I hadn’t heard of Calavera Swimwear until I wrote an article last year entitled: “Swimsuits Surfer Girls Should NOT Wear“. A number of women commented and recommended I check out Calavera, and eventually the company contacted us with an invitation to try their suits. Now, as a surfer grrl who has been designing the perfect suits and wet suits in my mind (and on paper) for the past, um, 25 years, it was nice to see a company follow through on the dream concept of suits that stay on and look hot! On top of that, they’re really good quality, made in the U.S.A., and you don’t have to close your eyes when a wahine wearing one paddles in front of you and lifts her leg for a duck dive (Brazilian bikinis have their time and place, ahem). Calavera proves you can combine sexuality and functionality – and their innovative designs address issues most female athletes have when it comes to swim/active wear. No more yanking, tugging, sore necks and worrying about being undressed by the waves. We decided it was time to chat with Anna Jerstrom, founder and designer of Calavera, about her inspiration and the evolution of swimwear for surfer girls.
When did you start surfing?
I was a “late bloomer” as far as surfing is concerned and didn’t discover it until adulthood. I was in the office late one night (one of many) and booked a trip to Costa Rica. I had no idea it was going to change my life so drastically but within six months, I had traded in my high-flying investment banking job for a life as a surf bum.
What inspired you to start designing your own suits?
I have always been a hobby designer, making my own clothes. When I moved to Costa Rica, the sewing machine came with me. Calavera came about from a personal frustration with the type of swimwear available on the market. Most suits just did not work for surfing. Having to adjust, check and tug all the time was really distracting.
Most of the big brands are focused on fashion apparel for the beach girl. While I love a cute bikini, there is a huge opportunity to take that cute suit and put performance at the center of the design process to make it functional. So, that’s what we did!
What’s the magic behind a Calavera suit?
Calavera is all about “under the hood” construction: fillers, tight-weave elastic, iron-on stabilizing materials, etc. These elements combine to make the fit durable but without sacrificing style. In terms of design, Calavera bikinis have loads of sass with a little punk rock thrown in.
Essentially, I am making swimwear for myself. Sure, I want to look good on my board, but I don’t want to miss the wave of my life because I was trying to adjust my bikini. So the suits are a combination of my own style and my desire to perform as a surfer. Apparently that’s an experience a lot of women can relate to.
What are some of the things that are unique to Calavera as a company?
The company represents a lifestyle, a passion and a kinship. At the heart of it are the Calavera girls – women who have decided to pursue their dreams and will let nothing stop them.
Where is Calavera made?
All the Calavera products are made in the US of A, specifically in Downtown LA. I’m trying to keep production streamlined and local in order to maintain a lighter “footprint” while supporting locally owned businesses.
What are some of the craziest situations where you have tested your Calavera bikinis? I saw something recently about a car wash…?
Yes, indeed! We bribed a car wash guy in San Jose, Costa Rica, strapped a couple of our Calavera girls on the hood of our car and drove it through the car wash. Verdict: the suit stayed on. You can see the whole thing unfold here.
All Calavera designs are tested thoroughly in the water at Playa Hermosa in Costa Rica, which has some of the heaviest waves in the world. There have definitely been some gnarly situations, but it is one of those places that literally isn’t surfable when waves get really big. But we love hearing from our customers about their experiences and exploits, so we’d welcome tales of big wave riding in Calavera designs.
Who is the Calavera team?
- Evie Johnstone is a British native based in Costa Rica. She is on the National Circuit there and also writes a really good blog – Evie Surf – about her life in Costa Rica and as a pro surfer.
- Jordan Hundley is currently number 38 in the world and she is the “baby” of the Calavera crew.
- Amy Luis is the flow boarding world champion. (Check this video out of Amy sporting the Calavera rash guard. The thing doesn’t even move!)
- Ami Berg is an amazing East Coast girl who helps train women in the special Olympics and teaches children with autism how to surf.
- Heather Jordan is a native of Southern California who chose to postpone a shot at a full-time career in surfing in order to pursue a higher education. A well-traveled surfer, Jordan presently surfs on the UCLA women’s team and took 4th place in the College Women’s division at the NSSA National Championship.
We are also on the hunt for another crew member. But any girl who puts on her suit, paddles out determinedly and charges has the heart of a Calavera Girl.
Tell us a little about some of the riders you sponsor.
We want our customers to feel like they are part of the team; that she could be that Calavera Girl. As such, we take a slightly different approach than many brands; we want our team to be approachable and relatable. While they are all very accomplished surfers, they represent much more. They are the fearless, feminine water warriors. When the girls get together you are guaranteed to have a crazy good time, get very little sleep and make some fantastic memories.
Besides surfers (and the Queen of England), what other kinds of action-sports gals like Calavera?
We’re thrilled that Calavera has started to spread among all kinds of water and beach sports. There are so many female athletes that struggle with the same issues as surfers and it is super exciting to see how Calavera is resonating with active women all over the world – beach volleyball players, stand-up paddlers, wake boarders, flowboarders, triathletes, runners and many more.
I saw you added larger sized suits (DD). How is Calavera working for larger-sized surfer girls?
It is tougher for larger chested women to get the support they need. We have gotten a couple of feedback emails from DD ladies saying it is the first time they have ever been able to surf in a bikini, which is really rewarding for us to hear. I feel strongly that surfing and other watersports should not be about your size, and we want to try to cater to all kinds of shapes and forms. It’s about following your passion.
Calavera has been doing runway shows. Is it a new thing for a real surf suit to be attractive enough to show on a runway with “fashion” swimwear? How’s the experience been?
The challenge for Calavera is to communicate the functional aspects of the suit, since they are mostly hidden solutions that don’t really come across on the catwalk. Ideally, we’d put on a fashion show at a place like the Wave House in San Diego and have the flowboarder girls showcase the suits in action. One day we will pull that off!
I know a lot of women have dreamed of creating their own clothing/swim suit company; how did you get the ball rolling?
It is really just a matter of going for it. It is much like surfing – you just have to commit to that drop, even if it looks impossible – because that is the ONLY way you are actually going to make it.
How did you get the funds to start the company?
I was lucky to have a financial and business background so I could tap into my network for seed capital.
What were some of the ups and downs?
Life as an entrepreneur is full of unique rewards and challenges. Seeing a stranger wear one of your designs is definitely a high. Production, on the other hand, is riddled with challenges. You have to be able to think fast on your feet and address complications as they arise.
What is your marketing strategy?
Calavera is a brand experience, a crew you join not just a bikini you put on. Our product is our core backbone, but beyond that we want to give all the female water athletes out there something to identify with. I love the phrase “Fearless Femininity” as it really captures what we are all about.
What might you say to wahines who want to start their own company?
It is important to do the research. Figure out how big the market is, what the profile of your consumer is, how much money you need to make it work, etc. Generally there is a much higher chance of success if the product solves a problem or improves someone’s life in a novel way. The consumer is generally much more receptive to buying a solution rather than a product.
We love your website! Who does your web design?
Thank you! I founded Calavera with my brother who is a very experienced e-commerce developer and strategist. The web shop is his baby and I am in awe of his creativity.
Why did you decide to only sell online? What are the advantages and disadvantages to marketing this way? When will Calavera be available in stores?
We launched online only initially because it allows us to connect directly with the consumer and start generating cash flow. Wholesale is the next phase and we’re just starting to test those waters. You have to prove sustainability and relevance in order for stores to take a chance on a new collection and having a robust online sales track record with demonstrates there is a demand for our unique brand. The disadvantage is that in doing so, you take inventory risk onto your balance sheet and as a small company it is hard to tie up your resources. Calavera has chosen to manufacture locally to ameliorate that problem, and we can refill our stock much more quickly than if we were relying on overseas factories.
What do you envision as the evolution of surfing for women?
It is fantastic to see how surfing and other water sports are taking off among women. I think the top pro girls will continue to push the barriers, but I am also excited about the way surfing has become more mainstream and part of many active women’s lives. I have so many situations where women tell me they just started surfing and how much they love getting out in the water to de-stress from their careers and busy lives. Surfing has brought so much happiness to my life, and I get excited to see others experiencing that “surfing crush” for the first time!
What’s next for Calavera?
We are expanding into new active wear garments that look as good as they function. We’ll continue to come up with new and unique solutions that empower women to focus on performing in their chosen sport.
Can you give us any sneak peaks of new designs?
We’re launching a slew of exciting products in 2013, extending our reach a bit. We have a brand new swim top design which worked like magic when we put it to the test in Costa Rica, and we are introducing a pair of shorts and a full coverage bottom. Our best-selling “Glam” top is also getting some new sassy colors, and we are working on a one-piece with some new solutions never seen before in surf wear.
WE’RE SOLD! We’re so smitten with this brand, we’ve decided to help them launch into Hawai’i shops. Right now you can purchase Calavera at Hanalei Surf on the North Shore of Kauai, with more stores coming soon. (Check back with us as we’ll be updating the list of HI locations.) Next time you’re in a bikini or surf shop and you don’t see Calavera on the racks, make sure to ask! And if you are a Hawai’i store owner/ buyer interested in carrying Calavera, feel free to contact us to help you set up an account or contact Calavera direct.