“Surfing is how I meditate,” designer Cynthia Rowley tells me at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. We’ve driven out to Montauk for CR Surf Camp, a fledgling event that merges the Insta-posing of a Revolve retreat with the muscle demands of a varsity sport. Behind us, Christina Caradona (aka @TropRouge) is live streaming on the sand. Ahead of us, Waikei Tong is paddling towards a swell. And Rowley is pulling me up from a wipeout—one of many, many, many—in pursuit of my Blue Crush moment. (Haters rejoice: You can watch me go down, hard, on Rowley’s own Insta feed.)
According to Rowley, the crash of the waves, and the crash of the surfers in them, is all part of the thrill she hopes to instill in other young women, including her daughters Kit (19) and Gigi (14, and a kids’ surfing instructor herself). “Surfing is a reminder the world is bigger than me,” Rowley explains, urging me back into the sea as the tide calms down. “The ocean is bigger than any of my problems.”
The thing is, the ocean has a huge problem of its own—marine pollution—and ironically, the surf communities so beloved in Montauk, Malibu, and elsewhere might be hanging ten in ecologically toxic gear. “Surfers are some of the most eco-conscious people in the world,” says Rowley, who’s teamed with charities like the Surfrider Foundation to help promote cleaner beaches worldwide. “But for a long time, our primary uniform—the wetsuit—was made with polyester and really harmful plastics! The irony is mind-boggling… Once I saw how much plastic was in normal neoprene, I knew [surf wear] had to evolve.”
Rowley isn’t the only designer tackling eco-conscious swimwear, but she’s definitely one of the most consistent. After partnering with a Thai factory in 2008, her label has been pushing sustainable wetsuits, one-pieces, and bikinis for nearly 12 years. This season, they’ve created the majority of their swimwear—and even some ready-to-wear outfits—from natural and recycled materials picked for their minimal impact on waterways.
“We started with the basic stuff—figuring out how to make swimsuit ‘skin’ from recycled plastic bottles,” Rowley explains. “The ‘carbon black,’ which is the spongy filler inside neoprene? We make it with recycled tires. And then there are components nobody thinks about, like glue. Every wetsuit uses glue, and so do a ton of swimsuits. But glue is often made from harsh chemicals—we don’t want that. So we found a water-based glue instead. If some of it sheds or erodes, that’s okay—it’s water!” As for the neoprene itself, Rowley’s team makes it with limestone instead of liquid plastic, swapping out a toxic material for one that biodegrades.
Design nerds—and anyone who played with Tangrams as a kid—will also obsess over Rowley’s construction. “We make it a game,” she laughs, “because we want to make a human body shape out of flat pieces. We don’t want any leftover scraps—we want to use them all, so there’s no waste. And we do!”
Then there’s the matter of reuse—not just longevity. Is there more to a wetsuit or swimsuit than just a day at the beach? “We talk about this a lot,” Rowley says, “Because we know clothes have to last longer, and also through more than one season to be truly sustainable. If you can wear a romper or leotard year-round, why not a wetsuit or a one-piece? We put the SpongeBob one under a dress on the runway last season. I think the floral swimsuits look cool as hell under a blazer, too. Once winter comes around and you’re freezing, why wouldn’t you go for the most insulating thing you have?”
I mention a surfer friend who nixed my wetsuit-and-jeans combo last fall with a one-word text: poser. “Yeah,” concedes Rowley. “On the one hand, I get that some surfers treat their wetsuit like a tool, something that really belongs to them as part of surf culture, and they don’t want it co-opted as a fashion item. But we’re trying to change that, because surf culture can’t exist without sustainable living. And if you can turn one item of clothing into like three different outfits, and you love how you look? Then screw it and wear what you want.”