ZestNow: Swimsuits have always been a bit of a problem for many women. You seem to have created a problem-solver with your innovation. In the process you’ve also re-invented yourself. I think this is an amazing and inspirational story. I understand your sister inspired you.
My sister told me how hard it was to get into a swimsuit and how important it was to her, I felt compelled to try to help. She is 56 and has severe arthritis that affects all her joints. She cannot walk but she can swim and participate in the vigorous water exercise prescribed by her physicians. I did know that my sister would be vulnerable to depression if she couldn’t keep moving but putting on a swimsuit was so difficult.
So you really analyzed this issue.
Putting on almost any one-piece suit made with spandex can be a demoralizing struggle to get on and even harder to take off. Anything that will fit snugly around your waist has to be pulled hard to go over your hips, and then stretched up and out to accommodate your shoulders.
If a woman has arthritis and mobility issues like my sister it’s even worse. I saw that inserting the second arm is a very difficult part of putting on a suit. You can put your hand through the first strap and the torso/bra structure. But after that, the second strap is tight to your side. You then have to rotate the second shoulder and arm out to the side and a little behind to get the arm through the second shoulder strap.
Physical therapists call this movement an “external rotation.” If you have a condition that affects your muscles and/or joints, arthritis, the strength or dexterity in your hands, or a back problem, pulling on a swimsuit can actually be painful.
How does your design, STEPIN2NOW, solve these issues?
Our goal was to significantly reduce the bending, pulling, twisting and rotating required to put the swimsuit on and to take it off wet. The STEPIN2NOW suit is constructed of two half-suits that slide one on top of the other. Each half-suit has one shoulder strap and is cut to the waist on the other side.
The benefits derive from the way the suit is shaped and constructed. One leg opening is larger than the other so you can step into it more easily. (The larger leg opening doesn’t show when the two half-suits are on.) The fabric stops at waist level on one side to reduce the friction or “pull”. With only one shoulder strap, and no fabric on the opposite side above the waist, you can slide your arm into the strap without rotating it out and up. Because the two sides or “half-suits” are not attached anywhere, they move freely on the body with no binding at the shoulder.
I understand that you’re a licensed clinical psychologist and started this company after you retired.
I am a licensed clinical psychologist. I worked at Stony Brook University in New York for 35 years, starting out as a therapist and ending as the director of the mental health center for a campus of 22,000 students. I retired in the fall of 2009. At that moment I knew nothing about swimsuits. I didn’t even know how to sew, and still don’t.
That’s quite a transition. Did your work as a psychologist help you with this new venture?
I have thought a lot about how my work as a psychologist is or isn’t related to making swimsuits. So far I think the connections have to do with the empathy and knowledge of human struggle that comes with being a psychotherapist. Psychotherapy is often about finding a way to keep moving no matter what sadness or disability has stopped you. Perhaps equally relevant is that I tackled problems every day as an administrator of a busy counseling center. I really enjoyed creating programs despite a limited budget and finding ways to redefine an obstacle so I could do something about it.
Working in mental health can be very demanding and stressful. You learn to do what needs doing no matter the level of risk and complexity. Knowing that I had handled life and death situations and decisions convinced me that making swimsuits could not possibly be harder. When I can’t sleep I can tell myself to stop being ridiculous.
Starting a new business is certainly a big project. What were your challenges?
Starting a business in an area I knew nothing about has been like a treasure hunt. I have problems every day because I have no prior experience or training in fashion or the garment industry, and have to learn everything as I go. Since I was accustomed to being in charge of my work environment I have found it quite unnerving to not know what to do next.
It took almost four years to get from the concept to seeing the swimsuit in a store. I have funded the business from my retirement savings and a bank loan that is a mortgage on our home so financing is always a concern.
I started by visiting Stony Brook University’s Small Business Development Center. They referred me to an intellectual property attorney who referred me to a friend who knew a seamstress in New York City who had made costumes for the opera. I had my first prototype in August, 2010.
I then spent almost a year on patent applications. By 2011, I found a pattern and sample maker through a trade show sponsored by the Fashion Institute of Technology. I heard an NPR program explaining what a “fit model” is and found an agency to provide the models.
Eventually I sent the swimsuits to a leading research university’s center for “accessibility” testing. They gave the suit very high ratings for how easy it is to put on and take off. But I knew it was not yet ready to sell to customers.
I then worked with three different pattern makers over a two- year period trying to solve problems related to choice of fabrics, elastic, bra cups, and the elusive matter of “fit”. I learned all the streets in the Garment District of New York City.
Finally in late 2013, long after both the U.S. and Canadian patents had been awarded and the trademark name approved, I found the production manager who has produced a swimsuit that is ready to sell. Until I found him through a workshop he taught I felt very depressed about the amount of time and money I had spent and wondered if it was crazy to keep trying. We launched the swimsuit in June of 2014.
I found a wonderful person to handle everything related to sales by introducing myself at a tradeshow.
What are your latest important achievements?
I’m so pleased to go online with our website www.STEPIN2NOW.com so women can get more information and call the 800 # to order. Soon they will be able to order online. I even have a video to demonstrate the suit. The first calls were from a woman with multiple sclerosis and from a woman with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Do you think that being a business owner has changed you?
One aspect that has been a challenge is that running a small business requires me to be much more of an extrovert than I had been. I have been surprised by how much of business depends on slowly building personal relationships. In a university there are endless regulations and procedures that define and protect interactions, and authority that comes with a known title. I am still thinking about who I am in this new business. The word Founder on my business card doesn’t sound quite right yet. I don’t think Designer or President is any better.
My husband has been the person who has kept me going when I didn’t know what to do next. He says I seem happier and more energized than he has ever seen me.
I also have to admit that I was embarrassed and reluctant to wear a swimsuit. Without this project I would never have discovered water exercise for arthritis or learned that I really love moving strenuously and happily in a pool with like-minded women who have become friends. I realize that the sense of freedom in being able to move without pain can be life altering. We need the right swimsuits to help us keep moving well into our 90s.
What are your next business steps?
The next steps are many and hard to prioritize. I need to master e-commerce, meaning all the ins and outs of shopping carts and customer relationships. I must start interacting on Facebook. I need to have a better bookkeeping system. I’d love good administrative assistant to hire. Every day I discover yet another aspect of running a small business that is new to me. I try (unsuccessfully) to keep my priorities list to 5 items at a time. I am looking forward to finding swimwear fabrics with beautiful prints, and plan to develop a lingerie line. I also have categories of priorities.
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