Chic To Chic

Find Your Fit

Barbara Bundy, vice president of education at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, confirms that many students like the idea of running their own companies independent of the chains established fashion houses impose. Being the boss promises the possibility of complete creative freedom and control.

Those most likely to succeed in the fashion industry start with an idea that will appeal to a specialized or niche market. Mills' sassy bikinis, in flirty prints like cheetah, are designed to fit like lingerie and come in mix-and-match sizes so women can choose the top and bottom that fit. Twenty-two-year-old Elle Hamm of Irvine, California, designs and sells form-fitting sportswear with an athletic edge that can serve as daywear or eveningwear. And 28-year-old designer Mario "Maji" Melendez is gaining attention with his Latino-inspired men's clothing, particularly his guayaberas, or traditional Mexican wedding shirts, which he adapts to American tastes.

"I've stumbled onto an interesting niche," says Melendez, owner of Maji by Melendez, in CITY, California. "Latinos make up a significant portion of the population, especially in Southern California, but this segment has been largely overlooked by designers and retailers. I hope to emerge as a leader in the design, production and distribution of clothing geared toward this demographic as well as consumers who are looking for more unique attire with a little attitude."

Many of Bundy's students have gotten a toehold in costume design for the entertainment industry. Others have found their niche custom designing clothes for individuals, a growing market, she says, because many people are tired of off-the-rack outfits that look alike.

Bundy strongly recommends young designers work for an established company before plunging in on their own. Mills followed that advice. After graduating from Cornell University and a Paris design school, she took a job as design assistant with San Francisco-based Jessica McClintock. Her college chum, Julia Stern, a fashion reporter, was working on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and remembered that Mills used to sew bikinis in college. She called her old friend and suggested Mills--who grew up in Hawaii, where she practically lived in a bathing suit--send some suits to the SI editor. Without hesitating, Mills whipped up six suits, none of which made it into the magazine. But feeling that she had found her true calling, she quit her job and moved to New York City.

Alas, the Big Apple wasn't waiting breathlessly for the arrival of yet another young swimwear designer. Mills spent the next eight months working as a waitress and hunting for a job as a design assistant while researching the swimwear industry. In 1992, she decided to start a homebased swimwear business, funded with $20,000 from her parents, her boyfriend and credit cards.

During that time, she visited manufacturers, introducing herself and her then-embryonic line. "I told them, `I'm too small now to use you, but someday I'll need you, and I want you to know who I am when I call,' " Mills remembers. "My philosophy is that the time to ask for help is when you don't need it."

A year later, things started happening. Mills' creations made it into the coveted Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and her bikinis were featured in accompanying calendars and videos, where supermodel Kathy Ireland strutted in a Malia Mills charcoal-blue, long-sleeved bikini.

Soon after, Stern, now 30, joined as a partner, and the pair were featured in TheNew York Times and Harper's Bazaar, along with other publications. Celebs like Hugh Hefner's wife bought suits, and so did plenty of ordinary women. Too cash-poor to buy space at top fashion trade shows, where she could have gotten much more exposure, Mills rented a hotel room near the show sites and sent invitations to industry insiders, asking them to drop in after the shows to see her swimwear. "Necessity is the mother of invention," says Mills of her strategy. "A few people stopped by. We sat by the fax for the next week, and slowly, orders came in."

That year, 1993, Bloomingdale's featured the suits in its Christmas window, and Mills' profile went higher. Today the suits are sold by catalog, on the Web (http://www.maliamills.com) and in the new Malia Mills retail store in New York City. After many lean years, Malia Mills Swim Wear is headed for the $1 million mark.

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This article was originally published in the December 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Chic To Chic.

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