Bonobos’ Deftly Choreographed ‘Freestyle’ Video of Synchronized Swimmers Delivers Message About Masculinity: WATCH

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Bonobos, one of the first digitally native men’s apparel brands, is bringing its styles to the pool, launching a music video and mini-documentary featuring some of the world’s top synchronized (also called artistic)  swimmers, including American legend Bill May.
Filmed in Mexico City pre-pandemic, the music video is the first time a world-class men’s team of artistic swimmers has ever performed together, and empowers men to find their unique place in the world and embrace what brings them joy.

 

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The project, titled “Freestyle,” was created by agency Observatory and follows Bonobos’s provocative #EvolveTheDefinition project, which sparked a cultural conversation around the narrow definition of ‘masculine,’ its limitations, and how we can expand it to be more inclusive. Bonobos continues to challenge stereotypes men face daily, and the new film is a testament to their dedication to this stereotype-smashing work. 
The song used in the video “Better as One” by The Heavy has a refrain that captures the spirit of the  Bonobos’ brand: Can we make it different? / Can we make it better? / Can we make love reign supreme? / Keeping headway in the distance.

“Better As One” was produced for a featured on the soundtrack for: Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.

The spirit of the refrain reflects the previous campaign that repositioned the brand as one that consistently encompasses wildly varying examples of allure and masculinity. In 2018, the brand philosophy of  a “fit for every man,” was problematic in that it was antithetical to the brand proposition. The notion of what a man was was evolving rapidly, an example being someone like trans model Laith Ashley. “When your reason for being is predicated on inclusiveness,” the company said at the time. “We felt like we couldn’t ignore that many men in our society are made to feel like they don’t fit in.”

Answering that challenge, Observatory interviewed individuals across a wide spectrum of what masculinity might be considered, including trans men, women who identify as masculine, every race, age, and body type. “Instead of asking them to fit into a preconceived notion of what being a man is, we asked them how they define masculine. We want men, women, anybody who ever felt like they didn’t fit, to feel like they have a place and they have a voice.”

That spot debuted during the ESPY Awards in the summer of 2018, receiving over 10 million views, and sparked a fiery online debate.  It went on to win a Webby Award under the Category:  #TheYouTubeAd That Rewrites the Rules.

It also laid the groundwork for the underlying ethos for “Freestyle.”

“The Freestyle work continues to spotlight Bonobos’ mission of supporting a ‘fit for every man’ – it’s about being inclusive, accepting and challenging traditional ideas of masculinity,” says Linda Knight, CCO, Observatory. Knight, who has a track record succeeding in what have long been male-dominated categories. “We brought together the world’s best male artistic swimmers both to showcase their talents, but more importantly, the enormous pride they take in their sport.”

When it comes to setting the tone, at Bonobos, that comes straight from the top, and that top would be its CEO Micky Onvural. Onvural told us,  “The Freestyle campaign not only embodies the joy and exuberance of the Bonobos brand, but also showcases the surprising combination of strength and beauty of these swimmers. Beyond the demonstration of their talent, we wanted to showcase their commitment to, and pride in the sport, regardless of society’s stereotypes or expectations.”

And that mission is baked into Bonobos DNA. “The Bonobos name actually was inspired by the fact that they are a peaceful, loving, matriarchal species of ape,” Onvural explained. “This translates into our brand values of being accepting and inclusive. We celebrate and support ‘every body,’ as a brand, both physically and metaphorically speaking.”

 

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And it resonates with the brand and the customer. When they posted the initial footage of the campaign on Instagram, they saw a 400% spike in views compared to previous reels. Viewers commented on both the talents of swimmers and the concept as a whole, and loved the idea of celebrating a sport that’s unique and confident in its own right.

Like the campaign and the company itself, Onvural is not your conventional CEO, especially that of a men’s apparel brand, “I’ve worked in food, beauty, technology, real estate, but never retail. I’ve marketed to children, women, parents, but never men. I’ve led marketing teams of all shapes and sizes, but never a company. But what has always been true is that I am passionate about people (the customer and the team), and building brands.”

 

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In her tenure at Bonobos she’s had  “the opportunity to lead a courageous and talented team to disrupt retail, and create a world where we all fit.”

Onvural and Knight set the tone and forged a safe space for creative expression and that expression came from the beating heart of Bill May. May is the world’s most prominent male synchronized or artistic swimmer.

Known for performing dazzling duets, May has won several national and international events. But, until recently, men were largely excluded from the sport which precluded his chance of competing in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

Watch May in this powerful Solo Free routine.

May’s rise to prominence in the sport began in a modest and conventional childhood in Syracuse, New York.

He says he’s been interested in being a  gymnast as far back as he can remember. And he also always loved the water. So when he got into artistic, or synchronized swimming at the time, it kind of dovetailed with everything he was looking for in terms of expression  and physical endurance. Early on he faced headwinds, challenged for his desire to join a “girl’s sport.” Rather than acquiesce, he pushed back. “I was stubborn,” May said, “so that was the driving force,  that and love the sport, a love of performing.”

Synchronized swimming demands advanced water skills, great strength, endurance, flexibility, grace, artistry and precise timing, as well as exceptional breath control when upside down underwater. Competitors show off their strength, flexibility, and aerobic endurance required to perform difficult routines. Swimmers perform two routines for judges, one technical and one free, as well as age group routines and figures. Synchronized swimming is both an individual and team sport. Swimmers compete individually during figures, and then as a team during the routine. Swimmers are ranked individually for this part of the competition. The routine involves teamwork and synchronization. It is choreographed to music and often has a theme.

It also has predominantly been considered a women’s sport, with the Summer Olympics only featuring women’s duet and team events. However, international, national and regional competitions may allow men to compete, and FINA (Fédération internationale de natation or the International Swimming Federation) [FINA the international federation recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for administering international competitions in water sports] introduced a new mixed duet competition at the 2015 World Aquatics Championships. On instruction of the IOC, FINA renamed the sport from “synchronized swimming” to “artistic swimming” in 2017—a decision that has faced controversy.

“I loved being in the water. I loved the athleticism,” he said, “And for people to feel they had the right to tell me what I should or shouldn’t be doing became the drive that pushed me forward to do it even more.”

When Bonobos sought out May for the campaign, he was ready for the challenge and opportunity.  May is always looking to promote the sport and to get more men into the Olympics because right now it’s one of the few sports that doesn’t have parity compared to other sports within the games.  “And you know that’s the whole thing about the Olympic games: ‘Excellence, Respect, and Friendship’ with the vision of ‘Striving for your personal best’ (Achieving Personal Best), ‘Accepting one another’ (Unity in Diversity) and ‘Passing on Legacy for the future’ (Connecting to Tomorrow).  And that’s something that isn’t fully represented in our sport.”

In “Freestyle” synchronization is visually executed as a continuum.

The Bonobos campaign gave May the opportunity to construct a blueprint for the future of the sport.

We watch the men move from land to liquid in lockstep unison — with a requisite transformation from sharp fashion to swimwear as they pass through doors — the smooth movements evoking the mathematical precision of the art of M.C. Escher.

For “Freestyle,” guiding light May was joined by Giorgio Minisini of Italy, Pau Ribes from Spain, Renan Alcantara from Brazil, Benoit Beaufils of France, and Atsushi Abe of Japan to collectively break the boundaries of synchronized swimming.

Photo above: Bill May

The piece, beautifully choreographed by May, uses other “Better As One” lyrics like: I know we’re better as one / I know that we can do better without evil on our tongue / to compliment the messaging.

The team created a  companion to the music video (seen below)  — a two-minute documentary (seen below the video) — describing how these men see the sport, and the boundary-breaking impact it has not only on their self-esteem as individuals, but on stereotypes in general.   

As Alcantara says, “We don’t let stereotypes or what people say influence us. When I’m in the water, I really feel like I can be myself [and] break stereotypes.” 

After seeing the incredibly dynamic sport in action, you realize why it inspires awe. And how this spot could serve as recruitment tool for men to the sport. It’s in this spirit that I ask what advice May would give young aspiring boys interested in pursuing their dream. “First,” May says, “there will be more men represented and more opportunities for men in the future. So enjoy what you do. Love your time in the water, love what you do,  and love yourself because it’s gonna give you so many rewards in the end. And always look forward. There’s gonna be so many opportunities you’ll miss if you don’t.”

Watch the documentary below.

And visit Bonobos online.