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How Orlebar Brown reimagined swim shorts

Founder and creative director Adam Brown reflects on a remarkable journey

I don’t want a swim short, I want a short that I can swim in.

Orlebar Brown has gone from sparking the tailored swim shorts trend with a single product to a full lifestyle brand with 25 stores globally and an acquisition by Chanel — all in little over a decade, bucking industry trends en route.

The traditional retail model had brands starting with physical stores and then, since the advent of the internet, moving operations into the digital space. Not so for Orlebar Brown. The British lifestyle brand launched online in 2007 with its tailored swimwear, and only thereafter considered bricks-and-mortar stores — the latest of which just opened in The Dubai Mall.

“When I started the brand, I launched the business online,” founder Adam Brown tells Debonair. “So, online has always been the home of Orlebar Brown. It’s where we started; it’s where we’ll definitely be continuing the journey.

“From a retail perspective, it has a very valuable part to play in any brand’s journey and experience. As we all know, the format of retail is changing — the way that people use retail is not just to buy clothes.

“It’s about a much more immersive dive into the brand these days.”

What’s become a globally successful business all started with a pair of swim shorts and the idea that men’s swimwear could be better. Brown proudly identifies himself as the originator of the tailored swimwear trend. On holiday, he was irked by the fact that men had to change to go from the pool to lunch. “I thought, I don’t want a swim short, I want a short that I can swim in.”

I don’t want a swim short, I want a short that I can swim in.

Mizzen, a division of Seddiqi Holding, recently launched the first regional stand-alone shop for Orlebar Brown in The Dubai Mall

He went back and looked at a pair of suit trousers, traditionally based on a 17-piece pattern, and devised the 60 elements that go into each pair of shorts. “Key tailoring features include the side fasteners that adjust, and a four-part, shaped waistband, so it sits higher at the back and lower at the front — which is generally more flattering, and also eliminates that gaping hole at the back when you sit. Then you have the two front pockets, double stitching and darts in the back for a bit of a better shape.

“If you made this in cotton or linen, it would be an outdoor short. The block of our shorts are the same for swim and ready-to-wear, but it is a tailored approach, and very much a short you can swim in.”

From that one product Brown built a company that was acquired in September by luxury company Chanel — incidentally in the same month the French company also took a 20 per cent minority stake in independent watchmaker F.P. Journe’s parent company, Montres Journe. While the terms of the Chanel takeover remain undisclosed, the group’s global chief financial officer Philippe Blondiaux has credited Orlebar Brown’s digital success story as key to its interest, and positions the brand alongside its existing women’s swim line, Eres. “As well as sharing the same values and approach in terms of quality and know-how, this acquisition represents an ideal opportunity for synergy between Orlebar Brown and Eres,” he said in a statement.

I don’t want a swim short, I want a short that I can swim in.

Adam Brown

“As a ‘digital native’ brand, Orlebar Brown will enable Eres to strengthen its digital expertise and optimise its omnichannel distribution strategy. Orlebar Brown, on the other hand, will benefit from the retail experience and expertise of a long-standing player in high-quality beachwear.”

Brown says the deal was ironed out over a number of years. “The time seemed right now. I definitely wanted to find a good home in someone who would look after this thing that is Orlebar Brown. It was very important to me that it went to someone you know loves its brands, who would look after it properly.”

He’s happy to retain his position as creative director. “I’m definitely not a CEO-type person. I have no interest in that at all. I’m just delighted there’s actually a wider group of people now who can look after Orlebar Brown while I can focus more on the product, on the marketing and the storytelling, run by the cultural references of the brand.”

He’s also not too concerned about losing the freedom that comes with independence. “I’ll tell you in a year’s time,” he laughs at a question about it being curtailed. “No, I don’t think it will. We’ve spoken an awful lot about that.

“I think they are very excited about buying Orlebar Brown for what it is now. We’re a small brand; they’re a huge, very established company. You buy something because you like it, and would likely not want to change it…”

The brand has also partnered with the storied Seddiqi family to bring Orlebar Brown to the UAE under Seddiqi Holding’s retail division, Mizzen. But why Dubai, and why now?

“Maybe I should revert with, ‘Why not Dubai, and why not now?’” Brown laughs. “But Dubai is one of those places that epitomises what the brand is about. We’re built around ideas of sunshine, travel, happiness and good times, and Dubai obviously is a great reference point for all of those.”

Opening its 25th store (across 11 countries) here makes sense, Brown says — in addition to seeing increasing online orders to the city, they’ve also had a number of tourist orders delivered to hotels.

The brand moved into ready-to-wear in 2010, and now boasts a full lifestyle offering — everything from bags and sunglasses to slides and towels. But swimwear remains its hero product, although T-shirts, polos and linen shirts and shorts are the fastest-growing categories. Some 65 per cent of its sales are non-swimwear, Brown says.

“The swim shorts are the start of all our products. The whole collection is built around the swim shorts.

“They’re designed to be versatile products you can wear from the beach to a bar or to the neighbour’s. Likewise, our lifestyle shoe is a shoe you can swim in. It’s super lightweight and looks like an everyday trainer with a very sporty aesthetic, but you can wear it in the water, walking on rocks or on the deck of the boat. You can wear it in town and while on holiday.”

Adam Brown founded Orlebar Brown, which was launched in March 2007 as a tailored approach to men’s swim shorts

Inspired by Brown’s previous life as a portrait photographer and the need for a more immersive retail experience, Orlebar Brown enhances its direct consumer model through its stores with a photo lab service, where customers can have their own pictures printed onto everything from swim shorts to bags. This expands the photographic print line of iconic destinations by the likes of Slim Aarons currently available, including a Dubai exclusive, and memorable movie prints, notably from the James Bond franchise.

“Photography has always been a key part to the storytelling of Orlebar Brown. Those moments the brand exists in are normally very picturesque — sea, sky, beautiful landscapes, maybe a boat, or the beach. We’re now enabling customers to put their own photographs — those memories that they’ve created when they’re wearing the product on holiday — onto their own shorts.”

A collaboration with the Bond film franchise producer Eon Productions has four original artworks from the films used on swim shorts in what Brown calls its “most successful collaboration to date”. Next year’s second phase will have rompers, polos, shirts and the like from the Bond universe given an Orlebar Brown makeover. Brown also hopes for the call inviting the brand to be a part of Bond 25, a project Beasts of No Nation-director Cary Joji Fukunaga helms following Danny Boyle’s recent departure.

Another landmark collaboration saw Australian F1 driver Daniel Ricciardo design three of the brand’s Bulldog mid-length swim shorts. One features a print of Monaco, where he lives, and a race he won in 2018; another is covered in his doodles of things he likes about Austin, Texas and carries his nickname, The Honey Badger; and the third continues his Americana theme with a silhouette of a pinup.

Brown says the partnership felt natural: “Daniel has been a customer of ours and a big supporter of the brand for quite a while. More than that, he does things that are relevant to our brand, and he enjoys the lifestyle that we promote.”

Eleven years in, is this where he thought he’d be? “Not at all!” says Brown. “I didn’t have any experience in fashion, I had no experience in retail, I had never even bought anything online!

“If anyone had said to me 11 years ago that Orlebar Brown would be an employer of 130 people, would have 25 stores, have a website that delivers around the world, have 250 wholesale accounts, and had been acquired by Chanel, I’d have said they were out of their mind. I’m delighted. It’s been a fantastic twelve years, and I think it’s incredible to think that Orlebar Brown has got to where it has. But it’s definitely not because of me…”

That said, they’ve barely scratched the surface, he says. “There’s an incredible piece of data that suggests we’ve actually only reached 0.3 per cent of the potential people who could wear a pair of Orlebar Brown shorts. And that’s only in the US and the UK.

“So, we haven’t even started. Our story hasn’t even begun.”

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