This body-positive swimwear line is for real New York girls

i-D cover star Paloma Elsesser and the founders of Dos Swim tell us how they're bringing a backward corner of fashion into the present day.

by Mahoro Seward
05 August 2021, 9:40am

Photography Mayan Toledano cou

"We just want to make stuff that we want to wear, that our friends want to wear, and that makes all women feel hot and sexy," says Dos Swim co-founder Shay Johnson. Taken out of context, that may sound like a pretty common mission statement. It is, however, one that's rarely heard in the world of swimwear, a corner of fashion that still promotes a prescriptive, problematic body ideal to a worrying degree. For her latest collection, Shay and Paula Hess sought to actively dispel the idea that certain pieces can only be worn by certain bodies, teaming up with i-D contributing editor Paloma Elsesser to create a range of swimsuits that accommodate a broad span of bodies without compromising on sexiness or visual impact.

The thing is, Shay and Paula never set out with the express intention of shaking up the world of swimwear. Rather, their venture was the product of the frustration they encountered when trying to find the ideal swimsuits for an upcoming trip. Previously, they'd resorted to vintage bikinis, but this time, "we just decided to make our own," Shay explains. After posting their self-fashioned bathing suits on Instagram, the pair quickly found themselves inundated with requests.

Paloma Elsesser wearing a swimsuit by Paloma Elsesser x Dos Swim

As Paloma -- a long-time friend of the Dos Swim founders’ -- explains, the overnight audience they drummed up is hardly a surprise. "There are just so many swimwear brands out there now, but it often feels like you're seeing the same approach over and over again -- it feels quite throwaway and repetitive. I think that Dos Swim is really a departure from that. It's really representative of a real 'New York Girl' spirit that's rarely seen in swimwear. It's authentic, effortless, sexy. It's not precious, or over the top." 

That's exactly the spirit that the trio insisted on bringing to the table for their collaboration, which happens to be Paloma's first. Titled Heat Wave, it's a perfect fusion of unabashed sexiness and outdoors-y edge -- think army-green two-pieces fastened with matte metal buckles at the bust and hiking-shoelace-halterneck bikinis decorated with technicolour graphic prints. 

Here, Shay, Paula and Paloma unpack the story behind the collaboration, their creative process, and the image of a 'New York Girl' they want to represent to the world.

A model wearing a colourful swimsuit by Paloma Elsesser x Dos Swim

How did you start working together on the collection?

Paloma Elsesser: It was just a product of me and Shay running into each other in the neighbourhood I used to live in during Covid, and just kiki'ing. I was saying that I wanted to get more into doing collaborations and that I often felt like I had to do stuff that didn't feel authentic to who I am. So I just said that I'd love to do something with them.

Shay Johnson: And then two days later we were having a meeting! 

Paula Hess: Yeah, Shay called me and was like, 'Okay, so I run into Paloma, and she wants to do a collab!' And I was like, 'Let's do it!' 

What sort of aesthetic did you have in mind? 

Paloma: I've always liked the fact that friends of mine can send me a colour, or a shoe, or a book and be like, "Oh, this is very Paloma". And I wanted that energy to be imbued into this collection. I'm really into -- not to gender them -- but what would typically be called more masculine colours. That isn't particularly light and summery, but we quickly realised that girls are shopping for swimsuits all year round. We also wanted it to feel like it's a bit of a 'fuck you', an attempt to take swimwear out of the context of, like, the beach or Ibiza, and reconnect it with other ways in which we can interact with nature and water. I thought about being upstate, where I spent a lot of time during Covid, and that's where much of the inspiration came from. We looked at things like paracord hiking laces and more tactical approaches with things like matte metal buckles, resulting in something that feels like a fresh departure from the normative swim template.

Shay: It was also about channelling the energy of a New York summer. If you're not travelling, you're going upstate, you're going to the lakes -- that's really true to what a New York girl would do, so we wanted that to reflect in the collection as well. You can wear these pieces on the beach, but you could also wear them as a top with cargo pants or just include them as part of your everyday summer wardrobe. And the strings are removable, too, so there are tons of different ways that you can wear each piece.

Paloma Elsesser and another model wearing a swimsuit by Paloma Elsesser x Dos Swim

What was the collaborative process between you like? 

Paula: It was so nice to collaborate with somebody that has a very strong point of view. Paloma was like, 'This is what I like, this is my vision, these are the styles”. Whenever we start working on a collection, though, we always start with pieces that we like personally and go from that. Here, we built off the styles that Paloma was especially passionate about, fitted all of the styles on her, and worked with one of her close friends on the custom prints, so it was a collaboration in the truest sense.  

Paloma: The beauty of working with friends was that I could just say when I didn't feel good in something or if I didn't like something. In return, they could openly tell me what we needed to do, or ask how I felt about the cup, or say when something needed to be bigger. It was a really thoughtful, frank and easy process. We'd be in my living room at whatever time of night, tweaking this or that, and it also felt super impactful that we all occupy different body types and could bring that to the table. My body type isn't fully representative of the size that we went up to, but it felt important for us to advocate for that greater range of sizes.

There was an aspect of market research and thinking about what didn't exist out there, but on an emotional affective level, it was also about asking, "What do I wish existed? What do I -- a size 14 woman in her late 20s who is now really embracing the idea that the smaller the bikini, the better -- want to see out there?" A string, but with a little bit more coverage on the tummy, for example. It was also a response to what's typically provided for any plus or extended sizing, which is a one-piece or, like, a literal diaper of a high-waisted bottom. It's insane! 

A close up of a model lying down wearing a camo swimsuit by Paloma Elsesser x Dos Swim

What do you hope people will see in the Heat Wave collection? 

Paloma: It sounds cliché, but I feel that the representation of the New York girl is still quite myopic. It's not truly representative of the girls that we see every day who really command the city. With the collection and campaign, we really wanted to communicate that you can be cool and not have to subscribe to a super-specific idea of skinniness, whiteness, and wealth. I wanted this to be a moment that was truly representative of that.  

Shay: Yeah, we wanted the world to see who we are. This is a true marriage of Dos Swim and Paloma, and you can see us both really shine in the collection. We want to show that every girl is sexy, that you can be 3XL and wear a little triangle and still look cool and sexy as fuck. 

Four models wearing swimsuits by Paloma Elsesser x Dos Swim, stood on a mountain trail

Shop the Paloma Elsesser x Dos Swim collection here, and follow i-D on Instagram and TikTok for more fashion.

Paloma Elsesser