Future Of Fashion

Designer Natasha Tonić Is Redefining Sustainable Swimwear

Her compostable suits are making waves.

by Alyssa Hardy

Of all the clothing in your closet, swimwear might be the most connected to the planet — you splash around in it in oceans, lakes, and rivers; you wear it lying in a park or by the pool. But similar to any other garment, the production, wear, and ultimate waste of bathing suits have an ever-increasing impact on climate change.

In 2021, the swimwear market was worth around $21.43 billion and is expected to grow by nearly $10 billion over the next five years, according to research by Skyquest. The issue with this rapid growth is that most swimwear is made from synthetic materials like nylon and polyester. These fabrics are made from fossil fuels and break down every time your suit is worn. The resulting microplastics end up polluting the very same water systems in which you wear your swimsuit.

That’s why LA-based Croatian and Serbian designer Natasha Tonić decided to try something new when she created her eponymous swimwear brand 15 years ago. Her bikinis and one-pieces, which range from $60-$185, are made from 96% hemp and 4% lycra, contrasting the growing “sustainable” swim market that often touts recycled synthetics as the alternative. While not as readily available as cotton or man-made materials, hemp has a significantly lower impact on the environment. It is a weed, after all, requiring far less water and pesticides than cotton.

Not only is Tonić working to make her pieces nearly all plant-based and biodegradable, she also wants them to be fashion-forward — many include artistic patterns that she designed herself. Shoppable only on the Natasha Tonić website, the products’ unique styles could double as swim and ready-to-wear. One collection, Coral City, features string bikinis and cut-out one-pieces with bold prints resembling the colors and shadows of the ocean. You’ll also find a ruched swim tank top that fits the tomato girl aesthetic when worn on dry land.

Here, Tonić tells Bustle about her evolving brand, why plant-based materials are essential, and why swimwear is sustainable fashion’s next frontier.

Swimwear has historically been difficult to make without synthetics. Can you talk about how you came to hemp as the solution?

I wanted natural-based swimwear, which was never [before] possible using plant-based fabric, but it was always in the back of my head. While I was pregnant, I got even more interested in the chemicals and things we put on our bodies, because the skin absorbs [them]. I was swimming and thinking about the suit I was wearing. I started researching nylon and how fast it can melt. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m wearing plastic on my body.’ That’s when I decided I wanted to make a plant-based swimsuit.

I made the first pattern on my own and then I traveled to Croatia. I was swimming in the salty water and the pool. And I was freaking out, thinking it would fall apart in the water, but it didn’t. So I started making them independently and approached several sustainable people to test [the swimsuits]. And they loved it.

How do you source the hemp, and how is it made into your pieces?

You get industrial hemp in California and then shred each plant to get the fiber. Not many people do it, because it was banned in certain places for a while. It’s also an intense process, which is part of why it’s so expensive. I keep my prices mid-range because of how I make my product. I also don’t like to overproduce and I don’t want to kill my creativity.

Why do you think many brands have turned to recycled poly instead of looking into alternative materials?

It’s very new. So a lot of people don’t even know. It takes a while to catch up. It’s changing, but for many brands, it’s just availability. You have to research where to find it, and then the prices are [high]. I have another fabric I was researching, biodegradable lycra, and I found a company in Spain that could do it. I bought all their fabric, which was not even that much. It was 50 yards.

Another thing is the culture of mass consumption. I get offers from factories in China on a daily basis that would make everything cheaper, but then I wouldn’t have the connection to my product like I do here in Los Angeles.

Do you find it challenging to market your business as a sustainable brand without furthering greenwashing problems?

I feel like I under-market my products because I see so many people [greenwashing]. It just feels overwhelming! I want to have a balance. I want people to know that my products are good for them without pushing them. People should buy it if they like it, not just because it’s made of hemp.

Often, a missing piece from sustainability conversations is worker safety and pay. You said your factories are in Los Angeles — does that help you stay on top of these issues?

I like to put a face to who is behind my product. We have certifications, but even then, you need to go into the factory to sense the vibe. Factories pay for certifications in a way, so I have to see it for myself. [Editor’s note: Most certifications still require auditing, but many are at a cost.]

What are your plans for continuing to grow and evolve sustainably?

I don’t like wasting fabric because first of all, it’s expensive, and second of all, waste is awful for the environment. We currently use biodegradable hemp but still have to use 4% lycra, so any waste is still a problem. Continuing to evolve, our fabric is going to be huge.

Also, for our newest collection, [a portion of proceeds from] every swimsuit sold goes toward planting corals. Corals are dying with temperatures rising in the ocean, and we contribute to that with what we consume. As a lover of biology, it’s important to me that everything remains connected.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.