No More Nafftans: How Kaftans Became Summer's Chicest Beach Accessory
Kaftans, sarongs, dresses — the beach cover-up becomes chic, with holiday layers elevated to statement status
When packing for a recent trip, I took it upon myself to count the amount of swimsuits I have. The total? 27. Excessive, yes, but I like to have options. By comparison, my beach cover-up offering comprises just two pieces: one ancient tie-dyed sarong and a dodgy coral kaftan that I bought in a panic from the airport a few summers ago.
The reason for the disparity? While stylish swimwear options are plentiful, the same cannot be said for what to wear on top of them. Thanks to naff prints, hobby-craft trims and unflattering silhouettes, beach cover-ups have long been the summer wardrobe's ugly sister.
However, the days of the afterthought beach layer are over; this summer, cover-ups will get their moment in the sun. Global fashion search platform Lyst has seen a 60 per cent rise in searches for sarongs year-on-year, while demand for kaftans is up by nearly a third.
Social media has played no small part in the beachwear upgrade, says Elizabeth von der Goltz, global head of buying at Net-a-porter.com, which stocks more than 1000 iterations. "Digital behaviour means that vacations are no longer just quiet escapes from real life, but an opportunity to create outfits and memories that are documented along with our travels and souvenirs."
Indeed, holidays used to mean DIY cut-off denims and sun-bleached T-shirts, now Instagram — and all the #holidayinspo that comes with it — means what we wear on the beach has become a fashionable photo opportunity and thus a more considered approach is required.
Von der Goltz lists Cloe Cassandro, Emilio Pucci and Pippa Holt among Net-a-porter's most popular cover-up brands. On its spring/summer 2020 catwalk, Oscar de la Renta made the case for the haute kaftan, reimagining it in floor-length burnt orange silk with layered chiffon sleeves. While a sarong, for its spring/summer 2019 collection, teamed with fine-strapped leather sandals and beaded earrings, it was as far away from gift-shop tat as one could get and even put forward the idea of a sarong worn for evening (last seen on David Beckham circa 1998).
Off the catwalk, Australian label Camilla ships to New Zealand and offers wafty kaftans and sarongs in both silk and nylon-blend fabrics, adorned with its signature vibrant prints. The aptly-named Southern Mermaid kaftan, $799, is a silk and crystal-embellished statement piece, and the maxi-length Cinema Paradiso kaftan, $676, can be transformed into a strapless or mini dress, or worn off the shoulder.
And you needn't be on a Monaco budget to buy into the trend. Auckland boutique La Madu specialises in resort wear for the year-round traveller. Its navy and white Ikat kaftan is 100 per cent silk, and at $189 is an easy addition to your beach-ready wardrobe. While Smith & Caughey’s stocks Jets, a swimwear and cover-ups label. The burgundy Jetset kaftan, $115, would happily take you from pool to piazza.
But it's not just kaftans and sarongs getting a revamp: this summer sees brands expand offerings to include jumpsuits, dresses and stylish separates. Max has a short-sleeved linen shirt and variations of shorts sets to take beach lounging to a whole new polished level. Wear over a plain one-piece and team with sleek leather sandals.
Bird & Knoll is putting forward the case for the wafty beach dress as chic cover-up of choice — the marigold Alejandra maxi dress, $325, is particularly lovely. And Tigerlily's striped Thea trousers, $149, provide the perfect solution for calves that have been attacked by mosquitoes.
Breathable fabrics are a must in hot climes so look for styles in lightweight cotton, linen and silk — these will also dry quickly, while loose silhouettes that skim the body are not only more comfortable in the heat but are also more flattering. Also consider what swimwear you'll be wearing and coordinate your cover-up to ensure the two work together. For example, dark swimsuits will show through light coloured cover-ups, so are better paired with deep jewel tones or classic black or navy, while pale costumes can slip under white cover-ups unnoticed.
Think about necklines too; a halter-neck bikini will clash with an off-the-shoulder beach dress, while an asymmetric one-piece will look off-kilter with a spaghetti-strap jumpsuit. Make sure the lines of both pieces coordinate and, if in doubt, go for a cover-up that covers the shoulders and thus all manner of strap/neckline scenarios. When it comes to prints, though florals are a summer perennial, sailing stripes, animal prints and colour blocking have a more contemporary feel.
Not only offering stylish solutions when poolside, the cover-up's chic reinvention means that they can be worn long after the holiday is over. Augustine's black and floral Jed kimono, $179, worn over a silky slip dress makes for a stylish dinner outfit, and that Bird & Knoll dress? Style it with a clutch bag and heeled mules and wear it to a sunny garden party.
If you are respinning your cover-up for the city, check the sheerness of fabric before stepping outside the front door, and if in doubt simply add a slip underneath; while a glimpse of bikini brief might feel carefree on sandy shores, an accidental flash of knicker en route to the office is enough to kill your holiday glow.
— The Daily Telegraph