Behind the walls of an unsuspecting white office warehouse in Jacksonville’s EastPark, the attire for millions of future beach days takes shape. More than 100 presser feet bob up and down in rapid-fire bursts. A team of seamstresses, some silver-haired and others fresh-faced, slide tiny garments through their throttling sewing machines, meticulously constructing a vast collection of bandeau tops, bikini bottoms and tankinis for VENUS, a $200 million fashion company.
At that same moment, just down the road from VENUS, a much smaller variety of stretch-fabric creations spring to life. Swimwear designer Lisa Kaminski works at her sewing machine alone in a spare-bedroom-turned-workshop inside her home off of San Pablo Road. Thank you notes from happy customers cover a cork board above her machine.
Kaminski makes the final nips and tucks to a blue and orange floral string bikini, named the DeLuca, which she has customized for another client’s vacation. With only her shorkie Oskar assisting her, Kaminski sews about 300 swimsuits for each collection.
Although oceans apart in sales volume, both merchants represent the array of sophisticated homegrown tailors dedicated to crafting the classic Florida girl uniform. From the racks of local boutiques to the pages of nationwide sales catalogues to the models of Sports Illustrated, talented First Coast swimwear designers like Kaminski, Ola Vida’s Cheryl Keel and VENUS’s Jodi Frederick are turning heads on beaches near and far.
Kaminski, who cuts her patterns out of Whole Food’s paper shopping bags, has been a swimsuit collector since her early teens. She made her first bikini at 15.
“Every summer I must have bought like 20 suits. Even if I only wore a suit one time, I just liked having them, seeing them in the drawers. One day, I was like, ‘I can do this,’” she says, cradling Oskar and wearing a black maxi dress she designed. “I went to my local fabric store and asked to borrow my mom’s sewing machine. Then I came out and was like, ‘look I made this.’ And my mom was like, ‘but you don’t know how to sew.’ And I said, ‘I just figured it out.’”
Over the years, Kaminski, 43, has figured out more than how to sew two pieces of fabric together. Her small-batch swimsuits incorporate complex design elements from lace to macramé, cutouts, sequins and her signature vintage pins that speak to her relaxed-glam aesthetic.
The names of her suits reflect the Jacksonville native’s state of mind at the time she makes them. Last year’s collection included pieces with names like, Happiness, a floral and sequined monokini, and Optimistic, a bikini fashioned out of a Radiohead concert t-shirt.
“Lisa is one of the sweetest most positive people I’ve ever met, which is why we became quick instant friends,” says Kelly DeLuca, who is the inspiration for the now sold-out floral string bikini in Kaminski’s 2014 line. “I like that she typically does like 25 [designs], and that’s all she’ll have in stock. That way you don’t have to see everyone on the beach in the same swimsuit.”
To be sure, Kaminski cuts her bottoms in a Brazilian style, although “not uber Brazilian,” which makes them a dicey choice for chasing children around the pool. That’s why clients like DeLuca tend to wear her creations on romantic getaways.
Cheryl Keel of Ola Vida Swimwear also designs suits intended for leisure and not work. Keel, 28, turned a hobby into a career, after four of her swimsuits were chosen to appear in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition two years ago. Since then Ola Vida, which means Wave Life in Spanish, has experienced a tsunami of exposure with 27 of her designs appearing in the magazines’ 2014 print and digital editions.
Now based in New York, Keel sews her initial samples from her small Lower East Side apartment and hires manufactures to follow her direction and produce the line.
“The designs are inspired by where I come from and where I am,” says Keel, who learned to sew from her mom, Kathy Keel, a recently retired costume mistress at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. “It’s inspired by the beach and really by the city’s high fashion and structural details. Most of the time I design when I’m walking around in New York. It could be anything from a building to a color to a texture.”
Although riding a “different kind of wave” in New York at the moment, Keel hasn’t forgotten her sandy roots, and she sells her edgy suits at Atlantic Beach’s Capri boutique and Jacksonville Beach’s Beachside swim shop.
For the First Coast woman looking for a locally made ‘kini with a little more coverage than what is featured in a Sports Illustrated shoot, the mother of all North Florida swimwear designers, VENUS, provides refuge from itsy bitsy teeny weeny tops and bottoms.
“Our customer is fit, and she feels confident in her own skin, whether that is a size eight or a 14,” says Jodi Frederick, vice president, designer and co-founder of VENUS.
Far from matronly, the ideas for VENUS’s swimwear collection, like the Color Block and Goddess enhancer tops, come as much from Frederick and her team as they do from customers.
“If they want more bandeau tops, we give them more bandeau tops,” Frederick says, standing next to a cutting table and holding a stack of customer response cards.
Five years ago, the swimwear company was in liquidation when Jim Brewster came on as president and CEO. Brewster, a “numbers guy” and father to three VENUS-wearing daughters, returned the company’s focus to customer feedback and expanded deeper into women’s fashion. Since then, sales have exploded and the seats in the Jacksonville sewing room have filled. Now offering everything from jeans to jumpers, VENUS keeps swimwear at its core.
Not all VENUS garments are made locally, many are sewn abroad, but the Jacksonville seamstresses sewed more than a half a million bathing suits last year. VENUS dwarfs boutique designers when it comes to volume, but the value of a small-business atmosphere that thrives through face-to-face customer connections is not lost on Fredrick and Brewster.
“On the one side we have more than a million people who bought suits from us last year,” Brewster says. “And on the other side, we’ll bend over backwards to accommodate the one customer who walks in the front door and says, ‘can I get this really quick’ or ‘can you make this swimsuit a little bigger for me?’”