Within minutes of speaking to Deborah Fleming, designer and founder of the luxury swimwear label Pistol Panties, it becomes clear that she is a skilled multi-tasker.
Simultaneously juggling my phone call while preparing for one of Pistol Panties’ most exciting collaborations yet, with one of the world’s leading high-street stores, and looking after her two young daughters who are home for the day, it is no surprise that the driving force of the brand has achieved so much.
The already internationally renowned brand may be about to launch into new global outposts with its Pistol Panties for Topshop collection – which will no doubt win the label a new, younger, army of fans – but Fleming is keen to talk about the very grounded subject of her Notting Hill store, which she describes as one of the most important facets of the brand.
“It’s quite unique; it feels like you’ve been thrown back into a Caribbean island, where everything is quite vintagey, and it has this lovely, breezy feel,” says Fleming of the boutique, which has been open for eight years and acts as a hub for the label.
“It’s off the beaten track, so it feels like a destination shop, and people feel at ease coming here. I think that trying on swimwear is 80% of the battle; people need to feel comfortable,” she continues, adding that, along with this “shopping experience”, her team often show customers new fabrics and prints that they are working on to gauge consumer reaction before the final bikinis go on sale, something made possible by having the studio at the back of the shop.
It is this first-hand feedback that Fleming insists is the reason Pistol Panties has not just endured the recession but positively flourished throughout, with the bricks-and-mortar presence being a key factor in this success.
“It’s really nice, because I get first-hand feedback from customers, like constant daily research of how we can improve our bikinis styles and fit,” she explains.
“The customers are the reason we are still around,” Fleming says candidly. “A lot of people who don’t have shops are not in such a favourable position as we are, as they are stuck in the office, then go to trade shows and then speak to buyers, so nobody real is actually trying them on and giving them feedback – [people] with different body shapes. Everyone has different a body shape.”
Fit is clearly a subject Fleming feels passionate about, laughing that she could talk about the ins and outs of sizing all day, but it is the new Pistols for Topshop capsule collection that is the subject of the moment for Fleming.
“We’re always on the lookout for collaborations that fit with Pistol Panties and I am such a huge fan of Topshop and think they’re groundbreaking in what they do, leaders in selling beautiful items that don’t compromise on identity or quality,” she says on the big decision to partner with the high-street giants.
The brands share a similarly fearless design aesthetic, specialising in bold patterns and cutting-edge designs, creating a pairing that is a match made in sartorial heaven, but this collection is much more to Fleming than just a meeting of minds.
The four-piece capsule collection, which takes inspiration from the 1940s Copacabana Girls (think elaborate costumes and fruity headdresses), is set to drop in Topshop stores internationally this month including Rio, Sydney, New York and South Africa, and will ensure a wider reach for the brand in what Fleming describes as an “amazing opportunity.”
“I put a lot of heart and soul into this little collection; it’s very over the top and showstopping, which I think is what Topshop’s all about. I didn’t pare down this collection and go safe; It’s very cool and very much ‘here I am’ swimwear,” Fleming explains. “This collection was so easy to design, as my natural state of designing is to be very showstopping, very cool. My ideal girl is someone who would just wear the bikini with heels and jean-shorts and be ready to go out. That’s what you can do with these designs, as the fabric is sort of like a denim outerwear fabric, but it’s for swim and embellished with a spray of glitter.”
However luxuriously flamboyant the new collection is, Fleming has ensured that the swimwear is wholly functional, with the fabrics being as suitable for swimming as they are for combining with ready-to-wear items. But it is the fashion element of the Pistols for Topshop collection that has got Fleming excited, with the brand soon to be exposed internationally to a young, fashion-forward crowd, unafraid to experiment with styles and prints.
‘These girls don’t need to be taught trends; I think they put their own personal taste on these clothes – they are the trends,” Fleming muses. “That’s the most exciting part of it: the discerning Topshop customer. It’s not like we’re teaching them; they are almost teaching us something.”
Yet for a brand that is renowned for making luxury boutique swimwear, achieving accessible price points that sit well on the high street must have taken some strategic planning and canny design. “The more you buy, the more you have negotiating power, “ she explains, pointing out that, compared with the mainline collections, which are very limited, the Topshop range consists of four styles produced in much larger quantities, which instantly allows for more accessible prices.
“I love the idea of having accessible price points, and with the mainline pieces we always try to keep price points low, but because we make such a small amount and so much goes into it, it’s difficult. Our mainline is very boutiquey, so we just make a certain amount of bikinis with a roll or two of fabrics and then that’s it, no one has that bikini ever again, and that’s what makes our mainline unique. It’s very rare that you find a girl with the same bikini. We don’t reproduce.”
The capsule collection, although very much “Pistols” in its vintage-with-a-twist aesthetic, differs from the mainline collection to make it specific to the Topshop customer, particularly focusing on original fabric usage, evident in the denim-type swim fabric that runs throughout the collection, something which Fleming has been working on for some time now.
“It’s just different and very unique,” she says summing up the new line, “and wouldn’t necessarily fit into my main line, because it has a different design signature to it – this is more groundbreaking.”
So, after conquering one of the world’s largest high-street chains what’s next for the swimwear brand? It seems, for Fleming, the future lies in the world of pop-ups.
“We are definitely looking at having more shops. I mean retail is having a bit of a funny time right now and we’re riding out this retail hesitation, but I think the future is actually pop-up shops and we are looking at specific beach destinations around the world like Ibiza, St Tropez, Caribbean… I’m from Miami, so there are loads of hotels we are talking to about doing pop-up shops for three months. It’s a really exciting time.”
This article first appeared in the May issue of Lingerie Insight