There’s little fabric involved, but bathing suits are a big business. Meet some of the entrepreneurs who are driving Hawaii’s bikini boom.
When it comes to bikini shopping, there’s a vital statistical difference between the buying habits of locals and those of Island visitors. It all comes down to cheeks – the okole, that is – and just how much a lady is willing to reveal.
“The Hawaii girl wears skimpier swimsuits,” says designer Malia Jones. “The tourists who are here on vacation go for a lot more coverage. They haven’t even seen their bellybuttons in three months.”
Whether local or visitor, swimwear is a big business. Worldwide sales are estimated at $17.6 billion for 2015, according to the market research firm Global Industry Analysts. In the U.S., the research firm NPD Group says total swimwear sales reached $4.4 billion last year. That’s a 6 percent increase from the previous year, an uptick NPD attributes to innovative products, such as UV protection, and new styles, such as the rashguard-inspired, long-sleeved, one-piece suits we’re starting to see. Plus, there’s a steady demand for swimwear: American women tend to buy a fresh suit every season, and own four suits on average.
Hawaii is a hotbed not only for flaunting beach costumes, but for creating and marketing them as well. “There’s been a proliferation of swimwear designers,” says Melissa May White, cofounder of HIFI, the Hawaii Fashion Incubator. “If you pick up a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, a good third of the swimsuits are from Hawaii, which is pretty incredible.” The Islands’ aquatic lifestyle breeds interest among aspiring couturiers, she says, and the cost for entering the market is lower than some other types of fashion design since you don’t need to invest in a whole lot of fabric – though, White warns, “It can be deceptive how engineered those things are.”
The Bottom Line
HIFI’s co-founder, Toby Portner, calls the Hawaii bikini business “an explosion.” Social media in particular, she says, is fueling the development and growth of companies, who sell and show on visually rich platforms like Instagram.
Taryn Rodighiero, the founder of KaiKini Bikinis on Kauai, employs a photographer for monthly photo shoots to keep up with all the lifestyle and product images she’ll need for her Pinterest and Instagram marketing. “Social media is all about the lifestyle,” she says. It’s working: She’s shipping 1,000 bikinis a month, all over the world. Selling directly to the customer like this helps her offset the higher cost of her made-in-Hawaii product. Her favorite style? “The Hina. It’s seamless and cheeky but not too cheeky. Hawaii in general is more cheeky (okole revealing). I grew up in Southern California, I came over here and was like, ‘Oh my God,’ and now I wouldn’t wear anything else. Less is more. Until you try it, it’s hard to believe it.”
“If you pick up a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, a good third of the swimsuits are from Hawaii, which is pretty incredible.”
— Melissa May White, Co-founder, Hawaii Fashion Incubator
Some of that cheekiness is the legacy of Nadia Ribeiro, the owner of Brazilian Show Room. She opened her first bikini store on Waialae Avenue in 2003, and these days has two outposts, in Kailua and Haleiwa. She’s patiently spent years spreading the gospel of Brazilian beach confidence. “I had a big influence, I think. I’ve put in effort to teach the girls how to wear bikinis. They went from showing a lot of butt crack, which ticked me off, to really pulling it up, and going beyond what Brazilians used to do! They are very comfortable. Now the beautiful bodies and butts are out.”
In case you are wondering, a Brazilian bikini is halfway between a standard bikini bottom and a thong.
How to Build a Better Bikini
It’s clearly all about the fit, and who can perfect the fit for a woman better than another woman?
“Women are the leading force behind most every major swimwear brand I know of,” says Naomi Newirth, one of the owners of Acacia Swimwear, headquartered on Maui. “So many told us we would not be successful with our small-cut bottoms, but it is those styles today that are our best-sellers. We stayed true to ourselves.”
Most of the designers I talked to for this story said they started off making bikinis because they were frustrated by how other suits fit them.
As a professional surfer and then a globetrotting model, Malia Jones practically lived in a swimsuit. “I think I was in a suit by every company that makes them, so I’ve become very specific when it comes to fit,” she says. When she moved back to Hawaii, she found it hard to find suits she liked, “Or, if I did, I couldn’t get the same cut when I went back to buy it again.” She started her own eponymous line, debuting with 10 styles in spring 2015. The styles are high-quality basics, with cuts that find the perfect balance – not too big for the body and not too wee. “It’s a fine line,” she says. “Too small and it becomes something else.”
“Hawaii in general is more cheeky (okole revealing). I grew up in Southern California, I came over here and was like, ‘Oh my God,’ and now I wouldn’t wear anything else..”
— Taryn Rodighiero,Founder, KaiKini Bikinis
Her best-seller is a basic bottom and a tie-front top. “Once somebody finds a bikini that works for their body, they stick to that,” she observes. “But they want it in different colors; at least three colors. You can never have too many bikinis!”
Solids are more popular than prints, she says, but prints look good on the pages of a magazine, and editorial placement is very important to a swimwear brand. “Someone might see a suit in a magazine in a print and then buy it in a solid,” says Jones. “You have to be covered for those PR calls when they come in; editors love the printed suits. Editorial and celebrity coverage is key with reaching a bigger audience, as is social media.”
As for distribution, Jones’ plan is to stay exclusive, focusing on seaside luxe stores like The Four Seasons Maui, Esperanza Resort in Cabo San Lucas and Ron Robinson in L.A.
Made In Hawaii
Like many bikini designers in the Islands, Jones would love to have her bikinis made in Hawaii, but hasn’t found manufacturing here viable.
“Hawaii is just not set up for it,” says Maui’s Meegan Driftmier, who has her line, Meegan Elizabeth, constructed in Colombia. She chose that country because she found a bikini factory that was turnkey. “It’s a bit pricey, but worth it.”
Throughout the industry, many swimsuits are crafted in Bali, where Nadia Ribeiro has her bikinis sewn. Ribeiro also conducts buying trips to her native Brazil. “Brazil is very bureaucratic and aggressive, lots of paperwork, a lot of rules,” otherwise it would be selling more swimwear, she says. “Bali, it’s easier to import from and cheaper.”
She makes sure to import a variety of styles. “In Brazil they wear thongs, and here they wear really small styles, but not everyone is comfortable with that or lives in Hawaii. I have a lot of customers from the mainland, Canada and Australia.”
In order for Hawaii to manufacture swimwear, “We need trained, skilled workers and we can’t do that until we have jobs to put them in,” says Portner. “It requires building the tracks in a parallel way. And it’s expensive. The facility, the rent, even the electricity to run the machines is double what is in L.A.”
Made in the U.S. is at least a good option for Hawaii designers. “To me that is really important,” says Jones. “I’m in L.A. once a month or twice a month if it’s sampling season. I have my pattern maker there. I love being in L.A. for that part of the process. We source the fabric, pick the right thread so it will stretch the right way, cut the fabric so that the spaghetti strap doesn’t cut into your neck. It’s such a little bikini but it’s so much work.”
Over on Kauai, Taryn Rodighiero has defied the odds. After working as a manager in a bikini shop, and crafting her own bikinis, she took the leap and spent her life savings on five industrial sewing machines. They arrived from L.A. on wooden crates, like some dangerous, exotic creatures. “I’d never sat down at a sewing machine before. My husband is mechanically inclined and tested them out and was like, ‘Well, they work, now it’s up to you to figure them out.’ ”
It took her about eight months, but she got her system going. The machines are an assembly-line set up, so each has its own process. There’s a single-needle machine; a cover-stitch machine; the machine that makes the string that ties; a machine that puts the elastic in, etc. As she sewed more suits, and sold to more stores, demand for her bikinis grew. Rodighiero hired help, and her business started to take over her house. “My husband donated his pool table so I could cut fabric on top of it. By 2013, I had 10 employees in a 40-by-40 space.” In November 2014, the couple bought a warehouse in downtown Kapaa and installed the machines. “We don’t have to sit back to back anymore! And we’re now Hawaii’s largest swimwear manufacturer,” says Rodighiero.
Where there was none, she has created her own talent pool. “I trained everybody,” she says. “My production manager didn’t know how to sew either. Some of my employees have had some sewing experience, but a lot didn’t.” And because sewing with stretchy swimsuit fabrics like nylon and spandex can be tricky, she found it easier to train someone who has never sewn before. “It’s better to have little or no experience than to untrain someone who is used to sewing with cotton.”
Swimming with Sharks
Just as gallerists flock to Art Basel, and editors to New York Fashion Week, the swimwear industry has SwimShow, the largest trade show for the bikini business. It’s held in Miami every July, and draws 3,000 buyers from 60 countries to check out the trends presented by 2,500 swimwear lines.
“That is what launched us into the next level,” says Acacia Swimwear’s Naomi Newirth. “It puts you in front of those retailers who might never take the time to check out your line unless it’s in front of their faces. It’s important for retailers to feel the quality and see it in person, because the pieces are much more amazing when you see them first-hand.”
Meegan Driftmier was invited to bring her line to Miami in 2014. “It’s Mecca. All the big designers are there, and huge events and parties, with endless networking. The press is there in full force; that’s a huge draw for going there.” Once she got her invite, she scrambled to create a media kit, find local businesses to sponsor goody bags, and vet who would get tickets to the 100-person venue for her fashion show. “I was overwhelmed; I didn’t have a team. It was me, myself and I. To do it again, would I have a team? Heck, yeah. A lot of the bigger companies, like Acacia, they have crews.” Was it worth it? Absolutely. “Going there was my ultimate goal.”
“When you say you’re a bikini designer in Hawaii, that can mean a lot of things,” she says. “It can be high school girls who sew and sell on Instagram, all the way up to people who have their suits on ‘Hawaii Five-O.’ I’m like, ‘No, really, I have this label.’ You keep hustling, until you don’t have to introduce yourself anymore.”