Colletto and her design
assistant, Rae Kim, test
new design concepts
on the factory floor.
Strips of Lycra, soon
to be swimsuits.
pattern pieces in
Karla Colletto in
the cutting room
of her Vienna,
The last place you would expect to find swimsuit designer Karla Colletto’s office is in an unassuming industrial park in historic Vienna, Virginia. Surely, the designer of such glamorous, high-end poolside apparel would run her burgeoning empire from a headquarters befitting Saks or Bergdorf Goodman, two of the stores that stock her bestselling collections.
But Colletto can be found most days in a nondescript building nestled in a sleepy Washington suburb, and that suits the petite Boston-area native just fine. “I’ve had my business here for 12 years, and I have no desire to be anywhere else,” she says. “Being under the radar works very well for our company, and we’ve learned how to grow our small business from nothing without a lot of pressure.
“And nowadays, with the Internet, you can have a business anywhere. Vienna is just as good as any other place,” Colletto adds. “If we based our business in New York, for example, we’d have to contract out all of the manufacturing. Washington has a good pool of workers with great sewing skills, and we can now send out our pieces all over the world from right here.”
Colletto began her career as a sportswear and bridal gown designer before slowly transitioning to swimwear. Women of all ages wear her swimsuits, but, she says, “there’s a certain sweet spot for a woman in her forties or fifties who wants a suit that’s flattering and sensual at the same time.”
The color-blocked, tone-on-tone swimsuits and colorful cover-ups designed by Colletto have attracted a cultlike following among sophisticated shoppers willing to bypass inexpensive, cookie-cutter swimwear from fast-fashion brands like Target and Old Navy. A “Karla customer” isn’t afraid to pay a premium for her beautifully designed pieces (the average retail price is $220). Women around the world log online to visit luxury retailers like Net-A-Porter, as well as e-commerce sites for stores such as Neiman Marcus, Anthropologie, and Saks Fifth Avenue to purchase her designs.
Colletto’s suits are designed as the antithesis of $20 sequined string-and-a-prayer bikinis and cutaway Vegas-showgirl pieces. Her halter-tops have full cup coverage, and high-waist bikini bottoms have sweet 1950s touches like ruching and boy-short legs. One- and two-piece swimsuits showcase witty details, like jewel-tone stone and metal hardware, acrylic chains, starfish buckles, and seashell patterning; moderate coverage on the bottoms straddle the line between sexy and grownup without sacrificing modernity. All of the suits are precisely tailored and constructed from futuristic, Italian fabrics by Colletto’s staff of 45.
Many of the head-turning suits are deceptively simple on the hanger but hide a killer sense of fit, cut, and proportion. “Technology really drives me when I design,” Colletto says. “Sometimes I sketch or drape a design on a dress form, but often I’ll sit at a sewing machine with cut pieces to test how things will fit when they’re sewn. If it doesn’t work for me there, we start over.”
Cyla Weiner, owner of Sylene, the Chevy Chase lingerie and swimwear store that has carried Colletto’s best-selling line since 1999, says the collection “is great because her suits fit a lot of body types, and her designs are very creative and innovative. Washington can be a very traditional, conservative place, but women who are fans of Karla’s will take a chance with a wilder color, like neon, or a print because her suits fit so impeccably.”
For the demure Colletto, who shies when talking about these skills, success is less about accolades and more about product performance. “I want women who wear my things to feel great about themselves when they are arguably at their most vulnerable.” Saks Fifth Avenue, Tysons Galleria, 703-761-0700; Everything But Water, Tysons Corner Center, 703- 748-1987.