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International Women's Day

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Brighton Swimmers

Our creative director Laura Villasenin was taking a deep dive into the history of technical swimwear – its flowing, sporty lines; the emphasis it places on strong, pronounced shoulders – when she came across someone remarkable: Mercedes Gleitze, the first woman to swim the English Channel. That’s 21 miles across the sea – in just a bathing suit, as a woman, in 1927.  

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Mercedes’ story blew us out the proverbial water. Her strength and endurance has informed so much of the collection. Not just her physicality, but her drive to do something that would break the barriers of her gender – gliding through the water, paving the way for the women that would follow her. The resulting pieces are powerful but delicate, robust but soft – subverting expectations and embracing every side of femininity.  

Mercedes was born in Brighton. So, in tribute to her, we thought we’d take a trip to meet some of the very women she paved the way for nearly a century ago. We headed to the great British seaside to meet nine incredible female sea swimmers at the Brighton Swimming Club as they take starring roles in our SS23 editorial. Before casting off our clothing and venturing in for a dip, we sat down for a chatin the clubhouse: 

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Tell us about the Brighton Swimming Club? And what it means to you?  

Melodie: So supposedly it's the oldest swimming club continuously running in the world, I think maybe there's one other one. They had two breaks – one was during WWII, I think it was, when they had to close the beaches. And then the other one was Covid, which is pretty wild when you think about it – a war and then covid. 

Cat: It's like an entire support system – it's not just a swimming club. It's a way of keeping fit, it's a way of keeping healthy – mentally and physically. It's been there for the highs and lows of my life. It's been everything I could possibly want from a gang. I’ve done a couple of big crossings, so it's also been the scene of really committed, hardcore training. But in the winterit's really a social thing, because you can't stay in for long. I hate to use the cliche 'it's a way of life' – but it really is. It's so much more than just swimming. 

It sounds like the community element is as important as the swimming then? 

Nicky: Definitely – it’s a real, strong community thing. I’m an early morning swimmer and it's what I get out of bed for in the morning. You see the same faces, you touch base with everybody, you meet a whole community of different people.  

Melodie: It's not just that I want to be in the sea. I want to be around these swimmers. There's something beautiful about going through that cold water experience with people. It really bonds you. And everyone's so lovely and welcoming and warm. I guess because you have gone through this difficult experience together; you put your life on the line, and you put it in other people's hands. It's like this unspoken thing of like – I'm looking out for you, and you're looking out for me. I trust you with my life, and you can trust me with yours. 

It seems like there’s so much more motivating you all to swim than just physical fitness. How much of your swimming is about that? And how much is about mental health and happiness 

Kati: And it’s the love for the sea, too. Just being in nature. That’s the main bit for me. Since joining the club I’ve started swimming more of course, but it’s still not the main reason for me to go in. I just love the sea and the waves and the coldness. The cold waterbuzz! 

Nicky: If conditions were right, I would swim round the pier every day... and that's quite challenging! And I think – if I can do this, I can face whatever challenges are coming at me for the rest of the day. It sets me up.

Our SS23 collection was inspired by powerful bodies and powerful women. Researching the collection, our founder Laura came across Mercedes Gleitze, the first woman to swim the English Channel in 1927. What do you think of what she achieved? 

Melodie: I think something that'sreally hard for us to wrap our heads around now – is that, at the time, sport belonged to men. Training belonged to men. The outdoors belonged to men. Mercedes was really breaking boundaries. And I'm sure she was being chastised and judged and scrutinised more than any male athlete would've been. 

To have the resilience to stand up to that – because you just really enjoy something or arefuelled to achieve something – is incredible. And she did it with such grace. She donated a lot of her winnings and started a charity with her own money. She did wonderful things for the world. 

Nicky: What's also really interesting about Mercedes is what happened afterwards. She kind of went back into obscurity – she didn't even mention what she did to her family. It wasn't even talked about, was it? I think that'ssomewhat the way women are about things. 

Emma: She just did it for herself, didn’t she? 

I think something that's really hard for us to wrap our heads around now – is that, at the time, sport belonged to men. Training belonged to men. The outdoors belonged to men. Mercedes was really breaking boundaries. And I'm sure she was being chastised and judged and scrutinised more than any male athlete would've been.

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Completely. And by defying the expectations of her gender at that time, Mercedes created a bit of a slipstream for the women that would follow her. If you could, what would you say to those women who redefined what was possible for our gender? 

Melodie: Thank you. Thank you for breaking those boundaries for us. Thank you for beginning to normalise what we're still trying to normalise now – to show that women are powerful and courageous and athletic and strong.  

Cat: It's just a huge recognition of tremendous sacrifice and effort and work and bravery – to the benefit of many rather than just themselves. In some instances, women gave up their lives to further a path for us. It’s a really selfless act. So, it’s gratitude, too – for doing something really hard,that you're not necessarily even going to live to see the full benefit of. 

Gill: It's hard to be brave and do things that society will judge you for. And yet there's so many women over history who have done just that. Any woman who pushes those boundaries is doing the right thing. 

It looks. ridiculously cold out there. Do you think womanhood pre-arms you with any of the strength required for sea-swimming?  

Cat: I don't know that womanhood has an effect onyour ability to sea swim, per say. But – especially in the winter – we’ll probably spend half an hour naked together everyday. And that’s disarming in many ways. It means that you can have these really open conversations. As women, we're going through different life stages: marriage, divorce, bereavement. The menopause is something we talk about quite a lotat the moment. The benefit of being with a full spectrum of women of all backgrounds and ages, where you can just talk freely – it’s unifying, and that's a really special thing.  

Gill: You get changed in here, everyone's cold at the end, you strip off – so many body shapes, there's no judgements, everyone's just who they are. I feel like it's just celebrating the female body really, that we come into this space and it's just so natural. 

Nicky: There's a lot of laughter here in the mornings in the women’s changing room. There's the odd man in the other one, but I reckon they kind of want to be in this one, don't they? It's sometimes like raucous laughter or breakouts of French singing... 
 
I thought you were going to say fights! I like that the traditional norms have swapped there. Usually, it's laddy changing room culture everyone hears about... 

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Miista Talks: International Women's Day Panel Discussion

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