Local women-owned business makes waves with leather bikinis

NORTHVILLE – Once the glove capital of the world, this region is known for its history with hides. And now, a business owned and operated by four women and their families is hoping to make it known again for leather attire.

But this time, it’s for a warm-weather piece.

POM Designer Beachwear is a newcomer to the swimwear scene introducing a new line of leather bikinis to the market.

While the leather and beach combination may raise eyebrows, POM’s customers are satisfied with the suits, and they even caught the eye of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue editors.

As Wendy Hotaling, co-owner and spokeswoman for the company explains, the suits are made with Carbretta Leather materials that are pre-treated and have a buttery feel.

The leather is made to withstand salt water and chlorine, and the Carbretta leather is treated and dyed with a system that was built for manufacturing the luxury leather used in private aircrafts.

“It started as a group of friends who go boating in the summer out on the lake,” said Hotaling, who also owns North Country Florist.

One member of the group of friends is from the Fultonville-based Perrone leather company, and they got talking about what the business – known for fine aviation leather – does with unused pieces.

“We just got talking and it just evolved into what we started doing – making bathing suits,” Hotaling said.

That was less than a year ago. In February the idea born on a boat became a real working business. In a few months, the company has sold 12 swimsuits, submitted a design for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition and been featured on a model in the men’s magazine Chulo.

Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Associate Editor Darcie Baum said in an email to The Leader-Herald the suit POM sent was “right on par with our style theme for the shoot -gypsy, jet setter inspired…think hippie chic.”

Hotaling said the black with red flower pieces was designed specifically for the shoot.

Baum said they fit the bikini on one of their models, but didn’t end up using it in a photo shoot. That’s farhter than other swimsuits get.

Baum said throughout the year the magazine gets close to 10,000 swimsuit submissions from hundreds of designers. For the Easter Island story, Baum estimated about 2,000 swimsuit submissions. During the process of choosing the swimsuits for the story, Senior Editor MJ Day wades through “an endless sea of suits to see what works best for the style theme and the shoot location,” Baum said.

Then they bring 400 to 600 swimsuits on location, and Day does “a second edit” to see what fits the models best and what is unique and stands out form other suits, Baum said.

Baum said POM stood out to her as a designer with its “buttery smooth leather.”

“It’s rare and exciting to see something unique in the swimwear world like [POM],” Baum said. “We do have a few designers who are experimenting with waterproof leather, so maybe we will see more of it in the future. Leather is such a staple in the fashion world from motorcycle jackets to accessories to leather accented clothing, it’s no surprise it’s translating into swimwear.”

Baum said the magazine has a readership of 62-million people – not counting website, tablet, mobile app and tv-show views – so for a suit to get chosen for a model is priceless for any designer.

“Many of the suits featured quickly sell out for these companies. And even if we shoot an archival piece or a one of a kind, it still gives the brand a great platform to have their name out there to that many eyes,” Baum said.

Getting their start

After the group of friends came up with the idea to start a leather swimwear company, they decided to have regular business meetings, and they stuck to it.

“We started meeting [to discuss] ideas on how the leather would work – being waterproof, fade resistant – and how it would feel wearing it,” Hotaling said.

They tried several prototypes before finding what worked, trying on different cuts and seeing how they felt.

They brought on board Renee Butcher, a designer, seamstress and sister-in-law of one of the partners, and she helped finish the swimsuits.

When it came time to establish a business name, they chose POM, the initials of one of the co-owner Karen Morrison’s husband- Paul Orison Morrison.

“So we just took his initials and worked with that because it also sounds like palm,” Hotaling said.

The company’s logo – stamped onto each suit and featured as a little charm on the suit – is a palm tree to fit the tropical theme.

Hotaling said the business grew as each owner and their family members shined in their particular talents – her own son, Todd Bailey does the photography with Capital Region hopeful models willing to pose with the bikinis at no charge, though they did get to keep a swimsuit in exchange.

Hotaling said a friend just beginning his career designed the website inexpensively.

All of those services combined lowered startup costs tremendously, which Hotaling said can run in the tens of thousands of dollars depending on the company.

“Everyone’s got their own specialty and brings something to the table,” Hotaling said.

Social media

POM has used new media to spread the word about their product. Using Etsy, Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter to make contacts, they’ve grown quickly in less than a year considering the owners work full-time jobs as well. Social media is how they got in contact with the model from Chulo who posed in one of the suits, bringing their product to a new market.

Hotaling said the company has used Facebook advertising and found Etsy is a great place to sell the product since the company doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar location.

“I did some research about [Etsy] and what they do for a small company to get exposure. The products on that website are phenomenal, and they enable people like us – small companies – to sell handmade things. [The price] is very, very reasonable to have items on their website.”

Etsy, marketplace website and artist community, doesn’t charge membership fees to sell on the site. Instead it charges 20 cents to list an item for four months, or until it sells, and if the item sells the site collects 3.5 percent of the sale price.

Suits also are sold on the website www.pombeachwear.com, and prices vary based on the style.

One customer, Terri Carle, saw POM on Facebook. She never heard of a leather bikini before, but when she received a blue POM bikini as a birthday gift, she was thrilled.

Carle, from Illinois, said she wants to purchase another for her next vacation.

“It fits me perfectly. My husband loves it. The leather is so soft and it’s easily hand washed,” Carle said in an email to The Leader-Herald.

She said she has received several compliments from men and women and wears it when she travels to places like Jamaica.

That’s exactly what POM is all about, Hotaling said. The prime market is tropical climates such as Miami or the Caribbean.

“All of us in this company have a love for the sun and the tropics. We all vacation together,” Hotaling said. “We want to wear suits that are comfortable and unique and different. That ties in with the leather. I think women like to say, ‘This is a designer suit. I picked the color and style, and it was made for me. That’s really something special you can’t say with many other places [from which] you might purchase a suit.”

What’s next

Hotaling said the next step is to get a celebrity to sport a POM bikini in public, so they’ve been working on getting connections with publicists.

“We’re trying to be more of the designer type higher-end suit that you can’t find in a big box store,” Hotaling said.

She added that it’s special for a woman to have a suit unlike any other on the beach.

The POM suits right now are made by hand and are the product of the work of everyone involved in the business. They all get together for weekend work parties where they prep the materials for the seamstress.

She said POM hopes to connect with an onshore manufacturer to keep its “American-made” label.

“The manufacturing part is still in the process of working on coming up with a manufacturer to be able to sew and assemble different styles of suits we’re coming up with,” Hotaling said. “We want to promote that it’s a women-run company and everything is made in the USA.”

For the working parties, Hotaling noted they’re not just cutting leather. There’s a lot of detail that goes into these suits.

“You have to have the straps all made and the little gems prepared. We like to stamp a little palm tree on each and attach the palm tree charms to the straps. You have to cut the lining for each suit,” Hotaling said. “A lot of things have to be done.”

The designs are also evolving. Initially the styles had thong bottoms, and now there are options offering more coverage.

“We want to keep going with new styles and new designs of our suits. We want to bring in accessories so people can purchase sarongs, beach bags with logos on them,” Hotaling said.

As for a men’s leather swimsuit, Hotaling said “I wouldn’t discount anything,” but POM will likely be selling beach dresses and items to accent its current pieces before that venture.

News Editor Amanda May Metzger can be reached at [email protected]

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