It’s Made in NYC week here at Maker’s Row and we are celebrating the brands that prove that New York City is a great place to start a business! Every day this week, we will be sharing interviews with New York City factories and brands and giving you insight into what it’s like to be an NYC creative.
Helena Fogarty, who started swimwear brand MI OLA out of her own need, talks about starting the brand after a hard period in life, producing and sourcing locally, and what she likes to do for fun in New York!
What was your background before you started MI OLA? Did you have any experience in the industry?
I have 15 years experience in fashion, working on the business side at Chanel, Ferragamo, and Zac Posen. I also built the first e-commerce sites for Bloomingdale’s, Avon, and the first website for Harper’s Bazaar.
Why did you decide to start MI OLA?
I started MI OLA because… my life kind of fell apart at some point. And during the rebuild, I was inspired to create the best women’s swimsuits. Ever.
In December 2008, I was working at Chanel and thought I was up for a promotion. I was kicking ass at work. I was working early and late. And I was right for the job. Like, I literally had multiple people come up to me at the Christmas party and say “Are you excited? I think you’re going to get promoted. I recommended you for the position!”
The first business day after Christmas, I went in for a meeting with my boss, expecting that promotion. I was dressed head to toe in Chanel, very excited, December 28, 2008, 9 AM. I was laid off instead and escorted out of the building by 9:05 AM. OUCH! (note: the person they hired for the role got fired 6 months later.)
We were in a deep recession and I was in a deep depression.
I had been traveling often to Costa Rica to surf, so I decided to move down there temporarily for a break. There were no jobs in NYC. I was having PTSD dreams of fighting with Karl Lagerfeld about things in my office. I was still reeling from the break-up of an 11-year relationship. And it was winter.
While I was surfing 4 hours a day, every day, I realized that women’s swimwear is traditionally terrible. It falls off if you move a smidge. You constantly need to adjust. You have wardrobe malfunctions if you dive through a wave or jump into a pool. Not to mention while surfing, doing yoga, Stand-up paddle, etc. Women have lost years of their lives adjusting their bikinis.
And sometimes bikinis are really evil. Like hurting you, evil. Beading, and rings, put in the wrong places can bruise you up if you do any water sports. I even had a bikini from a surf brand, and the material literally lacerated my tush as I walked.
I bought hundreds of swimsuits, and couldn’t find the right combination of excellent style, extraordinary fit and stay-up, no adjust, function. I knew from my experience wearing Chanel and Louboutins, that you can make fashionable and functional clothing. It is possible, with good design.
So I created MI OLA. We make the best women’s swimsuits ever.
They look amazing and have been featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, NY Times, NY Post, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and others.
They are extraordinary to be active in and have been recommended by Outside Magazine’s Summer Gear Guide (a few years running,) Grind TV, ESPN, and others. (say bye to constant adjustments and wardrobe malfunctions.)
They fit really well and they feel great. And our customers tell us that. Just today, I got an email that reads:
“Your tops are amazing! I just got my second order from you last week. Just wanted to pass on a huge PROPS to you on the design. I have just come to accept the neck crushing feeling of wearing a bikini with big breasts as the strap around your neck usually gives you a headache. Now I no longer have to expect that, with MI OLA. So well done!!”
So, what we do is empower women to feel better and more confident, at the beach. Go play and have fun (or just relax.) Stop worrying about your suit. With MI OLA, it will stay where you want it.
What steps did you take to get started? Did you find a mentor or seek out any education?
I had 15 years experience in the business side of fashion, prior to starting MI OLA. But all of it was with big companies, and I had no design experience or production experience.
When I decided to start MI OLA, I took a series of classes at FIT in design, merchandising and production. Then a professor of mine recommended a technical designer who had experience with swim and lingerie, and we worked very closely on our first designs. She was able to take my rough sketches and redo them into something a sample could be made from.
Why is New York City a great place to start a brand? What does it mean to be “Made in New York City?”
New York is an amazing place to start a brand because I can produce locally and source locally. For instance, if we need trimmings, I can run to Pacific Trims. If we need care labels, I head to Panda. If we need elastic, I can find it.
We visit our factory often to discuss our projects and see how fast production is going and can go there same day if there’s a problem or question.
How did you find your factory and what kind of relationship do you have with them?
I’ve worked with 3 factories before finding this one, which I love. We work very closely. They specialize in swim, and now know what we require for our swimwear.
How did we find them? Talking to other swimwear and lingerie designers.
What are some of your plans for growth for MI OLA?
We have been growing 100% year over year. But we have the capacity for 500% growth. To get there, we need outside investment, so we can fund inventory and marketing and grow aggressively. Our plan is to grow to $20MM in 2020.
Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs looking to start a business specifically in New York City?
Take advantage of all the great resources available to educate yourself and learn about starting a business. SCORE is a great resource and there are many small business resources available to help you navigate starting your business. When I started MI OLA, I got into a Kauffman Foundation program on entrepreneurship that helped me write my first version of the business plan.
I had an MBA in Finance and Accounting and Entrepreneurship, but it was still helpful to be in a program where a whole group was working on creating their business plan.
What’s your favorite thing to do in the city?
Play in the ocean. Yes, it’s possible in NYC.
What borough does MI OLA call home?
Queens. We’re located in the Rockaways.
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