Aussie Swimwear Line Matteau Is All About Simple, Clean Lines—Just Don’t Call Them Minimalists

Meet Ilona Hamer and Peta Heinsen, the sisters behind the summer’s most timeless and understated swimwear.

Matteau is the Australian swimwear line that has Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (and fashion editors everywhere) swooning, thanks to the brand’s commitment to clean lines and great fit. Here, sisters Ilona Hamer and Peta Heinsen talk starting their business (while working full-time jobs), and designing swimsuits for all shapes and sizes.

Matteau Swim

Photo courtesy Matteau.

Photo courtesy Matteau.

Photo courtesy Matteau.

Alexandra Nataf

Photo courtesy Matteau.

Alexandra Nataf

Matteau crop top and classic brief in Marigold. Photo courtesy Matteau.

Matteau square crop top and boy-leg brief in Navy. Photo courtesy Matteau.

Matteau square crop top and boy-leg brief in Plum. Photo courtesy Matteau.

Matteau square maillot in Amber. Photo courtesy Matteau.


How did you get your start in fashion? Ilona Hamer: I started at Vogue Australia when I had just turned 21 and I was there for almost six years. I started as the Office Coordinator and worked my way up to become Fashion Assistant, then Market Editor and then Junior Fashion Editor. It was the most incredible learning experience and really shaped my taste and solidified my aesthetic and the way I work. I think the fact that I started in publishing helped me realize very early on that an image is really key to tapping into people’s desires, rather than trying to push a specific item. It’s about creating a feeling when someone looks at the image, and that’s what we try to hone in on in our campaigns and social media. We make very simple bathing suits and that’s what we set out to do. We wanted to create the neutral bathing suit. The one that says just enough, but also not much at all. Because when you wear Matteau, it’s not so much about the pieces, it’s about you. How you wear it, what you wear it with; be it your heirloom jewelry pieces from your mom or grandmother or the linen shirt you choose to throw on top with handmade sandals. The Matteau girl is discerning in understanding that less is more, but also that personality is everything. What she wears to the beach is one thing, but her interests outside of herself — art, film, books, relationships, current affairs — are what shape her.

Why did you decide to go into designing swim? I.H.: The very simple answer is the fact that I couldn’t find it at the time. My sister, Peta, and I had been discussing working on a project together. I visited store after store trying to find a little black triangle bikini that didn’t have things hanging off it, ruching where it shouldn’t be, heavy stitching or just strange shapes. So we started with a very clean, simple idea back in late 2012.

What led to your interest in swimwear? I.H.: The very Australian fact that in summer, I live at the beach. I would go swimming before and after work when I was at Vogue, I would spend weekends at the beach or by the pool at my parent’s house. Growing up in Sydney, the beach is an ever-present part of day-to-day life and a luxury I certainly miss now living in New York. There is nothing quite like a swim in Sydney in the summer.

Is there a certain beach that inspires you? I.H.: I personally have a deep affection for Clovelly beach in Sydney. It is such a unique space with its concrete walls and incredibly clear water. The way the sea level rises and falls with the ocean tide and the snorkeling make it a really one of a kind swimming experience. Peta Heinsen: Hyam’s Beach in Jervis Bay, a few hours south of Sydney, is my most favorite beach. It borders the bush, has the whitest sand in the world with the most crystal clear water and is quiet and flat – so makes beach holidays far more relaxing with three kids to keep an eye on. This is also where we spent our childhood holidays growing up, so has special meaning for me.

Where are you excited to travel this summer? I.H.: I am madly trying to plan my summer vacation only now! It has been a very busy six months so my husband and I are taking two weeks at the end of August to retreat to Europe for some sunshine, swimming and R&R. We haven’t picked a location yet — but I think it will be Italy or Greece. And then of course we go home to Australia for Christmas so we get summer twice a year thankfully! P.H.: If we can make it work amongst all our schedules, we’d love to get away to Thailand for a family holiday later this year. Thailand is a favorite of ours; we always head to more remote areas that are not so frequented by tourists — there’s nothing like having a beach all to ourselves.

What was it like getting your business off the ground? P.H.: It was a slow process, but something we really wanted to make sure we got right and that what we put forward really reflected our aesthetic and what we want to mean to women. In late 2012 we started planning and researching, and in April of 2013 we had our first samples. We’ve had friends (and friends of friends) wearing our pieces from back then and posting on blogs at the time, but it still took us another two years to be ready to launch — but it wasn’t worth rushing and we were both enjoying the process of perfecting our pieces. We have some pieces that we have sampled probably 10-plus times, including in different fabrics, to ensure we took only the best forward.

Looking back, yes, we could have done it sooner, but Ilona and I both had other jobs to hold down and I also have a family; so Matteau was something we worked on at night and on weekends. We could have cut corners and not spent so long on product development, but it was important to us to make sure we presented the best product we could. The feedback we receive on our fit and construction makes the time it took so worth it now. Moonlighting is really tough — we had months where we would survive on 3 hours sleep a night and then front up for our day jobs; but the process has been so rewarding and fulfilling.

What were the main pieces you began with? P.H.: We have kept it very simple and classic from the beginning. We started out offering three tops, three briefs and one maillot — in three color-ways (black, navy and khaki). Each top and brief was designed so that any combination works well together and all are sold as separates. That was a huge thing for us, born out of frustration that bikini sets just don’t work. Most women are not the same size on top and bottom, so we wanted to be able to help solve that problem.

What style do you find is still popular with your customer? P.H.: Our Petite Triangle Top has definitely been the key style, I think because the fit really works with a smaller bust and even on a bigger bust too. We have this style in an A/B and also C/D cup and will be adjusting to a DD/E for next season as well. In our briefs, either the Classic Brief or Petite Brief would be the best sellers. Our Cross Back Maillot has been hugely popular (more than we ever expected) — one pieces are definitely back!

What swim trends are you seeing among women right now? I.H.: It’s funny because “minimal” swimwear has become such a thing lately and personally, I don’t love the term. I don’t think of us as minimal; I think of us as modern, with a simple, clean, neat aesthetic — and our pieces are timeless. Life is hectic; there are so many things going on in the everyday that we just wanted to create something reliable, comfortable and cool that you can count on time after time. When you want to branch out and get a new top, its always going to go with the briefs you already have and vice versa. We have customers who buy two styles of tops and one brief; or for example the Petite Triangle Top with the High Waist Brief and also the Petite Brief – because sometimes you want to show a little and get bit of sun and sometimes not so much, and what you want to wear at the beach can change with your mood. I think the biggest thing I am seeing is that authenticity is being noticed. It’s about honest, educated points of view; a verified aesthetic

When did you feel the label was on the right track? P.H.: There have been so many defining moments for us since our launch that reinforces what we’re doing. There are the obvious things like press coverage, but there are so many small things that mean a lot to us. Our resort launch dinner in May in Sydney was an amazing night for us to have so many industry people in one room to celebrate the new collection; all citing what we were doing differently to everyone else that set us apart. We just hosted a trunk show at The Apartment by The Line in New York which was such a nice, organic partnership and a really great validation from such a formidable tastemaker.

And then just the customer feedback we receive. When customers take time out of their busy lives to contact us for no reason other than to tell us how great they feel in our pieces; and those that email just to tell us how much they value the fit and quality and that they’ve finally found the swimsuit they’ve been searching for. Recently we received the most special email from a woman who had purchased a Cross Back Maillot through one of our stockists – what was so nice was that she was proudly wearing our larger sizing and wanted to tell us that she had never felt so confident in a swimsuit before. Those emails give us goosebumps. –

Has there been a favorite moment since you launched? I.H.: As a stylist, I have to say the fact that other stylists and publications that I deeply respect have contacted us for shoots. We had a full page in the Gentlewoman, which is one of my favorite magazines and I have to say it really blew my mind. To have had an idea, work really hard for 3 years on it and then have the likes of Vogue, Self Service, The Gentlewoman, Pop, Vogue Paris all understand what we set out to do, is very cool. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley actually just sent the loveliest email this morning thanking us for sending her some swimwear. It was a really genuine, appreciative and supportive email from one businesswoman to another and something she didn’t have to do, so it’s nice to have things like that pop up in your inbox.

Honestly, the thing that makes me the happiest and proudest is emails from customers or friends who are just so happy and love the cut and fit; the way they describe how it makes them feel and how they have looked for a swimsuit like ours for a long time.

Let’s talk about fit — what does it mean to you, your brand, and how is it important? What is the key to great fit? I.H.: Fit is everything first and foremost. And with swim, its millimeters that make a difference. A little from here affects there, and so on. So we sample over and over to try different ways of taking away as much as possible, without affecting coverage or fit. We are always looking at what we can do better — we are always listening to feedback from everyone we can — what they like, what works, anything they are looking for they can’t find.

For our first collection we definitely have shapes that work for a smaller bust to about a C/D, but the biggest thing that kept coming up was to cater to larger busts and we now have new styles coming out especially for that reason — we have a new Plunge top that caters for women from an A to an E cup. We worked really hard with our pattern maker to have one style that retains the same line across all bust sizes, while still being true to the Matteau aesthetic. Consistency is the key for us.

My sister and I have the same gene pool but our bodies are totally different (and so is our other sister) — to have such different body shapes in one family, proves that we can’t cater for just one woman. We fit on friends and family with a range of body shapes and sizes, and are always taking notes on fit and where we can improve or evolve. The fundamental thing is that every woman wants to feel confident in her swimwear – so making them feel good is our number one priority. Giving women confidence is such an empowering feeling.

Talk about your plans for the future. What’s next? I.H.: We are working on spring/summer 2017 at the moment and there will be some new gradual, logical and organic growth in terms of styles and colors and the greater expansion of the Matteau woman and what she needs and wants from a day by the sea — things that will take us outside of just the swimwear space. In whatever we do, we aim to be very edited and specific in terms of each range. It’s quality and integrity over quantity always for us. Our resort collection is in production at the moment to deliver later in September and we have some amazing new stores that we will be working with in Australia and Internationally as well, including Matches and Lane Crawford.