My Business: The economy of the bikini
- 25 January 2012
- From the section Business
What makes an entrepreneur? BBC Brasil's Julia Carneiro and Tom Santorelli hear from Jacqueline De Biase, 49, who started making her own bikinis at home as a teenager and now runs one of Brazil's leading bikini brands.
It began with a young couple, an idea born over lazy days at the beach and two sewing machines.
Swimwear brand Salinas started making its first bikinis at a home-factory in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 30 years ago, opened its first shop in 1990 and today is one of Brazil's leading bikini brands.
It has 45 shops around the country and sells to 39 different countries. Its bikinis have been on covers of magazines like Vogue and Sports Illustrated, and dressed the likes of Madonna and Naomi Campbell.
Rio-born Jacqueline and Antonio De Biase were still a young couple thinking about their future in the early 1980s.
She used to work as a model and considered becoming a veterinarian; he had just graduated in architecture - and they both spent a lot of time hanging out with friends on the beach.
"Back then, we girls used to improvise a lot to make our own bikinis, because we still didn't have this bikini industry. The ones we had were very traditional, they came from the 1960s, from the two-piece swimsuit", remembers Jacqueline.
The couple decided to invest their savings in starting up a company making the types of bikinis their friends would want to wear.
Pulling the strings
"The first thing I did was undo a bikini to see what came out: thread, Lycra and elastic. So I knew that's what I'd need to put one back together again," says Jacqueline.
Along with two sewing assistants she set up a home-factory in a small house her grandmother had lent her in Santa Teresa, a quiet residential neighbourhood on Rio's hilltops.
In a year's time they were able to make a living from the company's initial revenue.
After three years they were producing around 2,000 bikinis a month.
At first they sold the items to other shops that would stamp their own logos on them. They then started developing the brand's own image, reinvesting their profits to make the fledgling company grow.
Today, 425 people work for Salinas in Rio. In 2007, it joined with a men's clothing brand from the same city, Richards, and three years later they both became part of InBrands, a holding that invests in the fashion industry.
While InBrands manages the business, taking care of finances and all operational issues, she worries about patterns, models, fabrics, style, trends.
"Today, Salinas is very big. It's very different", says Jacqueline. "I began doing everything by myself, drawing without knowing how to draw, designing without knowing how to design, directing without knowing how to direct. It was all very experimental at the time, based on trial and error."
Salinas's creative office is the experimental laboratory where Jacqueline and her team develop each new bikini model. It occupies the third floor of an old industrial brick building shared with Richards and other brands.
There is colour everywhere: In shelves crammed with samples of different fabrics, in panels on the walls where assortments of patterns are displayed and in racks with body-shaped hangers adorned with bikinis and other clothing items.
Bikinis are still the flagship product, but over time Salinas started making clothing and accessories for the beach such as hats, sandals, shirts and dresses, which today represent about 30% of current production. It has also started making lingerie and Speedo-style swimsuits for men.
The company has grown by 60% since 2008, fuelled by internal expansion in Brazil which is now the world's sixth biggest economy.
But the global financial crisis made the company reconsider its international expansion plans. The Brazilian currency - the real - is strong, and this has been taking its toll on sales abroad, she says.
"The world out there is taking a break, so this is not a moment to force an expansion", says Jacqueline.
On the other hand, she says, "things in Brazil are booming... from 2007 until now, we've doubled the number of shops we have here".
But opening a business in Brazil can be difficult, she adds.
"There is still lots of bureaucracy, although it has been worse, and taxes are very high. That doesn't make things easier for businesses that are starting up," says Jacqueline.
"Sometimes there are incentives for small companies, but then you either have to be really small in order to have this benefit or really large so that these expenses are distributed within the business."
Jacqueline will turn 50 next February. She has seen bikinis grow skimpy, then larger again; become thongs or look like shorts; gain laces, knots and ruffles.
The one constant, she says, is the unease some women feel when looking at the mirror trying to pick the right bikini to hide their imagined flaws - even if she is the only one to spot them.
"The trick is observing a lot and understanding that every detail can make a difference when our customer tries on a bikini. We have to have all the differences in a woman's body in mind when developing a collection", she says.