Here’s the first of the wetsuits that matter in 2017. What causes a wetsuit to “matter"? Either a level of popularity (as expressed in the recent poll of Slowtwitchers) or because it’s a wetsuit that sticks out as important even if it doesn’t poll high.
Let’s get this party started with the T1 by De Soto. Why this? Because it’s different than all the others. It’s got separate top and bottom pieces. The first 2-piece wetsuit was made by a Japanese company almost 20 years ago and I loved the idea, but it was this De Soto wetsuit that mainstreamed the design.
Do you ride a cycling bib? That’s what the bottom “bibjohn” is like when you put it on. Really it’s like a cycling bib tight (except it comes up a little higher than a cycling bib). The bibjohn (this is what the T1’s bottom half is called) fits perfectly; does its job precisely and correctly.
The top is called a pullover. It doesn’t ride up, no water creeps in between the top and bottom pieces, the neck is super comfortable, there just is nothing wrong with this product.
The value of this design is as follows: Because the top and bottom are separate there is never any question of having enough shoulder mobility. What causes a lack of mobility is having the shoulder attached to the crotch. The crotch in a 1-piece wetsuit defines the limit of stretch. Because wetsuit zippers have little-to-no stretch a 1-piece wetsuit needs to be pretty well the right size in the torso. If not you’ll get folds of rubber in your belly area (wetsuit’s torso is too long) or you’ll feel restriction in your shoulders if you have to really work to get the suit over your shoulders (wetsuit’s torso is too short).
A 2-piece design bypasses all of that by disconnecting the shoulders with that crotch limitation and by allowing a customer to mix and match sizes (your best “size” in a 2-piece wetsuit might be a size-5 bottom and a size-4 top).
Over the years when I’ve tested wetsuits I don’t find the T1 any faster than a 1-piece, and I don’t find it any slower.
For all that, if you look at the chart showing the popularity of wetsuits over the years the T1 has been in decline (among Slowtwitchers). Let me tell you why I think that is.
Original Design: The earliest T1 wetsuits had no zipper in the back help get the suit on and off. This was a mistake (due to my bad advice). A lot of people had trouble with this and very early on the design was changed to add a zipper making the on-and-off very easy and quick. But the word of mouth from that first production run was damaging. Although this issue was fixed almost immediately the question of how easy the suit was to get off stuck around like an urban myth.
Wayward Model: Several years back a model of T1 wetsuits featured rubber that exceeded 5mm in thickness. Governing bodies reacted. Just as with Speedo and the body suits De Soto had to endure the ignominy of a banned style. (That suit is long gone.)
A Product, Not a Company: Speaking of styles, De Soto has already treated the T1 more as a style than as a separate wetsuit company. This has had the opposite effect of wetsuit companies that branch into apparel. A company like blueseventy will always make sure its wetsuits get high priority and attention, which means their (excellent!) goggles sometimes feel orphaned (if goggles had feelings). It’s not that De Soto ignored its wetsuit line, but in a hyper-competitive world it’s hard to stay up with companies that spend 12 hours a day humping their wetsuits if you also have tri suits and cycling wear and whatnot to sell.
Indecision on Sales Channels: If you’re a brick and mortar store the T1 is the mail order beater because there is no direct seller who makes this style. But retailers didn’t see it that way. De Soto in self-preservation sold this wetsuit direct to consumers, which gives retailers fits. I am well aware of this cycle. When I was a wetsuit maker a retailer would call: “You sold 3 wetsuits to my customers last week!” “Yes sir, but you don’t carry our wetsuits. You’re in Atlanta. May I send you all my customers living in metro-Atlanta? I’ve got my pen in front of me. What’s your order?” Of course, no order. And so it goes. I’m not unsympathetic to the struggles of retailers! This was a new style that needed to be implicitly understood. It was just a missed opportunity.
De Soto has been slow to come to a firm decision on what to do in response. It did not do what Roka did in making a clean break from retailers in favor of direct selling. De Soto is still in that ambivalent space. You’ll probably end up buying your T1 directly from De Soto.
2 Pieces: The suit is made of 2 pieces, which means there are 2 pieces to keep track of. I’ve raced in 1-piece and 2-piece wetsuits plenty, and I find no real difference in speed of exit nor have I lost track of the wetsuit. Still, there is that perception.
The 1-Piece Improved: And finally, 1-piece wetsuits have gotten a lot better since the T1 was introduced almost 15 years ago, mitigating the reason for the T1.
There are two models of T1 by De Soto: The Black Pearl and the First Wave. The First Wave is what is mostly what is pictured here and the Black Pearl looks identical. It’s just like the models from any other wetsuit company: The differentiation is a slightly higher grade of rubber. The difference in rubber does not mean a difference in durability, rather flexibility. Because of the nature of 2-piece wetsuits free range of motion is built into the design, so the difference between the two models is less than in 1-piece wetsuits.
The series I’m writing is not going to feature MSRPs for each wetsuit, but street prices. Sometimes MSRP and street price will be the same, sometimes not. I wrote in my intro to this series that when a wetsuit is perpetually discounted that is its price. I don’t know if you can say this about the Black Pearl, but it’s 40 percent off MSRP on De Soto’s website right now. That makes this suit, top and bottom, in the mid-$300s total (for both pieces).
The First Wave sells for between $810 and $850 for both pieces depending on whether you buy the Concept 5 pullover. The Concept 5 has 5mm arms for a bigger pulling surface and more flotation during the catch and extend phase. Is this faster than a wetsuit with arms made of 2mm-thick rubber? Theoretically. But I haven’t tested it for speed. What I do think is that rubber is nowadays softer than more flexible than it was 20 years ago, and wetsuits with arms made with 3mm rubber would be quite fine (1.5mm rubber is not longer needed, as it was 25 years ago when I was making wetsuits).
I asked De Soto straight out whether the First Wave was going to be the subject of one of its 40 percent sales and the answer was yes. So, if you think a T1 is in your future and you need that future to be the immediate future buy a Black Pearl. If you’re willing to be a little patient look out for the First Wave sale.
A little miscellany: Emilio De Soto (pictured just above in one of his wetsuits in racing in recent years) uses a limestone-based, non-petroleum rubber and glue. He’s keen about prohibiting Methyl Ethyl Ketone Formaldehyde (MEKF) in his suits. This is a carcinogen and he won’t allow this to be in the adhesives used during the manufacture of the rubber he uses (bonding the fabric to rubber) or in the assembly factory (bonding the rubber panels). But to me the question about the function of the rubber (stretch, durability, etc.) and the glue remained. Did this social consciousness impact the suit’s function? This has been a 10-year experiment and I was dubious at first, but De Soto’s wetsuits have stood the test of time; the rubber is the functional equal or better than the Yamamoto rubber I have grown to love over the years; and with one bonus: some inoculation against the end-user skin reaction (skin allergies or conditions) we would always see several times a year.
Who should buy this wetsuit? Are you odd shaped? Do you have a much bigger upper body than lower body or vice versa? Do you have a very long torso? Do you always have trouble getting your wetsuits to fit? Or putting wetsuits on? Can you never find a wetsuit with a comfortable neck? Here you go. Older people who have limited shoulder mobility or strength like this wetsuit. Those who find that wetsuits are very chest-constricting like this wetsuit. These are the problems the 2-piece wetsuit uniquely solves.
Is there anyone who shouldn’t buy this wetsuit? No, but fit and trim athletes of a reasonably typical morphology will not find a 1-piece wetsuit a difficult fit.
Read more about T1 by De Soto.