Launched from humble beginnings, the company – originally Performance Speedsuits Ltd – was established in 1992 by former New Zealand age group triathlon champion, Scott Unsworth, from his parent’s home in Auckland, wetsuits were sold from the back of his car.

The ‘Speedsuits’, featuring greater flexibility and buoyancy than other wetsuits on the market at the time, quickly gained a following among athletes. The company was rebranded in 1995 as Orca – a name inspired by the sleek and powerful whales that are so beautifully attuned with the rhythms of the sea.

Now internationally recognised, Orca’s high-end wetsuits are created with cutting-edge materials and production techniques. They are designed with the specific requirements of individual sports in mind and tested on top athletes, not computer models. As such, the multi-award-winning wetsuit brand has established itself as a favourite among the world’s sporting elite.

Curve editor Belinda Stening spoke to Matt Roberts, head designer at Orca, based in Auckland, New Zealand.

What is your background as a designer?

My training was originally in industrial design. I have worked across most design disciplines – industrial design, packaging design, illustration, 3D visualisation, web and graphic design. I have worked abroad in London, but am now based here in New Zealand. The physical design of the wetsuits, that is, the fit and pattern design, is a shared responsibility between myself, CEO Scott Unsworth , product manager Erin Taylor and our production team in Hong Kong. The graphics are my responsibility.

How does the design process work at Orca?

We have a design team – one of Orca’s best-kept secrets! There is a very small team of designers with a diverse skill set. Everything is done in-house. This includes marketing, brand campaigns, graphic design, product development and production.

What are the unique requirements of your wetsuits?

The key requirements for an open-water swimming wetsuit are hydrodynamics, flexibility, strategically positioned buoyancy, comfort and warmth (mostly applicable to colder climates) – the end result being that you are faster in the water than when not wearing one.

Our free-diving suits are developed with William Trubridge – the world-record holder for 100m unassisted free diving. His criteria for the Orca Free was: high performance hydrodynamic qualities, extremely high levels of flexibility, minimal water entry into the wetsuit, minimal buoyancy and a striking graphic design.

How does Orca meet these requirements?

Orca wetsuits are always tested by top-level athletes. We listen, we design, we test, we perform. Athlete feedback is of paramount importance in the design process. In fact, all feedback is important – from the world Ironman champion to the weekend warrior. We always think about how can make our wetsuits better and faster! Even our entry-level wetsuits have unbelievable flexibility and comfort. Each suit is designed in a specific way so it caters to different levels of ability.

What makes Orca wetsuits so clever?

With any Orca garment – whether it be training gear, compression, Merino, triathlon apparel or wetsuits – the fit, material choice and athlete feedback are top of the list. Specific materials, patterns and features are chosen for each discipline to optimise performance. Accordingly, each wetsuit is designed for a specific type of swimmer. Despite appearances, not all wetsuits do the same thing. If you try a Sonar then try a 3.8, it will be clear which one is the better suit! But it all comes down to how much you want to spend.

Do the materials used reflect technological innovation?

Orca wetsuits use the most technologically advanced materials on the market. Some materials we have exclusive rights to, such as Aerodome, which we developed exclusively with our neoprene supplier a few years ago. The exclusivity period is now up and all major wetsuit brands are using this material on their top suits.

The top-level suits use super lightweight and flexible premium quality Yamamoto 40 cell neoprene, which is incredibly thin but still very buoyant. These suits also use a 'nano super composite skin' material, which reduces drag through the water and use the exclusive Exo-Cell buoyancy system.

There are less panels on the top-end suits, which creates more flexibility – another reason why they’re more pricey, as the yield from a neoprene sheet is not so efficient, meaning a higher cost price. More panels on a suit mean a lower price but less flexibility.

The lining that is applied to a neoprene is also of optimum importance. If the stretch of the lining cannot keep up with the flexibility of the neoprene then you’re losing the value of using that super-flexible neoprene and will not get the amount of stretch that you could otherwise get with a different lining.

In what way are the design and technical features of the wetsuits innovative?

Orca wetsuits are all packed with performance-enhancing features. What makes Orca wetsuits most innovative is that we listen to athletes and we listen to what the market wants. The company’s nature is born from competition (and success), and we thrive on it. Further, faster with Orca!

What are Orca’s latest innovations?

The all new range for the 3.8, Alpha, Sonar, Equip and S3 are just about to be released in Australia. This year the Sonar and Equip have benefited from features previously found on the Alpha and 3.8. So for mid-range suits they are a very good buy in terms of features, technology and price.

The 3.8 and Alpha are the wetsuits of choice for Ironman World Champions Chris McCormack and Craig Alexander, as well as two times ITU World Champion Emma Moffatt. Both these suits employ the new Exo-Cell Buoyancy System. Exo-Cell is an innovative new material. It is used in a system of key areas of the wetsuit, and on the rear area and on the chest of the 3.8,  to help optimise the swimming position, without affecting stroke and kick power.

Both suits are highly flexible and use the highest grades of Yamamoto neoprene. The 3.8 is designed with endurance swimming in mind, but, with its extra buoyancy, it’s also great if you are not a strong swimmer.

These latest innovations demonstrate our belief that, there's no point designing new products unless they are different from everything else on the market.

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