By the time spring rolls around, Brittany Goodman is already on the hunt for the perfect pool float.
She peruses the Target aisles as well as small boutiques through April and May, determined to find her go-to float of the season. In 2016, it was a tube made to look like a hot-pink sprinkled doughnut. The next year, she bought two: one in the shape of a unicorn, the other a diamond ring. The Raleigh, North Carolina, resident recently settled on a utilitarian black-and-blue tube - perhaps more likely than the rest to endure a trip on the river - but she's still got her eye on an inflatable llama.
Sure, pool floats should reliably float. But more important, are they Instagram-friendly?
We have entered the era of glistening rose-gold swans, oversized pineapples and eight-foot-wide angel wings. In 2019, most things, including polyvinyl chloride pool inflatables, are now optimized for social media.
"We are putting the form ahead of the function with these products," acknowledged Andrés Alfonso, director of creative development at BigMouth, an inflatables manufacturer.
Online, the pool float is the accessory of the summer; it stands as a universal symbol of excessive leisure and of pure relaxation, adorned by carefree captions about sunshine and beaches.
It all began with an Instagram post by Taylor Swift. In summer 2015, she shared a photo of herself and then-boyfriend Calvin Harris, both swimsuit-clad, perched atop a massively buoyant swan. Weeks later, the swan and a number of other inflatable animals reappeared at Swift's famous Fourth of July party. Suddenly, animal floats were "the hottest trend of the season," declared People magazine.
Celebrities, influencers and the general public have since flocked to purchase and pose on similarly vibrant inflatables. In New Jersey, thousands amass at Tices Shoal for an annual get-together called Floats and Boats (formerly named Floatchella), and attendees are forewarned that "no basic floats" are allowed.
"They are a summer staple," said Mandy Ansari, a New York-based lifestyle blogger. "The float doesn't leave popular culture, but every year, what design is popular or what's trending changes."
Pool floats are bright and garish, typically a gigantic floatable version of a striking if somewhat random object, like a bottle of rosé or a monstera leaf.
Because virtually any shape can be a float (including a human torso), the market for pool accessories is expanding, according to Blake Barrett, co-founder of Funboy, a Los Angeles-based business that sells summer essentials. Swift had purchased several original Funboy rafts for her 2015 party, he said, a defining moment for the company, which was just several weeks old at the time.
A niche seasonal market brings competition and an urgent demand for original design. In 2016, BigMouth filed counterfeit and copyright claims against two rivals, alleging that its flamingo, pineapple and doughnut float designs were copied.
"The inflatable business, not that this is an easy thing to do, has a lower barrier of entry compared to anything that's overly engineered," Alfonso of BigMouth said.
Successful designs are memorable and "scroll-stopping" - visually intriguing enough to pop out on an Instagram feed. Alfonso cites the popularity of the company's pink doughnut, a design inspired by "The Simpsons."
"Everything we do nowadays is reflected through the lens of what's going to appear on camera or video," Barrett said. "It's almost subconsciously that we think about the visual aesthetic of every product and how it's going to look online."
Last year, two designers launched a Kickstarter campaign for a line of millennial-pink coffin rafts. Andrew Greenbaum, an industrial designer, describes it as a decorative art piece that is also a pool toy. He envisioned a concept unlike any other float on the market. For whatever reason, his pink coffin resonated online and was quickly transformed into a meme.
"The coffin is on par with the visual aesthetics of the internet," he said. "People are making things that are quite shocking, with commonly found objects and motifs."
Celebrities and influencers made pool floats popular, but they've become a mainstay of summer culture in their own right: People find them fun and self-expressive.
Nicole Hodge, a photographer, owns three pool floats, which her three children love to jump on and swim with.
"I take a lot of photos of my kids outside, so this year I chose to buy fruit-themed floats to add some color and fun to my images," she said. The family owns a watermelon, pineapple and rainbow cloud float, although Hodge recently lamented in an Instagram caption that they deflate very quickly.
For a generation that is attached to social media, the float is akin to a prop - something that helps communicate a certain lifestyle that customers are trying to embody.
The float manufacturers at Funboy have higher aspirations of becoming a luxury lifestyle brand. The company Instagram feed is eerily reminiscent of the notorious Fyre Festival promotional video - populated by tan, slim women in tiny bikinis and the occasional muscular dude lounging by sparkling bodies of water. Customers aren't just buying a humongous flamingo raft - they're buying into the promise of a fun-filled, beach-babe lifestyle. But unlike the Fyre Festival, Barrett insists it is selling an accessible luxury. It is a product designed for people who can't afford yachts or water skis, but still deserve to showcase their summer fun online.
"It is a luxury to soak up some sun," Barrett said. "You might not have that yacht, but you can be having fun on a cool pool float just like any other celebrity."
This article was written by Terry Nguyen, a reporter for The Washington Post.