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It's Thursday afternoon and local swimwear designer Kristina Ashley is slaving away over a custom bridal bikini in her tiny Miami Lakes studio, situated within a popular boutique in the area, Looks by Lo. Should the lining be blush or white? Will the bride like ruffles or is she more simplistic? She measures, sews, and cuts until she's finally ready to put a tag on it. Meanwhile rows of small gift bags, each scribbled with a name, line her sewing table ready to be filled with more custom orders, while store customers stroll in to consult with her on how to alter a hem, or fix the waist of a particular dress. Piled on the corner of the table is a notebook filled with sketches of crystal-colored bikinis and glistening stones. It's an ode to her 2016 collection, which will drop– once every single one of those gift bags are filled.
So goes the life of a designer who's main focus is on her clients, many who have been loyal to her from when she founded her eponymous line in 2007, just before graduating from the Art Institute of Miami, and quite serendipitously too.
"I went to the design school to make gowns," she says, "but I had an opportunity to do a fashion show before finishing school at a local club. It was summer, so I thought, okay, what can I do to have a collection in a month? I started doing swimwear. They didn't even teach me that in design school; we weren't taught how to sew that."
It wasn't long before fashion editors were falling for her tiny, but figure flattering bottoms and patterned tops, placing her in the pages of Lucky and Ocean Drive. She's gone on to design swimwear for the Miami Heat dancers, costumes for Vixen Workout founder Janet Jones, and multiple themed collections, from Bob Marley to nautical. These are big feats for the designer, who at 4'11" runs every aspect of her business, from designing and sewing, to selling and marketing.
In a world where everything's made in China, Bangladesh, or any other sweatshop-tolerant country, it's nice to know that you can still find a locally made swimwear made by hand, even more so by the hands of the designer herself. When you invest $115 in one of Kristina Ashley's suits, it's not the name you're paying for (although that may change soon), but more refreshingly, the quality, fit, exclusivity, and talent that goes into it.
Everybody thinks that sewing a bikini is less difficult than maybe sewing a gown. But a bikini, just because it's so small, with the curves and the shapes and the measurements, it's so much more detailed and time-consuming.
"Everybody thinks that sewing a bikini is less difficult than maybe sewing a gown, but a bikini, just because it's so small, with the curves and the shapes and the measurements, it's so much more detailed and time-consuming," says the designer, who knows her craft so well she cuts her swimwear not using patterns, but by sheer intuition. "You're supposed to draw it out perfectly and make everything; that's the proper way of doing it. [Not using a pattern] is a talent, but it's not the right way to do it. In school, you would not be able to pass with just a freehand sew."
It's this personal touch that makes her suits, while seemingly smaller, so surprisingly flattering. "There is a basic way to do, like, a regular triangle top. I kinda do it differently with curves and shapes that I think would fit a woman’s body a little bit better," she admits. "I try to do things that would look good on someone with fake boobs or on someone with real boobs. I myself am super self-conscious of my body, so I need to feel good in a bathing suit and look good in it. It can’t squeeze. I try to avoid using techniques that would squeeze or make somebody uncomfortable in a bathing suit."
Needless to say, she's come a long way from her humble beginnings working from her garage, balancing day jobs working in medical offices and focusing on this, her passion, at night. Today she's happy to report she's dedicating herself 100 percent to her budding swimwear business, but she still has a long way to go.
"I want to eventually have my own little studio and warehouse where I have in-house manufacturers and I can be there to make sure that all the shapes are exactly the way I want them to be and that everything is done the way that I would do it," she says. "I'd also like to have a store where my customers can come in and, let's say they have an event coming up, they can just call me and say, ‘Hey, I need a dress in two weeks!' I already have their measurements, I can send them a picture of a drawing and once it's done they can pick it up!"
This is what's making my business move. My locals.
It's an interesting goal. Whereas most designers would die to get to that level of mass manufacturing, where their swimwear can line the racks of department stores and niche luxury swimwear boutique, be on the tips of every beach goer's tongue, Kristina Ashley's goal is simple, grateful, and circles back to how she got her start– through friends, through her community. That's not to say she's opposed to the idea of designing for the masses. "I would not turn that down, ever," she says, but she gives credit where credit's due. "This is what's making my business move. My locals."
So let's bring it back to those crystal-inspired sketches we mentioned at the beginning of the story. Remember those? As it turns out, Kristina Ashley has been getting through all of her client's orders, and we're happy to report that her 2016 collection, inspired entirely by healing crystals and stones, is almost out! The graphics are custom designed, the colors are earthy and bold, and each individual suit comes with a crystal vial and a card explaining its meaning. We like to think of them as healing bikinis...
So with a newly launched line under her belt and a new row of custom orders that keep piling in, Kristina Ashley is currently in the midst of building her small empire, and with eight years of experience under her belt, she's learned a thing or two about running a small business.
"I mean, to start any line, any business, you have to plan, plan ahead, budget yourself, and try to save as much money as possible so you are never left without anything," she says. "I could have easily given up so many times because I have had so many obstacles, so many things go wrong, and it's crazy to say, but that's one thing that I would never, ever do is give up. I am not a business person, so for me it's not about the money; it's more about the passion. It's cheesy, but it's the only thing that keeps me going."