La Isla couture swimwear: A brand with soul
Colombia is home to an array of raw yet brightly colored geography. It is also the birthplace of La Isla, a socially conscious collection of couture swimwear that features vibrant colors and intricate hand-sewn embroidery.
Manufacturer Enrique Sánchez-Rivera’s Latin roots have left their mark on the label. Latin American patterns, sewing and bright beads scream his Colombian influence. But the biggest inspiration has been the extremely bright colors.
“There’s deserts, there’s beaches, there’s sierras, there is a lot of different geographies but everywhere you go in Colombia is very bright,” he said. “The greens are very green, the reds are very red. The flowers are blooming year round, so I really like using that as an influence for the collection.”
From using solar power to employing head-of-household women, using soy-based inks and organic cotton, and donating funds to organizations such as Ocean Futures Society, being a responsible company has always been first on Sánchez-Rivera’s list. The fabrics may be beautiful and the embroidery stunning, but what sets the line apart is the social responsibility.
“I think we bring a brand with a soul … all of our company is very conscious of that,” Sánchez-Rivera said. “We’ve always, always donated time or resources or dollars or pesos since we started the company, literally the first year. So it is nothing new to us.”
During a trip to Colombia to visit his family, Sánchez-Rivera discovered his sister had packed the house from wall to wall with bikinis, declaring that bikini manufacturing had taken off in the country, and everyone was jumping on board. Looking at the suits, Sánchez-Rivera decided to jump on board too.
But while his sister was giving them out for free, he was looking to build a business. He carted some bathing suits back to the United States and showed them to New York stylists, who gave them the thumbs up. So the two siblings threw together a collection with his sister as designer.
“Looking back, it was a horrible collection,” Sánchez-Rivera declared. But nonetheless, it started selling. Sánchez-Rivera pounded the pavement after work, going from boutique to boutique to offer the line. It was at a New York showroom when the turning point came.
“(The stylist) ripped the bathing suits apart and said they were the worst thing she had ever seen and the materials weren’t consistent, and she literally told me I should get out of the business, but instead I got fired up and thought I needed to get this going,” he said.
He walked out and called his sister, who told him she had fixed the problems. She shipped out a new collection, which was picked up in a few more stores. Two years later, they hit the trade shows and, after four days in Orlando, they picked up 15 boutiques. They may have been, as Sánchez-Rivera said, “naïve,” but they wound up attracting a private-label client looking for handmade embroidery. Sánchez-Rivera took a sample back to Colombia and started putting together a team.
“I thought, what a great opportunity to work with women who need money and help these brands out here in the United States and try to help in Colombia as well,” he explained.
The embroidery turned out beautiful and became the brand’s signature.
“We don’t do any crazy designs or intricate designs,” he said. “What we do do that is very intricate is the hand embroidery on the bathing suits … They are absolutely stunning pieces. And I would say our bathing suits are known to be more of a craft and not so much a manufacturing line item.”
via La Isla
The line geared up and was shipped to clients as renowned as Saks and Neiman Marcus.
After cultivating a creative side for years as a painter and musician, designing bikinis was “fantastic.”
“I might be one of the few guys that sees a girl in a bikini and looks at the bikini first and then the girl,” Sánchez-Rivera joked.
Designing is an expression of creative freedom. “For me, it is a very fun project to design a collection, take it out to market, get the feedback and then build on that and I just like the fact that there’s nobody over my shoulder saying ‘hey, you need to design this string bikini with this bead here’ or ‘you need to engineer this embroidery here,’” he said.
Today, La Isla is recognized not just for its handworked embroidery but for its clean lines and bright prints. Suits are kept seamless, with thin elastics to make them comfortable. Practically every swimwear piece is adorned with colorful embroidery.
“We take a lot of care with what we do, but our shapes are very simple, very simple lines, nothing complex,” Sánchez-Rivera said. “We try to make styles that sell throughout the year, so we have had the same triangle top and triangle bottom, and the same halter top and basic bottom since we started the company. We modified it a little bit, but it is the same style because we know it sells … it is somewhat a bohemian-style bathing suit.”
Attention is paid to the details. The lining is custom-dyed to match the outside fabric, and is not, said Sánchez-Rivera, just ripped off a fabric mill.
The suits are a European cut somewhere between a Brazilian cut and a full American cut. “We’re a little bit sexier without exposing too much,” Sánchez-Rivera described.
Most swimsuits are just a commodity. But La Isla brings a socially conscious mission.
“I don’t think there is space in the marketplace for another swimsuit company unless it is something very high-tech,” the manufacturer said. “Swimsuits are a commodity business, unfortunately. There are so many brands out there and it is so competitive. More than the actual product, we bring a consciousness to the brand. We are a very responsible brand.”
Sánchez-Rivera received advice from mentors encouraging him not to donate until the company was turning a profit. He ignored it. He counts himself lucky to have his basic needs met. Living in Colombia, he constantly saw the seamier side of life, such as shoeless children in the street selling what they can.
“That is the way I am as a person and I think my company should embody most of the characteristics I have as a person,” he said. “If it is my company, it is my blood and it is just the way I am and the way I feel … I have grown up seeing these very unfortunate things and there’s just no way in hell I am going to run a company without helping people. It’s just not going to happen.”
Experience La Isla at www.laislabrand.com.