is a great basis for a brand. And, you know, I was already very familiar with what happens after the product is made, from modeling, so from the beginning to the end now, kind of, it had all come together. And swimwear was also something when I was a model I was wearing a lot of. And still do.

Philip: I don’t think I ever saw you with a shirt on back in the day. I’m not surprised that you naturally went in that direction. For me, swimwear was always an essential part of my wardrobe and suitcase. We travelled constantly. And at one point it was whenever I got booked for a job if we’re flying to like St. Barts I would book a one-way ticket, and then research where I would want to travel next, and then have them book me to the next leg. And I pretty much lived out of my suitcase, so the swim trunk was absolutely essential for me. It was my workout clothes, it was my swimwear, I did yoga in it. Sometimes I slept in it. You don’t really need to wash it so much either. It’s pretty low maintenance. And actually, that’s how I started with design, was collaborating with a swimwear friend from Thailand.

How much swimwear is actually in your line? Because you do more than just swimwear.

Philip: We actually just did a small capsule collection, and that was it.

Just for Miami?

Philip: When I first started. So, it was just the capsule collection, no indigo yet, no natural dyes, no traditional textiles. It did quite well. And so for me, the next step was, ‘okay, should I stop here, or should I move on to the next step and try to evolve this?’ And we came across natural dyes, and it just hit a nerve. And I never expected to go in that direction, but I was always interested in design. And it was kind of hard not to be, because we were already in that world, and it was everywhere. And working with the best designers in the world, the stylists, hair and makeup and it was just like an explosion of creativity; it felt very natural.

"You see stylists come in with racks and you’re like, whoa, this is overwhelming for me to see all this. I’m like, ‘damn, do you have to try all this on?’" - Philip Huang

Was your time as models kind of your design school?

Philip: I felt like it was, for me. I would always ask questions. And also, all these guys around, they’re all from different parts of the world; it was interesting to see what they were wearing. It gave me a lot of inspiration as well.

Garrett: Yeah, I mean, you definitely get exposed to all different types of clothing, right? Which, if you’re from one part of the world, maybe you haven’t worn this, and then all of a sudden you’re working in fashion and you’re being paid to wear this, or you’re wearing this or that in an editorial. And it really opens up your mind the possibilities of what you might want to wear, and you also are able to compare the different qualities of the garments. There’s details that – if you’re just shopping in H&M, for instance, you’re not going to see certain types of tape that you would see in like a suit, a fine Italian suit.

Philip: Yeah, options, definitely lots and lots of options. You see stylists come in with racks and you’re like, whoa, this is overwhelming for me to see all this. I’m like, ‘damn, do you have to try all this on?’

Garrett: Yeah. And stuff that you wouldn’t consider trying on in your everyday life, and all of a sudden you’re wearing. And so if you’re intelligent, and, like Philip, would ask questions, even if you only have one question, over years and years of working you’re asking everybody one question, it’s a great education to figure it out. And then also you just see how garments are constructed and they’re fitting it to you, and so you know that not everything’s done and perfect the way it is, there’s always adjustments to be made.

Back in the early 2000s when you both started, there wasn’t so much emphasis on sustainability in fashion. How did you both come up with that? Is that just a result of the time, or is that something you were already thinking about back then?

Philip: For me, I think it was just being in those circumstances. We take an untraditional route in terms of production. We’re in the villages working with the grandmothers, you know, learning from them and working with their traditional knowledge, their natural dyes, and actually seeing it happen on the spot, rather than going to a showroom to pick out the different textiles.

Garrett: There are designers that have always made it a priority, like Stella McCartney, for instance. I think we’ve been aware for years that she’s made that a big priority for her, and she worked with Adidas; and Parley has worked with Adidas. It’s not why Katama started. But for sure working with quality materials is always something we wanted to do. And that, I think, is indirectly a solution, because hopefully we’re making classic trunks that are made of materials that don’t fall apart after one season, and you’re keeping your bathing suit for five seasons, and maybe even passing it on to the next generation in your family somehow, if it lasts that long, that would be the goal, right? To have something that just lasts, and lasts and lasts. If you’re making it from materials that are manmade, synthetic fibers, something that’s come up recently that I think a lot of people overlooked for a long time is the effect that these manmade fibers, these synthetic microfibers, can – synthetic microfibers but then also just larger fibers and particles can have on the ecosystems that they touch.

Yeah, because the fibers shed, right?

Garrett: Yeah. And there’s still a long way to go to understanding the impacts of the microfibers on the ecosystems. But wherever you are in the globe there are manmade nanofibers and micro plastics in the environment.

Philip: Yeah, but it’s good that the conversation has started and this is a big question for every designer, every design house. It’s like, ‘how are you approaching sustainability?’ And just asking that question says a lot of where things are going, and it’s a start. Even if you’re aware that it’s harmful, how do you come up with a solution? So that’s why it’s important to have these conversations, to speak about it, and maybe someone will catch on and be like, “hey, that’s a good idea. Maybe I should try that.”

"Somebody came to me a few years ago and was asking if I wanted to invest in a denim company that puts their denim under water in these old mussel farms and grows barnacles on them." - Garrett Neff

In a future world do you see clothes actually becoming good for nature? Something that could benefit nature / marine life?

Garrett: Somebody came to me a few years ago and was asking if I wanted to invest in a denim company that puts their denim under water in these old mussel farms and grows barnacles on them. I didn’t get into it, because I was like what are the actual benefits?

Philip: I mean, I’ve been scuba diving, and it’s fascinating – it’s just a whole other world, and I find it so peaceful, and everything just runs perfectly. And I don’t think humans could, you know –

Do anything beneficial?

Philip: Yeah, I mean, it’s perfect the way it is. I mean, hopefully we just stop destroying what’s there, and become more aware.

Garrett: Yeah. Yeah, I don’t know how we would actually help – I mean, there’s definitely ways to help rebuild. Like I know that if you take a subway car and you put it under water, and you submerge it at the end of its useful life, you can have different structures growing up on top of that. 

What’s your favorite seafood?

Garrett: I like crab and lobster and I’m eating a lot of lobster rolls.

Philip: My favorite is uni. It’s a sea urchin.

Garrett: Really? 

Philip: Yeah. I don’t know, I like really good quality uni where it’s like sweet and kind of just melts in your mouth; it’s like an explosion of flavors.


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