Interview: Red Dolly Swimwear

Remember the days when swimsuit options consisted of basic Target bikinis and unflattering department store options? Thankfully, the pool of swim shopping has opened in recent years, and no one is creating vintage-inspired and flattering options as well as Heather Stepanik and her brand, Red Dolly Swimwear.

Red Dolly is full of retro two-piece and one-piece options, and they're the kind of pieces that make a woman feel good about her body. Swimwear can be so daunting sometimes, but it's evident that these are suits that women actually feel comfortable and want to be seen in. Heather has designed flattering cuts in unique prints that beg to be seen.

In addition to creating great pieces, Heather herself is one of those business owners that makes you want to just go for it. She's self-taught in the swimsuit design area, and it's amazing to see how quickly she was able to turn her passion into a business and put in the work to sustain it. Enjoy getting to know her and her retro creations!

My pick: Heather has created a couple of Midge Maisel inspired pieces, and they're so spot-on!

Q: Let’s start from the beginning. Can you tell me a little bit about the process of starting your business? What made you want to do this and how did you turn your idea into a reality?

A: I started Red Dolly at the end of 2007. At that time I was a new Mom, as well as a seamstress at a bridal boutique. I had already received my AA in Fashion design by that time but I was never taught how to design or work with swimwear fabrics. One day I just wanted to try to make a suit for myself. I was already a lover of vintage clothing but the vintage suit I had was too stretched out at the elastic to fit so I bought a roll of fabric for $10 in the fashion district, went home and made my own pattern and created the first Red Dolly suit! A red & white polka dot one piece.

Q: Was there a moment when you felt like this was something that was going to take off and become a success for you?

A: It was only about a week after I made my first suit that I had come across a new site at the time called Etsy. I knew that if I was happy with finally having a comfortable vintage-inspired swimsuit that was modest and still cute that other women would as well so I took some photos in the suit so I opened up my online shop and listed it on Etsy. I immediately was getting orders for the suit I had listed so right away I had a good feeling about what I had started.

Q: What were your friends and family’s reactions to you starting this as a career or a business? Were you nervous to share it?

A: They thought it was cool that I was finding a way to pursue my dream of being a designer and getting to do it on my own terms. Everyone was very supportive!

Q: Is this your full-time job? If so, how long did it take you to transition into full-time?

A: It is my full-time job and has been since 2008. It took about 6 months from the time I opened my Etsy shop and listed my first suit for me to be financially able to support myself and my son. It’s ironic because it was just about the time that I had grown the business to make enough money that the Bridal shop I was working for part-time went out of Business (Due to the 2008 recession).

Q: Can you walk me through your process of introducing a new style, how does it go from an idea to a finished product that you can now market?

A: I usually get inspired by fabrics. So when I was still living in California I would go to the Los Angeles fashion district often and just look around for fabrics that caught my eye. I would take the fabric home and either use an existing pattern I had already made or create a new design that I thought would work well with the print/colors. I would cut the fabric, sew up a sample and try it on myself to see if it’s something I would wear before I decide to add it to my website. Now that I have been working with a factory for some years (I did everything myself for the first 5 years) the process has become much easier. I just work on the new designs usually mid summer and send them off to have samples made and approved then we put the new styles into production. So the day to day has become much easier since my family helps with pulling stock and shipping, so I can focus on the creative aspects of the business which are my favorite!

Q: Obviously, we’re in strange times right now so I have to ask everyone I talk to - how has COVID-19 affected your business and what are you doing to keep everything going during this time? What can people do to support you and others during all of this?

A: Honestly, the recent Pandemic has slowed down business a bit, but we (my family/team) are still getting orders and since we don’t have a lot of overhead costs monthly It has not been a big hit like I know so many brick and mortar businesses are facing right now.

Q: What do you wish more people knew about small businesses?

A: They are 24 hour jobs! Even though we have a ton of freedom and control over how we work and run our businesses we still need to be super disciplined to be successful. There is always something that can be worked on so we have to force ourselves to stop and slow down sometimes. But being self-employed is so rewarding, I could never go back to working for someone else.

Q: Favorite item in your shop currently?

A: I love our new Pink poodle print two piece with the skirted bottom!

Q: What goals do you have for your business going forward?

A: At this point I am happy with the level of the business and am not trying to necessarily grow it more. Of course more sales every year are great, but I like that I can work from home and spend time with my family or plan trips and not have to worry about checking in with anyone.

I definitely pushed hard to grow it during the first 5 years and am so thankful to have gotten Red Dolly to where it is today with returning customers every year, new shops reaching out to purchase wholesale, and people spreading the word on social media and just word of mouth.

Q: Lastly, let’s spread the love. What are a few of your favorite small shops owned by women that you personally shop from?

A: Love supporting small women-owned shops! Here are some of my favorites:

Follow along with Heather:

Shop Red Dolly Swimwear

Follow Red Dolly on Instagram

Follow Heather on Instagram


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