MMatthew Zink might be one of the hottest swimwear designers around, he might be hot himself, and he might be in an industry associated with cold people and colder attitudes. Talking to the 30-year-old designer of Charlie by Matthew Zink, though, is like having a conversation with a kid at a carnival. His rapid-fire sentences are punctuated with his love of design, his love of swimwear, his Tiger Beat-like love of gay icons—“I live and die for Ricky Martin”—and his passion for the fashion of the 1970s.
“I’m a slave to the seventies,” says Zink. “It wasn’t just about the clothes; there was so much more. There are guys now who have amazing bodies and they are so critical of themselves. We need to smile more and feel better about our bodies. There was a joyfulness to the seventies that was so intoxicating. I want everyone to look like Richard Gere in American Gigolo. I love a guy in a white T-shirt, blue jeans, and a button-down shirt. I respond to someone who walks into a room and you notice them, not the clothes.”
Zink isn’t dismissing fashion, he’s endorsing the Halston/Liza/Bianca mantra that you wear the clothes; not the other way around.
“When you’re in a simple swimsuit and someone says you look great, you get the compliment, not the swimwear,” says Zink. “Keeping it simple and straightforward allows you to like it more. You want to be there as a fixture, not as an element in the room.” Perhaps most important, adds Zink, “It’s the most naked you’ll ever be out in public.”
Zink, who also has a swimwear line for women, started out as a designer for Victoria Secret, worked for Liz Claiborne, and soon set out to build his own sexy suits. “I had so many girlfriends say to me, ‘I can’t find a simple black bikini,’” says Zink, adding “I couldn’t find swimwear for me.” Zink started Charlie in April 2010, and then showed it in July. (The name, he says, is his muse for both men and woman … and he adores the Shelley Hack “Charlie Perfume” ads from, yes, the ‘70s.)
“Our men’s line is targeted for the gay customer,” says Zink. “I don’t want to say the gays found me; I designed the suits for the gay customer. I thought, ‘What kind of swimwear can I find for my community?’ Where is the product for the gay man who wants to feel sexy and be timeless?”
Charlie’s styles, which range from brief to mini-cut to a boxer fit, are meant to show off a guy’s best assets, even if Zink’s stuff isn’t typical banana hammock couture. When he started, “You could go really over the top, or really revealing, or you had to be Preppie and it had to be a board short,” he says. Zink’s cuts are higher because “If you don’t have a six-pack you still probably have good legs.” He sums up his love for the briefer cuts simply: “I love a tan line.”
Don’t expect to see Zink flaunting his own wares in ad campaigns (“It’s more rewarding to see the bathing suit on someone else”), but do expect him to continue celebrating his beloved mentors and muses. “I’m mad for the Olympics, and in the Resorts, 2013, Collection, I’m paying tribute to Gianni Versace and Greg Louganis.”
Lest you think Matthew’s sexy suits are just for show, Zink also gave me a lesson on swimwear care. To keep your suit from falling off when you plunge, “the drawstring is what usually secures, and you size down for performance.” Once your suit’s off for the right reason, “hand wash and lay down flat, because chlorine and saltwater are so bad. A dryer and a washer will also ruin your swimwear. It’s the difference between your suit lasting one season or three.”
But if you can’t wait that long to get your next Charlie fix, Zink will gladly find something that suits your style.
For more information, visit the Charlie website, follow Matthew Zink on Twitter, catch him on facebook, or go to Pinterest. Model photographs by Seth Hutchinson. Photo of Matthew Zink: Kevin McDermott.