You’re on a beach. The sun sparkles on water the deep blue color of lapis lazuli. Palm fronds flap softly in an ocean breeze. These descriptions are the backdrop, but for Vienna, Va.-based swimwear designer Karla Colletto, it’s the women and the swimsuits they wear that bring an idyllic summer setting to life.
Colletto grew up in the town of Wrentham, Massachusetts, on the Rhode Island border. Her grandmother was a seamstress and her grandfather was a tailor. Both inspired her from a young age. She went on to study fashion design, and after graduation was introduced to couture designer Alfred Fiandaca.
“He gave me invaluable hands-on training, taught me the many intricate details that go into creating a couture piece and inspired me to start my own label,” she says. In the beginning, Karla wasn’t drawn directly to swimwear. Rather, she wanted to approach the fashion industry in a smart, progressive way while utilizing the fine dressmaker techniques passed onto her.
In 1981, Karla and Lisa Rovan, her sister and business partner, created a custom design company with pieces ranging from sportswear to bridal gowns. “While I was designing custom pieces for clients, I became intrigued by stretch fabrics and realized that swimwear was overlooked in the world of high fashion.”
Colletto learned to design swimwear through “trial and error,” using the skills of pattern making, grading and sewing to piece a garment together. Rovan had apprenticed with a swimwear contractor in the past, and, together, they honed in on the world of aquatic couture. By 1987, they sold a small collection to Saks Fifth Avenue. The following season, they made additional sales to Bergdorf Goodman.
From the start, Colletto sought to give her designs an innovative edge. Undoubtedly, one of the distinctions of a Karla Colletto swimsuit is the fabric. “Textiles are always evolving,” she says. “Right now there is a push toward 3D digital printing on fabrics to give an illusion of depth and texture.” Colletto has experience with this technique, and with the use of bonded microfiber, laser-cut details and NoSo technologies.
Colletto imports most of her fabrics from Italy. “We are able to buy in smaller quantities, important to our brand since we try to be as ‘green’ as possible by cutting to order and generating little waste,” she says. For 18 years, she has been working with Eurojersey Sensitive microfiber. Combining the best in eco-friendly manufacturing and fabric longevity (not to mention comfort), this fabric offers up to 10 times more chlorine resistance than traditional swim fabrics, plus UV protection and quick-drying fibers. Additionally, many of the fabrics Colletto uses are made with Xtra Life Lycra, a fiber that resists degradation and has notable recovery performance.
“I like to combine fabrics and components in an out-of-the-box way. I pull, stretch, drape and slice the goods to discover unique textures and patterns,” she says of her approach. She adds that technology has revolutionized the industry. “Fiber and textile technology has transformed swimwear fabrics. They are technical, functional and fashionable, making the design possibilities endless.”
Colletto’s design process is an intricate one and her attention to detail and artistic originality has earned her a name in a competitive industry. “I design with a mix of form, function and high fashion in mind,” she says. “For me, the fit of the swimsuit is just as important as the style.”
She starts with inspirations and concepts, then chooses fabrics and the components for each garment before sketching and draping. She does this until she’s entirely satisfied with the garment’s overall concept.
After that, she creates the pattern and the first sample of several is made. “Throughout the process, the swimsuit is constantly evolving. And usually what I initially set out to do transforms into something completely different and even better than what I envisioned at the start,” she says.
After she has approved the samples, they go to production. All Karla Colletto swimsuits are made in-house and rigorously inspected, ensuring the best quality control. Colletto uses dynamic fabrics and tests different patterns and constructions to ensure the best fit, with comfort and durability in mind. “We even continue our quality trend in the smallest pieces of our swimsuits using the best eyelets, underwires, zippers and other components,” she says.
Colletto finds inspiration in myriad places, from modernist paintings to old movies, in classic architecture and the intricate details of a dahlia. Ever the artist, textures and colors in the surrounding world can trigger moments of stimulation and creativity. “It could be a coral dress in a magazine or a piece of coral I find on the beach,” she says. As a Virginia resident working in close proximity to Washington, D.C., Colletto is also inspired by the region’s multicultural landscape and the strong women she designs for.
Who is the Karla Colletto girl? She is “a modern, confident woman who wants to make a fashion statement with her swimwear, whether it’s in her own backyard or while on some exotic getaway,” she says. “She appreciates good quality and is smart when it comes to the best fit for her body.”
Most people abhor the process of bathing suit shopping – that is, magnifying their own bodily insecurities before mirrored walls and fluorescent lights. Colletto aims in her designs to counteract this tendency.
“It is so important for us to make swimwear that women feel absolutely confident in,” she says. “It’s about finding the right swimsuit for your personality and your body. We like to think our swimwear offers the best of both worlds.” The team constructs each garment with progressive patterns and innovative techniques, while incorporating details such as silent underwires and ruching (gathering or pleating) to enhance the silhouette. Over the years, the designer has noticed swimwear’s burgeoning place in women’s wardrobes, a stylish intertwining of swimwear with ready-to-wear.
“My goal with each swimsuit is to create an innovative, fashion-forward piece without degrading the importance of a tailored fit,” she says, adding, “A swimsuit should be more than just a beautiful piece. It should be a reflection of the wearer herself.”
Colletto’s artistic talents are well known, yet she’s also business savvy, with a shrewd awareness of the marketplace that’s changing around her. “Marketing and advertising have changed incalculably over the years, especially with the advent of social media,” she says. “Our social platforms give us a firsthand connection with our admirers.” Though Colletto’s brand is not currently in the e-commerce game, the designer has plans to enter the online market over the next year or two.
“We want to take the time to do it right and ensure any online shopping endeavors match the quality of our brand,” she says. And when that time comes, Colletto believes that people will confidently buy her swimsuits online, even though that means not trying them on in a dressing room. “Because of the consistency of our fit, once the customer knows their size, it’s easy for them to buy online,” she says.
In addition to social media, Colletto uses stylish, retro-chic video campaigns to promote her collections, working with Pum and Jake Lefebure, co-founders of D.C. based Design Army, and the talented director and cinematographer Dean Alexander. “Their input and unique approach is a huge part of our brand success in collaboration with our social media platforms,” she says.
Colletto’s branding has an air of whimsy and nostalgia to it, a faint reminder of the past coupled with a strong sense of the future. Her swimsuits manipulate modern fabrics to achieve silhouettes that are unflinchingly fashion-forward, even when influenced by past designs.
“Although my designs have changed over the years, there are some distinctive Karla Colletto details that make our suits recognizable,” she says. The Colletto design team often looks to their own archives for designs that could be taken in a fresh, contemporary direction.
“I continue to experiment, challenge and innovate,” she says of her process. Colletto has been a pioneer in the swimwear industry, utilizing the best of today’s fabrics and manufacturing processes, while defying the limitations of design. This drive and steadfast commitment to originality has garnered recent attention from Elle, InStyle Spain, Glow Magazine and Trillionaire Magazine, to name a few.
Colletto works with retailers both large and small. She recently designed an exclusive swimsuit for Everything But Water in honor of the retailer’s 30th anniversary. The bold red one-piece, triggered by a 1960s photo of model Peggy Moffitt in Rudi Gernreich, features a plunging V-neck with cutouts, crisscrossing bands and strong structural details.
Like the swimsuit, Colletto’s brand is bold, strong and structural, and there’s much still ahead for the company. In addition to adding e-commerce to the business model, Colletto hopes to expand her brand into active wear and sportswear in the future. In the meantime, however, Karla Colletto’s swimwear offers women everywhere the opportunity to suit up in style this summer. Go ahead – take the plunge.