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When Bianca Coletti launched her eponymous, Miami-made swimwear line in 1997 after graduating art school, the scene was quite different. You didn't have the freedom to mix and match prints and sizes because tops and bottoms weren't sold separately, and the brands you could buy, and where you could buy them, were limited to a few big names in department or chain stores or inside expensive ritzy boutiques. Out of her small studio space inside of the Ritz Carlton on Lincoln Road, she set out to fill a niche, if not for herself, then for her posse of beach-going friends.
"I first started making the bathing suits for me because back then you couldn't find mix matches and separates," she says. Equipped with a needle and thread, she set out on this passion project of hers while balancing a career as a textile designer, where she created prints and patterns for brands like Mara Hoffman and Polo Ralph Lauren. But with time, Bianca Coletti Swim had grown legs of its own. Her bikinis were featured on the pages of Elle, Sports Illustrated, Lucky, In-Style, and People Magazine. Boutiques were calling non-stop to place orders for her collections. Soon, even Bloomingdale's wanted a piece of Bianca Coletti's Lycra legacy. She stepped away from her career in the textile industry to focus solely on growing her brand.
Today, Bianca runs her business out of her small, one-bedroom apartment in Coral Gables, decorated simply, but impeccably, with beachy and bamboo accents throughout, crystal stone decorations, and books about yoga, travel, and spirituality tucked inside of a bookshelf that's otherwise filled with beach towels. Shoes are stacked neatly under a long table near the door, beneath a shelf of beach accessories like sunglasses and straw fedoras. Her assistant sits at a long desk at the corner of the room hidden behind a rack of swimwear, Wildfox coverups, and Chaser muscle tees, which she's currently uploading onto BiancaColetti.com. Her apartment reflects her brand's aesthetic: clean, at times preppy, but always with a slight bohemian edge.
"There are two sides to the line," she says. "There's a very preppy side from my days at boarding school and traveling to New York with my family and then there's that beachy boho side of me that's comfortable and still lives at the beach." The contrast is reflected in her patterns and shapes: her signature pattern is a thin sailor stripe, while her signature shapes contain ruffles. Once seen as expensive, her bathing suits are surprisingly affordable ($77 for separates, $182 for one-pieces) if you consider that each is handmade locally by a team of four to five seamstresses and a cutter who comes in whenever a new bundle of fabric arrives. Next to her actual designs, the "Made In Miami" aspect of her business is, perhaps, what's most important to Coletti.
"With me, here, I have control over my product, what I pay my employees, and how they get paid," Coletti tells us. "I'm very clean in how I do business, but it's not a green business because one of the worst fabrics for the environment is Lycra. The way that it gets painted and dyed is very harmful. So at least if I can have some control over my production, then that's what I can have my hands on." But as any designer can tell you, manufacturing locally has its costs. About two or three years ago Coletti made the decision to stop working with department stores and focus on her online business, where you can find not only the perfect Bianca Coletti suit, but also coverups and beach accessories from established and up-and-coming brands.
Cutting and sewing locally is one of the most important things that my line has. We're doing everything the old school way.
"Department store business is not for everybody," she admits. "It's business and at the end of the day and I'm an artist. I had no life. I was at the factory all day, and then to meet the profit margins, I would have to have taken the production to Asia. That's where I was having a problem. For me, supporting my local community is very important. Cutting and sewing locally is one of the most important things that my line has. We're doing everything the old school way."
To many, it may sound a bit odd to turn down the exposure a department store affords, but to Coletti, it was a conscious and positive decision."Yeah there's still pressure. I still have deadlines," she starts. "But it's not the same as not being able to sleep at night because I have to shoot Bloomingdale's $40,000 tomorrow and the goods are not ready."
Currently, she's slimming down her list of retailers as well in an effort to make finding her bikinis less confusing for customers. But that's not to say you won't be able to find them at some of her most loyal local boutiques such as Rebel, First Surf Shop, and Shop Famosa, where she'll often work with store owners to create custom bikinis for each.
Business aside, Coletti has learned one very important lesson when it comes to swimwear. "The fit needs to be perfect," she says. "Without your fit you have nothing."
Yeah there's still pressure. I still have deadlines. But it's not the same as not being able to sleep at night because I have to shoot Bloomingdale's $40,000 tomorrow and the goods are not ready.
And that's the thing about Bianca Coletti Swim. Each bikini and full-piece really does fit the way it should, and while the prints change, the styles are timeless. "I work with a really classic style," she says. "My favorite is still the classic triangle. You can come get a basic blue, a basic white... We can play around with the prints, but I want to make sure you can wear your bathing suit next year. These new lines.. I don't see a lot of longevity."
After 18 years, it's safe to say the Puerto Rican-born designer knows a thing or two about the industry, and she admits that the barrier to entry today is a little high. "I think in general fashion's really hard. I think I got locked in a while ago. I think I have good branding here, people know me, and I've been very fortunate but I think fashion's a really hard business to be in."
So what advice does she have for new, budding swimwear designers? "Find your way of expressing yourself, but I think your first step is to work for somebody else," she advises. "Have that experience and think about whether or not that's really what you want to do. I worked for bigger companies and had people who guided me a lot, and that made me super savvy."
To stay true to your own personal brand is a hard thing to do, especially in the business of fashion, but Coletti has managed to do just that. She knows her aesthetic, knows what her clients want, and prefers to scale down and support her local community rather than sell out and outsource overseas. "For me the product sustains the cost," she says. "We can still do things with the best fabric, the best liner, the best Italian fabric, and still cut by hand, still pay people, and still have good marketing. The product sustains the cost."