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Across beaches worldwide, there’s a battle of stealth being waged over men’s swimwear, as stylish individuals swear their allegiances to different brands. Given the amount of fabric involved, you might have thought there isn’t much to design but a pair of swim shorts can say as much about the wearer as a shirt and tie. It’s a subtle interplay – fabric, detailing, labelling, cut and proportion – that has intensified as more and more brands enter the market for board shorts.

Vilebrequin, the renowned French brand with a bon viveur spirit, witty prints (a crayfish design new for this summer) and a comfortable fit, once dominated as the go-to trunks label for celebrities – Jack Nicholson and Colin Firth have been customers. But the premium market is now being shared by a host of other labels, from London-based Orlebar Brown to certain niche, surf-related brands such as Swami’s, also London-based. The boom in the market is giving men new signifiers to play with on the beach; garish prints and ill-fitting board shorts could be a thing of the past.

Nick Vinson, director at creative agency Vinson & Co, who spends many summer weekends on the beaches near his home in Florence, notes that: “Italians have a total beach wardrobe. Unlike some Brits, they won’t turn up with beach shorts and a shirt meant for the office. On the beach or by the pool, I wear shorts from Aspesi, Prada and Tomas Maier. I choose them slim and short, and although they are mainly solid colours, I do also have prints. It’s pretty much the only print you would find in my wardrobe.”

A 1960s Jantzen swimwear advert

In Hong Kong, where many locals wear Speedos, the expats tend to stick to board shorts. Tom Kollar, an American finance lawyer at Clifford Chance in Hong Kong, enjoys trips to the beaches on Hong Kong Island, where certain spots such as Shek O and Big Wave Bay are popular with a growing surf community.

Kollar favours the Orlebar Brown trunks (from £125). “Certain board-short brands are a bit of a statement,” he says, “but definitely not the counter-culture vibe of 1970s California surf culture.” Hong Kong-based multi-brand store Lane Crawford caters to the international taste for bolder colours and patterns, from Scotch & Soda’s sunny shades to leaf print designs by American designer Thom Browne.

Over in Montauk, New York – a stretch of Long Island that offers both windswept beaches and a laid-back atmosphere – locals distinguish themselves from the flashier Hamptons crowd with swimwear that ranges from faded cut-offs to retro designs.

Simon Thackway, co-founder and chief executive of graphic design consultancy Thackway McCord, lives between Manhattan and Montauk. He thinks that the new influx of visitors to Montauk suggests changes on the swimwear horizon. “Knee-length baggy surf shorts appear to be popular with the frat crowd that is increasingly coming to Montauk,” Thackway says. “Among the local longboarding surf crowd, though, old-school Birdwell shorts are de rigueur. The cuts and material have hardly changed since the 1950s – they look great, and dry quicker than anything out there.”

Clockwise from left: swim shorts by Dan Ward (£160); Grant board shorts by Saturdays ($75); leafprint swim shorts from Thom Browne (£210); Bulldog palmprint swim shorts by Orlebar Brown (£225)

Birdwell, a family-owned company set up in 1961, sells its Beach Britches with the slogan “Quality is our Gimmick”. For men who prefer to set themselves apart from the “baggy tribe” with a shorter mid-thigh style ($76), neater lines and leg-flattering length, there is also Dan Ward (made in Switzerland) and Onia (set up in New York in 2009).

Knee-length surf-style shorts are a no-go on the beach in Sydney, where stylish local men prefer mid-thigh-length styles. “Short shorts rather than long ones, scraggy T-shirts and a straw hat are now the go-to styles,” says Ian Corfield, chief executive of Aussie Home Loans. He has some advice on footwear too: “Light shoes rather than thongs [flip-flops to Brits or Americans] show that you’ve made some effort.”

“Bondi does have a ‘muscle beach’ section now,” he adds, “and tight ‘budgie-smuggler’ Speedos are seen less frequently – except on Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, who appears to love them. Men are definitely putting more effort in.”

Quick-drying fabrics also get the thumbs-up, and other desirable details include a variety of lengths, adjust­able side straps (so much more stylish than an elasticated waist) at Orlebar Brown, along with the brand’s clean lines and art prints (a tropical leaf print by Greek artist Konstantin Kakanias is the “collect­able” for 2014 at £195).

Meanwhile, those visiting post-World Cup Brazil might like to continue the cultural bonding with a visit to Frescobol Carioca, the Rio-based brand that started by selling handcrafted beach bats in 2009. Optic prints and double-side poppers characterise its latest tailored shorts line (from £145) available in the UK at its new store, which opened in London’s Ham Yard last month.

French fashion brand Hartford has a vintage feel with side pockets (from £90), while Saturdays offers bold, striped prints ($75) as well as the Curtis style ($70) with three pockets and exposed stitching.

The latter has a surf shop on Crosby Street, New York, where hipsters while away hours drinking coffee in the backyard terrace and admiring the bespoke surf boards. After all, you have to look the part.

Stockists in this article and this week’s other Style articles

Photograph: The Advertising Archives

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