How a 'Sports Illustrated' Swimsuit Model Launched a Successful Swimwear Line

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When I first met Tori Praver a couple of months ago in New York, I was preeeetty much rendered speechless because she’s seriously, no joke, drop dead gorgeous. That really shouldn’t have been such a shock considering that the 5'11" swimwear designer clocked three years as a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue model (2007 to 2009), covered Cosmopolitan three times and at age 17 became the face of Guess. 

But Praver is certainly more than a pretty face (and body), having turned her steady modeling gig into a successful swimwear line, which she launched five years ago when she was just 23. It was a gutsy move, given how crowded and fiercely competitive the swimwear industry is. (“There are so many new swim brands, it’s crazy!” she says.) But Praver quickly made a name for herself in the industry and top retailers -- from Anthropologie to Shopbop to Barneys -- have picked up her line.

Tori Praver, the brand, offers a SoCal lifestyle-inflected collection of cute and versatile mix-and-match separates, one-pieces and cover-ups. The nature-inspired prints, thoughtful detailing and inspired cuts all work just as well for actual surfer girls catching the waves, as well as beach bums who want to lounge around while taking envy-inducing poolside #selfie shots. Tori’s signature aesthetic features a feminine and super-flattering ruching technique (it pulls you in in all the right places), seen on retro-inspired one-pieces, teeny triangle tops and adorable high-waisted bottoms.

When we jumped on the phone, Praver was down to crunch time before presenting her resort 2015 collection at Miami Swim Week, while taking in some mother-daughter time, too. (I could hear some splashing, so there was either a morning swim sesh going on or it was bath time.)  Nevertheless, she was happy to discuss -- let’s face it -- her charmed (and glamorous) start, how she recruited her mom to turn Tori Praver into a successful family business (kinda like Alexander Wang and Altuzarra, right?), and the latest surprising trend in swimwear. Oh and she still models, too -- you’ll recognize her as the face and body of her own brand -- but more on that below.

How did you decide to start a swimwear line?

Well, I grew up in Hawaii and bikinis were like my shoe fetish. So I loved them and I collected them and I always needed a new one and it just was my little passion. I just decided that I wanted to start my own brand someday. Then I started doing Sports Illustrated and one of the editors from the magazine really encouraged me to start sooner rather than later. And it was in the issue later that year, which was cool.

I know you have a swimwear background through modeling, but how much design experience did you have?

I didn’t actually. So I was sketching and using a lot of vintage suits for inspiration, but I didn’t actually have like proper schooling, if that’s what you mean.

So how did you learn along the way?

Just through inspiration. I just knew through all of the suits that I had, what I liked, what I wanted. I wanted them to be seamless and I wanted them to be double lined and I wanted the special ruching technique. I just knew what I wanted to do.

Tori Praver modeling her own line. Photo: Tori Praver

Tori Praver modeling her own line. Photo: Tori Praver

How did you come to think of ruching as part of your signature look for the line?

I had an old suit from when I was like 13 or 14 that I loved and it fit so well. It was amazing, but it was a different type of ruching, like tiny, tiny ruching. So I had this idea, “I’m going to try and make the ruching bigger and see how it fits,” and it just made the suit fit so well. And people love it. For the full-pieces and the high-waists, it just sucks you in. I don’t even know how to describe it, but it just hugs the body. It doesn’t cut in; it lays on your skin nicely. It does something like magic. It’s just a good technique.

What was the learning process like, in terms of creating, manufacturing and running your line?

Well, that was a learning experience and lots of mistakes were made. But I had help from my mom, who’s an amazing businesswoman who just knows how the business and the industry works. She’s just super knowledgeable like that and she just started doing research and educating herself on her business end of it: the books, the invoices, and the orders and all of that. And then I have always done the designing, working with the factories directly, sketches, sampling, all of that. So we just split up the work. Now we have [four] people who work for us and then we have a rep that does the selling. Between the selling, the books and the designing, we just covered it.

What were the initial challenges you faced starting your line?

It wasn’t so much a challenge, but more challenging myself to be innovative. I wanted to make my brand stand out and be different from everyone else’s. That’s something that’s hard in the swim world because there are only so many styles and silhouettes you can make a bikini look like.

Also swimwear is somewhat of a seasonal business, right?

We’re definitely seasonal.

So how do you face that challenge and make it a year-round business?

Colors and that kind of thing. People are going on vacations and wearing bikinis all year long even through winter, so I really try with a collection to please everybody. So if someone is looking for light and fresh and springy, like a bright pink or something, I will have it. We always offer black -- that’s something that we carry through each collection. We also have our signature pieces, too, about five suits that we carry in our collection no matter what.

Photo: Tori Praver

Photo: Tori Praver

Who were some of your early retail supporters?

Shopbop has been a huge, huge online store for us. They always have been. There’s a ton of small swimwear boutiques like Diane’s and Everywhere But Water. I feel like whoever carried us from the beginning, they’ve been super loyal and are still doing business with us. But I feel like the online stores are just as big as the boutiques and bikini shops themselves these days. So we do a lot of business online.

What was it like introducing your line to those retailers and getting them to carry you?

Well, I always had a rep and I was with a showroom in the beginning and they would have the relationships with those buyers and place me in the stores. But they can only do so much and I feel like it’s really the product and I feel super lucky.

Do you think your swimsuit modeling experience helped you with selling the brand to buyers?

Yeah, I did know people in the business. I knew editors. But I didn’t know buyers -- it’s a whole other world. And so you really need a rep and you need someone who has those relationships.

You’re with some really great retailers, but any more on your wish list to break into?

Maybe Opening Ceremony? But I’m in every store I’ve ever dreamed of, which is so cool to me. Net-a-Porter, Shopbop, Barneys, that’s where I shop. I’m in everywhere that I shop, so that’s pretty cool.

I know you have a children’s line. Would you consider expanding into other categories, too?

We’re going to do beach bags. This year we have a collaboration with Samudra and we have this little zip pouch that’s really cute. It would be awesome to eventually do sandals or sunglasses down the road.

So what was the milestone moment when you really felt you made it as a swimwear designer?

I think the first time I saw my suits in Vogue. And just getting into Barneys and Net-a-Porter and that stuff, too.

I feel like you save a line item on your marketing budget since you model your designs. What was the decision behind that -- did you always know you wanted to do that?

I didn’t always do it. I had models in the beginning and then I just decided, “Why don’t I do it?” But I don’t know. I change. I go back and forth. I might not do it anymore. I might start to have someone else. I mean, I think it’s good and bad. There are different aspects of it. Like just me being a model, I feel like sometimes for me as a businesswoman, it’s maybe not such a great idea because I’m the face of my brand. But I think it’s important for me. But maybe I might switch it up. We’ll see what happens.

What swimwear trends do you see going on right now?

Everyone’s loving full pieces and high-waisted bottoms.

Yeah, one-pieces are really popular right now. Why do you think that is?

I don’t know. That’s a good question. I feel like maybe that people have always wanted to wear them, but they were never cool and now they are.