Lisa Letarte Swimwear
Looking at Lisa Letarte’s 2006 swimwear catalogue, the word “charming” comes to mind—what else can you call a fabric printed with peace signs, hearts and flowers? The word seems a good description for Lisa’s life, too. The vivacious New Hampshire girl grew up in what is today the Little Red Riding Hood museum, so designated because the house once inspired the story’s illustrator. “My sister and I rode ponies on the road where Little Red Riding Hood met the wolf,” she says laughing. But make no mistake: Lisa isn’t someone to sit back and wait on a fairy tale’s “happily ever after” promise. Six years after starting her company, Letarte Swimwear, she has worked tirelessly to push it over the $2 million mark in sales. Her bikinis have been featured so regularly in the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated that her friends teasingly call the magazine Letarte Illustrated; she moved to a whole new level with SI last year when one of her suits made the cover, and today the famed image sits in the window of Debbie Wilson’s store, where Letarte Swimwear is sold.
Like Debbie, Lisa operates her company out of Maui: She first stopped on the island on her way back from Japan, where she’d been a skiwear model, and never left. She took up competitive windsurfing and met her husband; with sponsorship from swimwear makers, they struck out together on the windsurf circuit. Lisa agrees it was glamorous—except for the swimwear. Here she was a model and an athlete, “a girlie-girl who just happened to do sports,” she says. “I didn’t want only the sports bra look, but that was all that was available.” Lisa started dreaming of her own company. The imagined motto? “Flirty but functional.”
By 1999, working with a Maui graphic arts designer and having tapped her older sister’s years of experience with a surfwear company, Lisa had produced her first samples of bikinis and was headed east for her first major trade show in Miami. She stopped off in Manhattan to bring the prints straight to the desk of the swimsuit editor at Sports Illustrated. “We started off with a bang,” she recalls; the meeting led to the first of five years in a row when a Letarte suit would be featured in the magazine’s annual swimsuit edition—which is, as Lisa points out, the single best-selling magazine issue in the entire world. Just when she thought the phone couldn’t possibly ring with more orders from Saks, Bloomingdales, Macy’s, et al, Letarte Swimwear was featured on the cover of the Bergdorf Goodman catalogue, leading to an even greater demand. Lisa, who puts in ten-hour days of patternmaking and fabric design, has her work cut out for her. “The challenge is not to sell out to mass marketing,” she says. “You have to know that you can’t please everyone. I succeeded because I was unique. I had to find ways to stay this way.”
In every business, there are those whose success basically boils down to relationships, relationships, relationships. Iwalani Isbell, whose Pualani Hawai‘i swimwear is promoted entirely through the coconut wireless, is a great example. The wahine paddlers of entire canoe clubs have chosen her suits as de facto uniforms, and water-friendly companies like Dolphinquest have outfitted employees in her swimwear; her company has hit the $1 million mark in sales but remains debt-free. Her prints tend to the tropical-classic, and many of the models in her catalogues are old friends: a pro volleyball player,
a surf champ.
Her showroom—actually a converted condo—is stocked with merchandise samples and lined with memorabilia: mirrors are set in seashell frames; there are family portraits of her growing up on the Big Island and ocean photos that turn out, on closer inspection, to feature Iwalani in the act of big wave surfing. The gutsy talent garnered her the job of stuntwoman in the water scenes of a recent TV series. “It’s hard, hard work I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but someone got my name and I got the call,” she laughs.