Learning how to swim
Photo: Angelica Milash Model: Julia Scvortova
Anna and Ksenia are based in Toronto, Canada, and both have a Russian upbringing. With similar academic backgrounds and a love for fashion and enchanting Mediterranean islands, they started the swimwear brand Insieme together. The Doyennes had a chat with them about friendship, entrepreneurship and why Rihanna is their ultimate inspiration.
Could you tell us a little bit about what you do and what a normal workday looks like for you?
Anna: We design swimwear. To get you in the mood for your sunshine getaway, or maybe just a summer night out with friends and a bottle of cava!
Ksenia: There is really no such thing as “typical” for us, whether in business or life. We are a startup, so we tackle a variety of different tasks on a daily basis. Our responsibilities include designing, managing production, marketing and reaching out to investor and sales stakeholders. We usually try to follow up on our to-do lists during one of the bi-weekly meetings.
A: We are both traveling a lot this summer to promote the brand, so we often have to coordinate professional plans on the go. We are literally buying plane tickets to synch up for photoshoots and fittings.
K: Last week, we had a photoshoot in Barcelona, for example. Next week, I am checking out some manufacturers in Tuscany, while Anna manages an upcoming PR event in Toronto.
What are your educational/ professional backgrounds?
A: We actually have pretty similar academic backgrounds, having both graduated with Bachelor of Commerce degrees from Toronto. Ksenia went on to pursue her MBA in Italy last year. I had the opportunity to work in fashion as a model some time ago and was specialized in event management and marketing before launching Insieme.
How was the process from the idea to launching your own swimwear brand?
K: Maybe it will sound very cliché, but both of us wanted to find the perfect bikini, and unfortunately it wasn’t available on the market. We decided to design and make one for each other, which happened last summer. We had a ‘dress rehearsal’ of our bikinis in Amalfi and Capri, two of the places that also served as a major inspiration for the designs.
A: We proof-tested the designs by doing somersaults in the pool! It was fun. This was our story of a traveling bikini. It was also the first time we first-hand realized how many iterations and intermediate steps are required to take you from creative concept to execution. I used to do synchronized swimming, and I remember how easy it seemed back then: I would just draw a design on paper and then receive it a month later all dripping in sequins. (Our current approach is more minimalist!)
What are the biggest challenges of being entrepreneurs?
K: Managing time and pushing each other to the next level. Also, a big one is lack of resources. I mean, the only real and committed resources out there are Anna and I. We are trying to compete with market giants, but still believe that there is a niche that exists for us.
A: 100% agree. I love the concept of collaboration with other creatives, but have also learned that you should never rely too much on others. We are the only ones responsible for lighting the fire within and fueling this project with motivation and commitment. At the end of the day, no one wants this more than you do, so try to deliver you best performance daily.
You two are friends, what are the positive and negative sides to launching a business with a friend?
K: Oh we get it a lot – great question by the way, haha! It can be difficult at times but also easier, because we know each other and tend not to take things personally, at least for now. We’ve already established a certain level of trust. We have the same artistic vision, but we are also quite different in our approaches. I am an impatient doer, and Anna is a perfectionist. So I believe that we complement each other this way. The biggest downside is that we may still treat it as an extension of our friendship, although we both know that we need to draw the line and treat it as a stand-alone business in order to be successful in the long run. Does it make sense?
A: And sometimes, when we draw that line, it feels too rigid. That’s when you may question each other’s gestures as insensitive vs business-practical, but I think that the key to managing this delicate equilibrium of mutual interests is straight-up communication. We have had our share of misinterpretations and somehow we still managed to keep this going forward. I love that our spontaneous moments of inspiration and craziness create a pretty cool synergy. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
What or who inspires you?
K: We just had this conversation – Rihanna. She is a total savage. Nothing holds her back. On a daily basis, we inspire each other. Both of us have an unconventional approach to doing things, which is incredible. It’s rather fascinating at times to see how we both blurt out the exact same thing in unison or insist on getting a spritz (ok, that always happens)!
A: She got me addicted to them last summer in Italy. That and negroni sbagliato. Best drink invention ever! I also love Carine Roitfeld and Miuccia Prada. They are completely different in terms of fashion aesthetic, but both are such style-assertive, independent women. I grew up on Carine’s Vogue Paris, and that reflects my tastes in general. It’s more interesting and fun to be a bit irreverent and subversive. You can dress and act very chic, but have that off-kilter detail that just makes you pop from the crowd. And Miuccia is this powerhouse of “intelligent” fashion! I’m in awe of her trendsetting attitude.
What would be the ultimate goal for your swimwear line, and how will you go about to achieve it?
A: The ultimate goal would be to create a beautifully crafted brand that resonates and to organically extend our product portfolio. And of course, it would be amazing to see women we admire wear our swimwear (RiRi, if you’re reading this…☺) For now, we are working on establishing production channels and increasing brand exposure to create some market traction for the brand. Hopefully that takes off to release some cash flow for future R&D. There are so many cool things we can do combining leisure fashion and technology.
Any advice to women who want to start their own business?
K: Just start with something. Start doing it even if you have no clue what you are doing. One day, the stars will align and lead you in the right direction. You will learn along the way, which is one of the biggest benefits of starting your own business. You will meet new people, and some of those people may hate you because you ask too much, but hey, we come with peace and the best of intentions! We also met a lot of amazing talents who collaborated and made it happen.
A: I feel that not exactly knowing what you are doing and foregoing traditional industry frameworks as reference releases more creativity and motivates to find novel solutions. So don’t be afraid if you don’t have relevant education or connections to start doing what you love. Once you start working on what makes you tick, you will be surprised at how many resources are out there when you don’t hesitate to ask questions and choose to be a bit stubborn.
Every brand has an identity, how did you come up with yours and how do you make sure to stay on brand with the image you want to promote to potential customers?
A: We pretty much tapped into what we would like to wear and associate with in the contemporary luxury segment. Both Ksenia and I are really into the youthful and tongue-in-cheek branding of Kenzo, MSGM and Moschino. We think that fashion should be a fun universal language and something that’s joyous and playful. That’s what we’d like to exude with our swimwear brand. After all, you should feel confident and ready to rock’n’roll in your bikini! As a startup, we are the ones managing all of the social and visual branding aspects, so we always try to filter potential new content through the lens of our brand story. It’s actually a learning process, as we are still figuring out how to send out a consistent message in a style that’s fresh and unique to us (P.S. We are hiring interns so come holla)
What are your tips for getting your brand out there; are you actively networking and using social media for example?
A: Once, a friend told me that every new connection should make at least two more relevant introductions. So I just stuck to that rule and became a little annoying (sorry, dear friends and new acquaintances)! Networking is actually very uplifting as you get to know people who are doing all these really awesome things, and it just inspires you to further push the envelope. In terms of social media, influencers are obviously a big help to get the brand noticed, but we don’t currently have the resources to just go out and buy IG “primetime”, so instead we focus on organic reach and directly contacting people we admire.
K: Social media is our main outlet at this moment. However, our business model involves wholesale, which also means a lot of networking and reaching out to potential buyers, investors etc. And talking to friends and people like you!
Last, but not least: what sets your label apart from other brands? How do you distinguish yourself from the mainstream brands?
K: That is probably one of the most important questions when it comes to branding. We source our fabrics from Italy, and in fact, our manufacturer only has two locations - one in Italy, and a distributor in the US. The manufacturer uses advanced techno-fiber, that lets you keep all your assets in place, if you know what I mean...! As I found out later, a similar fabric has been used by the Canadian athletics brand Lululemon, which made me realize we are onto something! (Their supplier is unknown to us, of course). When we design, we think about what a woman wants from a bathing suit. After all, she will be spending most of her vacation time in it; maybe taking a lot of photos and socializing, and we want to make sure she feels great about her body. It is much easier to design something mainstream that will fit a 20-year-old who is a size 0, but the idea is to make sure we design a well-fitted piece for all. We work with a sample-maker in Toronto, and each sample takes at least three tries. We make sure to try them on ourselves and ask our friends to try them on and give us feedback. You can call it a mix of quality control and marketing research!