It has become a near-universally accepted fact that very few women enjoy the experience of shopping for swimwear. Cameron Armstrong doesn't think that's acceptable. "It's such a vulnerable piece of clothing, and you're standing there under these lights and it just doesn't feel good," she says.
She's speaking from experience. After attempting to find a new swimsuit on a family vacation two summers ago, Armstrong left the stores empty-handed and frustrated — so far, a typical experience shopping for a bikini. But Armstrong was working in marketing at L'Oreal and was attuned to finding spaces in the market which needed filling, and she had a question: just why were bathing suits so challenging? To answer that, she invited a bunch of friends over for brunch and measured every single one of them. Armstrong realized that the measurement which differed the most between women wasn't at the waist or at the bust; it was the crotch.
"Literally, from your belly button through your legs to the top of your tailbone," she explains. "It was crazy, because the women would have the exact same size hips, but this inseam measurement was so different, and it's kind of equal to a butt size."
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Kitty & Vibe was officially born. Armed with what she calls the "hidden measurement," Armstrong set out to create a swimwear brand that would correct this issue for women. (That's where the "kitty" in the name comes from — "I couldn't name it 'crotch,'" she says with a laugh.) She spent time building the brand while maintaining her day job at L'Oreal, filing for trademarks, obtaining the domain name and finding a manufacturer. "I said, 'Okay, what's the worst that can happen? Maybe I lose my whole savings account, have to move back into my parents' for a little bit, but whatever, it's worth it,'" she says.
Armstrong doesn't have a design background, but she wanted to keep styles simple and classic, and her lack of experience almost proved more a boon than an obstacle. "I took everything with the mindset of, 'I'm just a consumer who knows nothing about design,'" she explains. That lead to making gut-based decisions, like choosing fabrics based on hand-feel over the prestige of where they had been loomed. The brand is sized up to a 20 and keeps prices under $100. She also leaned on early customers, making choices on things like prints and colors based on Instagram polls.
"It's amazing, because if the majority choose the maroon, then when they recognize it on the site, it's like they made the design decision, and so when they're wearing it they go as far as saying, 'I chose this! And now it's on my body and now I own it,'" Armstrong explains. "I'm surprised not more brands are using these amazing social tools that we have, but I didn't really have a choice, because I didn't go to fashion school."
The "vibe" part of the equation addresses the triggering nature of swimsuit shopping. With every order, Armstrong ships a link to one of the style-specific "vibe" playlists on Spotify that she keeps updating; customers are meant to play it while they try on their orders. Armstrong had been a part of a hip-hop dance crew in college, and remembers how that helped her get out of her own head. "I wanted to create this extra dimension where it gave you that entry point to be able to tap into inner confidence," she explains.
Currently, Kitty & Vibe is exclusively direct-to-consumer. Armstrong would love to bring the experience to customers in real life, but she won't do so until she can replicate the feeling of trying on bathing suits in the comfort of your own home. "I never want them to go in that dungeon of a fitting room again," she explains. "It'd have to be very, very experiential for me to get in person, because I want to honor the safe space that is your bedroom."
Her dedication to making the entire experience positive has earned her a devoted fanbase of customers who refer to her suits as "Kitties" and who have helped her build a business largely through word-of-mouth and social media recommendations. While free of prominent branding, Armstrong says people tell her that they recognize the suits on other women from the kitten ears stitched onto the back of her suits. There's certainly no shortage of brands jumping on the body positivity train of late, but Armstrong is confident that Kitty & Vibe will continue to stand out above the pack, because customers have felt that ethos baked into the brand from the beginning.
"These are people I've never met who go as far as saying, 'You've changed the perspective of my body, I will be eternally grateful for you. I never in my wildest dreams would have ever put on a two-piece,' — really powerful stuff, and I didn't change their bodies at all," Armstrong says. "This was all capable inside of them; [the suit] just gave them a tool to tap into it."