Creative and driven college students who always wished to turn their side passions into successful business ventures can indeed make their dream a reality.
Lo Swim, an athletic swimsuit company founded by former collegiate swimmers Sheeva van Gemeren, UC Davis alumna, and Annie Babicz, UC Berkeley alumna, has been successfully operating out of Oakland, California since the fall of 2009. Lo Swim is the embodiment of the women’s collaborative style-conscious intellect and effort to make more functional and fashionable racing suits available to competitive swimmers.
“It started with some really basic thoughts, when Annie and I worked and coached together at the Claremont Swim Club,” said van Gemeren, who graduated in 2009 with degrees in international relations, political science and philosophy. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just adjust your suit so that it stays on? Wouldn’t it be nice if your suit was actually flattering, cute, and if you were excited to go shopping for your suit?’”
Both founders swam competitively on the Division I teams at their respective schools and have extensive backgrounds in the swimming world. Throughout their aquatic experience, van Gemeren and Babicz noticed several issues with women’s practice and competition suits that, while relatively minor, would increase comfort and confidence if fixed.
“We wanted something that was functional. That’s where the adjustable factor came in. We wanted something to stay on the entire time,” said Babicz, who graduated from Berkeley in 2007 with a degree in American studies. “Additionally, being fashion-minded, we wanted the suit to be an extension of a swimmer’s personal style on the pool deck. The suit market is pretty stagnant — it hasn’t changed in so many years. It’s just primary colors and geometric designs.”
Van Gemeren and Babicz sent their first prototype, a swimsuit made of cut-up pieces of their old suits, to a manufacturer based in China that they found online. Suits were shipped back to the U.S. in batches of 1500 and stored in van Gemeren’s, Babicz’s and their parents’ garages until they were sold on their website, www.loswim.com.
Lo Swim products are an attempt to bridge the gap between beach and competitive swim, Babicz said. To do this, the basic two-piece suit has a braided and adjustable neck strap and T-back strap, a tie around the band and pads in the front. The bottoms have a similar tie and cinch detail in the back, and both pieces are in bright, fun colors such as turquoise and fuchsia. Tops and bottoms cost $22 each.
“Picking the colors is the best part,” van Gemeren said. “And that’s a lot of the feedback we get, too — people always want more colors.”
The product’s features help the suit stay on through starts and sprints and give it a fashion-forward appearance at the same time. The colorful braided straps and gold hardware are both inspired by brands such as Betsey Johnson, Vix and Vitamin A.
“You sort of sacrifice some of your femininity when you jump in the pool,” van Gemeren said. “You have your hair back, in a cap, and then you put on a generic suit and that’s the way it has to be. I wanted to find a way for girls to be able to keep their personal style in the pool.”
The suits have gotten plenty of positive reviews from coaches and swimmers. Jenna Wesley, former swimmer at UC Berkeley and coach of two East Bay swim teams, said they are like a second skin to her and her swimmers.
“The look of the suit is a revelation and can be considered a fashion item in and out of the water,” Wesley said. “It’s extremely flattering in the pool and great accessory underneath a cute tank or tee in the summer time. I love Sheeva and Annie’s innovation and their commitment to providing great swim wear.”
Product idea aside, the brand development of Lo Swim was unique in that both van Gemeren and Babicz had zero design or business experience and self-funded their production from the very beginning.
“It was a process of trial and error,” Babicz said. “Essentially it all happened piece by piece. We made a lot of mistakes, and really learned from them, and had some good luck.”
In this way, van Gemeren and Babicz were given the chance to see what could come out of starting a small business completely on their own using their resources and prior experience.
“The fear of failure was a big obstacle. That’s why we started slow, and didn’t get any investors because we weren’t sure of ourselves. We just went little by little,” van Gemeren said. “It hasn’t been until now, until after three years, that I have enough confidence that I could pay any investors back. I’m glad that we started slow just to prove that we could get traction, because now we have the confidence to go big.”
Indeed, van Gemeren and Babicz have come a long way since their original prototype. In the future, they plan to move production from China to Los Angeles and continue developing their brand and expanding their line further to create a line of functional apparel that will keep swimmers comfortable in and out of the pool.
“It’s more than a design at this point. We want to revolutionize swimming all together — it’s a serious and sometimes monotonous sport. We want to help make it more lighthearted, beachy. You can be both athletic and fun, athletic and girly.”
Lo Swim products are available for purchase online at www.loswim.com.
LANI CHAN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.