In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
"The best asset I have is my instincts," says Lisa Marie Fernandez. "I somehow always see things way before other people." There are many ways in which one could apply that assertion to Fernandez's success as a luxury swimwear designer over the last decade — which happened to be an exceptionally tumultuous period for fashion, from the 2009 economic recession to today's "retail apocalypse."
At the same time, travel and tourism are growing, which creates more demand for swim and resort-wear. For Fernandez, that was a natural space to enter. She had always been a "jet-setter," and effectively turned her own lifestyle into a brand long before influencers were influencing where we travel and direct-to-consumer swimwear brands were launching every other week. As luck would have it, her distinctive and flattering suits look great on Instagram, and her clientele — which includes many celebrities — just love posting vacation photos on the platform, which gives Fernandez plenty of content for her own account and the hashtag she created, #LMFgirlsonholiday.
In 2009, she was hesitant to launch a brand, given how much she'd seen other designers struggle with their businesses, but she started small without any investors and admittedly leveraged the industry connections she'd made working as a stylist and editor. Nearly 10 years later, the brand is still going strong: Fernandez says it's grown every year, some as much as 300 percent, others around 50 percent.
It's also evolving: She just began giving her customers the option to purchase tops and bottoms individually (exclusively at Net-a-Porter, that is), as well as offering an extended size range and launching something more akin to proper ready-to-wear than what she'd offered before. She also just bought a house with a pool in Malibu (though her business and production are still in New York).
That's not to say there haven't been challenges along the way. Her original designs are widely copied by other brands, and she dedicates much of her time to going after "imposters," as she refers to them, as she did when Emily Ratajkowski launched a swim line containing some very...familiar-looking items. On June 15, at our How to Make It in Fashion conference in NYC, Fernandez will be discussing her defense tactics against copycats on a panel alongside the founders of Diet Prada and Susan Scafidi, founder of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham. (Get your tickets here!)
We caught up with Fernandez to learn more about how she managed to weather such a tumultuous period in fashion, her most successful tactics against imposters, her social media strategy and her plans for growth. Read on for our interview.
How did you get started in fashion?
I went to FIT and I studied fashion buying and merchandising. Then I was doing internships, and then I tried working at different magazines and I think that's when I realized that I wanted to be a fashion editor. I was freelance and then I did consulting. I worked with Francisco Costa in consulting and I worked for Harper's Bazaar, American Vogue, Numero — I worked for many magazines as a freelance editor and I liked that. You deal with a lot of brands; you work with them internally, so I saw the inner workings at brands, how difficult it was having your own brand. I never wanted to have my own brand to be honest.
How did your brand come about?
There was a point in time — we started the business in 2009 — that I was traveling constantly and there was no swimwear: There were triangle bikinis, florals and tie-sides, and it was at the time when all the body-con was coming back and I started to look around to see if anyone was making neoprene bathing suits. I was googling it in different continents with different search engines, and there was not one person in the world making a neoprene bathing suit, not even surf companies.
My boyfriend at the time who was traveling with me — we were traveling around the world — he said to me, 'You have this whole lifestyle about traveling; you do it so well...you should be doing this,' and I thought about it; I knew how it's such a struggle to have a brand and deal with all these seasons. I saw how so many designers really suffered personally and we've seen it now come to fruition [with brands closing] and I was a little uncertain about it, but I made seven bikinis all out of neoprene and I thought I would make these bikinis and I would sell to Barneys and Kirna Zabete and I would continue to be an editor.
I went to Paris and was going to the shows and I called people I knew and sat with at the shows: Natalie Massenet, Lane Crawford's Sarah Rutson, and the team at Barneys, Kirna Zabete. I'd say, 'I made some bikinis, do you wanna come see them?' And I said, 'They're not triangle tie-side bikinis, they're, like, a thing.' Everyone came, and everyone bought the collection.
How did the line grow from there?
At the time, that's when the recession hit, the first rumblings and talk of recession. I wasn't paying all that much attention to what that meant, but actually, recession for me worked in my favor, for two reasons: One, I was providing a product to the marketplace that not one person in the world — literally the world — was doing. The consumer, they halted their spending but they were going to spend on something they didn’t have already in their closet; they weren't going to spend and keep buying repeat purchases. The second reason was, if it was the height of the market, and the demand was any bigger, I wouldn't have been able to handle it because I never did production before, I never had a company that shipped [or had the same] logistics before.
In a way, the timing for me was really good, so everything sold well and the next year they asked me [to] make one pieces, and the next year we made one pieces and the scuba dress in the same neoprene in different colors, and then different textures.
With my company, the driving force has always been the fabrications. I always want something that's new and I want to make something that I can't get someplace else. What came next was the terry cloth because I have this fascination with terry cloth and I buy towels in crazy amounts. I could not find any manufacturer anywhere that was making swimmable, stretch-with-recovery terry cloth and I even went to Premiere Vision [trade show] in Paris which was ridiculous. I was asking everyone from all these foreign countries about terry cloth, nobody had it. I realized I would have to find someone to develop this, so that's how the part of the brand of developing fabrics came in.
We found the manufacturer in Italy that developed it for us, so that took some time. Then, every fabric we made, we developed the fabric and we created it, so that really distinguished the brand from anyone else. We've done denim, cotton, we did our own seersucker. We would start with what we want now and then develop it.
From 2009, the factory I used is our factory today; we got it right the first time. The neoprene we used is still the same neoprene we use, the terry cloth [is the same]. That's really unusual — you usually have so much trial and error.
How did it expand beyond just swimwear?
I used to wear a lot of shirt dresses because they opened up; it's a good travel piece. That's how the shirtdress was born — no one was making shirt dresses — and then [I launched] the beach skirt. They sold out like five times over. I didn't know it at the time, but I had been researching this my whole life and now I'm putting it into motion.
I've always called it destination wear, because you are taking the clothes to a destination. This year, there are ready-to-wear pieces for the summer and for holiday and they're much more grand. Every year [the brand] grew, and it turned into 400 SKUs per season, which is a lot.
How do you determine what styles to add each season?
A lot of ready-to-wear brands don't really have core. They'd get you loving it, get you attached to it and then it goes away that season and never comes back. I was like, what a waste of time that is.
I didn't want my consumer to have the frustration that I had, so I devised the company to work sort of like Apple. You have your iPhone, or your Macbook, and sometimes it's black and sometimes it's silver, now they're rose gold and whatnot. We built the company through repetition: We would add styles but we never got rid of styles, so the same bathing suits we made in 2009, we still make them and sell them almost 10 years later, and the consumer knows them by name.
It takes a long time for the entire world to catch onto something. In the fashion world we think, 'How do you not know about that shoe or whatever?' but we're living in our own little bubble.
From the onset, we had a lot of brand recognition: They looked at the product and knew it was ours. That's very hard to accomplish, but we stuck to our thing.
To what to you attribute having so much success so early?
Because I was an editor and people knew me in the fashion industry — and also I was living in New York, I was living in London, I was traveling so I knew people in Istanbul, I knew people in Paris, people all over the world — when I did something, I had access to every editor, every writer, a lot of buyers; not all of them, but the important ones. It gave me an advantage over someone who wasn't at one point a member of the press. I knew how magazines worked, I know how to create a story. I know what the editors really want, what they're looking for.
You launched with e-commerce which was unusual at the time. How has your online and digital business evolved, especially with the rise of influencer marketing?
Our number-one door would be our own website. We very rarely do an email blast, we don't do any type of tricks to make the consumer buy our bathing suits. We don't send out thousands of bathing suits to people and create this false economy that everyone's wearing our bathing suits. We have friends; if we make the Leandra bikini, we send one to Leandra [Medine] because it's her namesake. We don't do that influencer trick.
I think a luxury product should be something that is coveted. A woman should have a bit of mystery to her; I think a brand needs a certain mystery to it, too. I think flooding the market with every girl [wearing the product]...it's a short term strategy. And also the girls who are influencers, certain ones, their customer base cannot afford a real luxury product.
You do get a lot of influencers and celebrities wearing the line, which you post on Instagram with a special hashtag. What's your strategy for that?
We started doing hashtags and the consumer picked it up and they would post themselves and then hashtag #LMFgirlsonholiday. We have all these celebrities and people from all walks of life and they're all posting, different ages, sizes, nationalities, we're like the United Nations of a brand, we embrace everyone. We're a global brand. No one could say we just post blonde blue-eyed girls, that will never be a problem of ours.
I message them and ask information and then re-gram it, which they loved. It was a way of validating them, and getting positive reinforcement, then over time I realized — I call them repeat offenders — two weeks later they have a new bathing suit or a new dress. For better or for worse, girls and women are getting trained by this positive reinforcement, so they go get another one and another one. Some girls I think have 20 pieces a season.
I like the mix of the countries or looking at a pretty environment or a different environment. Our customers are 12 to 70. We don't have very much body-shaming comments, very rarely, and if I see it I shut it down immediately.
Your sizing has expanded as well.
Now our sizing goes from a 00 or XXS to a 14-16 woman. We're selling separates for the first time. [Customers] would tell me, 'I can wear the bottom but I can't wear the top,' so we're trying that out.
You've also been vigilant about going after brands who copy you. What are some tactics that have worked for you?
I think by now everybody knows what's our brand and what’s not, so what I've done is speak to the buyers about it. I out people on social media and, I'll tell you, that works like a charm because I get emails from [customers and fans from] all over the world of people copying our product. These girls are really vested, they are our eyes and ears: They don't like it either because they have worked hard to buy a $350 bathing suit and they see some girl next to them at the pool at some hotel with some cheap imposter on.
We registered our designs. I get this on social media too: [People ask,] 'I have my own brand, I made these things and how did you protect yourself?' People come to us for advice.
When we register the designs, we send the cease and desists not only to the brand or the so-called designer, we also send it to the retailer. It makes them aware of it. The majority of the retailers, they'll send the product back. I know factories who are making some of these brands and I've even gotten into it with some of the factories. Sometimes they just don’t want the problem.
It's really time consuming. There's days I have energy for it. Why should people make money off of what we do when I'm working 16 hours a day? Of course, we're successful and we make money and I'm not complaining about that, but I'm not here to make money for you.
How do you feel about wholesale now?
How much would my life be easier if I could just do whatever I want whenever I want and put it out in the world whenever I feel like it? And focus on all the experiential [aspects for the] consumer?
Do you see yourself focusing more on your direct business in the future?
We're going to be having some really nice brunches and dinners and trunk shows with small groups of people.
What motivated the move to Malibu from New York?
New York was killing me. I wake up at 6 a.m. I work until 9, 10. If it's snowing out and freezing I'll work until I go to bed; I think if I get all my work done in the winter I can go away. I stopped living in New York. I was born in New York, I've had it. My place is there exactly the way I left it, I'll be back, my business is based there. I would never move it to LA. Our production is in New York.
But I've never seen more people moving to one place in the world ever in my entire life and there's something going on here. I think we are going to see the progression that there is less reasons for people to be living in major cities anymore because of working on the phone and working on the computer. I'm working on the phone and on the computer, I have a pool 20 feet from me, I have nine acres, I see the mountains, I see the waves, I'm peaceful, there's beautiful light, everything I need, I can get in the car.
You're approaching 10 years in business, and obviously it's been a very difficult 10 years for many designers and not everyone has made it. What's your secret?
I can't believe it. I think with our brand, it's always been this slow and steady wins the race kind of thing. I'm not looking for a quick something, I'm looking for building a brand. We never make a decision that's just about money. I do something because it's the right thing or it's the thing I'm passionate about.
For people who read these articles to get information about building their own brand — and I tell all of my friends who are spending their 20s and 30s on Instagram and thinking that's a career — I don't even know where this generation's going to be in terms of work, because if one day the government or regulation or something happens and Instagram goes away…you can't take anything for granted in the world that we're living in today. For these people to literally be putting all their chips on social media for their career, I don't know what they're going to be left with. I'm worried for them.
A lot of things can happen along the way that can take down your business. We have a very small team and that has been to our benefit. We are very, very thoughtful about everything we do. My friends will tell me, 'We're going to try this,' and I'll say, 'Ok, you go do it and let me know how it works.' There's so many people selling so many services now.
I always go back to myself: Would I want that as a consumer done to me or would I want to shop there? I always say, when in doubt, do nothing. My first question to my team is: Why would we do that? And they may have a brilliant reason and sometimes they convince me we should do it.
Being patient is a big one for people starting out. When I know something, I know it and I trust my instincts and if I don't know it I'll sit on the sidelines and watch. We don't need to do so many things. People think you have to be everywhere. I'm like, not really. You can grow within your own partners.
Note: This article was updated to clarify that separate tops and bottoms are only available at Net-a-Porter