Beefcake Swimwear: Oral History

Mel Brittner-Wells, owner and founder of Beefcake Swimwear interviewed on April 22nd, 2018 by Kelly Reddy-Best via Zoom. The interview was 1 hour and 7 minutes. The oral history transcript reflects the history of the brand at the time of the interview.

Oral History Video

Oral History Transcript

BRITTNER-WELLS: Yeah, my name is BRITTNER-WELLS, actually, it’s now BRITTNER-WELLS because I got married, and my company is Beefcake Swimwear.

REDDY-BEST: So, can you tell me about your background? Just briefly where did you grow up and where have you lived?

BRITTNER-WELLS: Sure. I was born in Southeastern Idaho. I always tell folks if you’ve seen Napoleon Dynamite, that was filmed like an hour from where I grew up, and I am a fifth generation Mormon. I was raised in a very, very Mormon family and in the religion. Like, I went to church every Sunday, like, Utah/Idaho Mormon. And I went to BYU! I went on mission to Belgium. There I figured out that I was queer because I kept having huge crushes on my companions. So, I came back, finished BYU in Utah, and then left the church, went to Portland, Oregon in 2007 and I’ve been here ever since. So, I’ve traveled around the west a lot, and I lived in Belgium for a year and a half, but I was a missionary when I was there, so my cultural experiences were limited. Once I got to Portland it was like, “woah, new world!” [Laughs] Yeah.

REDDY-BEST: Can you tell me about your educational background?

BRITTNER-WELLS: Sure, yeah, so, I majored in English with an emphasis in editing at BYU, and then I have a master’s in book publishing from Portland State University, but that’s not what I do. [Laughs] It was helpful, but…

REDDY-BEST: People tell me English is really important for the development of the self and, you know, I always tell my students to take more English courses, because I think it’s really important to read the literature. It really increases people’s intelligence, or their emotional and cultural knowledge, you know. So, I’m a really big supporter of people studying English. [Laughs]

BRITTNER-WELLS: Oh, yeah! It taught me how to write, which is what I use in everything. I use it every day, so that was helpful.

REDDY-BEST: Yes. Yeah.

BRITTNER-WELLS: Well, my master’s degree taught me InDesign, which I use so much in starting a business, and also it taught me project management, those are useful skills. I just I don’t publish books right now.

REDDY-BEST: Could you tell me a little bit about your professional background?

BRITTNER-WELLS: Yeah. So, I have all this training in book publishing. I worked in law offices through college because my dad was a lawyer, and then the economy crashed when I graduated and there was this cool nonprofit that was hiring called Literary Arts. So, I started there in July of 2010 and I am still there! [Laughs] It’s mostly nonprofit programming, in youth programs and it’s really fun and really engaging. It’s not paid super well, but the people that I work with are incredible, and the work is really meaningful, so that’s why I’ve stayed there for eight years. [Laughs]

REDDY-BEST: Cool! What kind of after school programming? Or just like all kinds of stuff?

BRITTNER-WELLS:  All kinds. [Laughs] , the main work that we do is called Writers in the Schools, which they do all over the country, but we have our own here in Portland, Oregon where we hire writers, and put them in public school classrooms during the day to teach creative writing. We also do Verselandia, which is the all Portland public high school poetry slam, that’s actually this Thursday. And then, I do the college essay mentoring project, where we bring volunteer mentors into schools and they work with students one-on-one. That, I find satisfying in like a social justice aspect. I think that’s everything we do. I don’t know, it’s like a 40- plus-hour-a-week job, it’s big.

REDDY-BEST: What term do you use to describe your gender identity?

BRITTNER-WELLS: I would probably describe myself as like a tomboy femme, you know? I’m definitely a lady and I identify strongly with like women, not just cis women, of course, but identifying with women is important to me. There was like a slight moment where I was like, “maybe I’m trans?” And then I was like, “No, I actually just want male power.” [Laughs] That was an interesting moment. I’d say femme tomboy—definitely sort of a jock, but really goofy. . I don’t know.

REDDY-BEST: Which gender pronouns do you use?

BRITTNER-WELLS: I use she and her.

REDDY-BEST: What term do you use to describe your sexual identity.

BRITTNER-WELLS: I identify pretty strongly with lesbian. I use queer a lot, I think because I was raised in a really, really conservative culture and it took so much to come out that I just use the most basic terms possible with my family. They understand “lesbian,” but they don’t really understand “queer,” so lesbian is usually what I go for.

REDDY-BEST: How would you describe your personal clothing style, in general?

BRITTNER-WELLS: Oh, whatever is clean? If I could wear black stretchy jeans and a black t-shirt every day for the rest of my life, I would be totally cool. It’s just something that I can wear to work that’s comfortable and it’s actually pretty androgynous, I’d say.

REDDY-BEST: When you were shopping before, or wearing products that you make, in regard to swimwear, would you say that that was a motivation for you to start Beefcake?

BRITTNER-WELLS: Yeah, it was. I’m a surfer, and one-piece swimsuits are pretty important. Normally I’m in Portland, so I’m like nearly covered head to toe when I’m surfing in Oregon. When I went on vacation I tried surfing in a bikini and I just got horrible rashes on my belly and I was like, “Oh, that’s what rash guards are for!” And trying to find a one-piece suit that wasn’t really girly was actually really hard. I had the idea for the company in about 2012, because I had a really good friend and a roommate who was always talking about how she wanted one of those 1920s wool one-piece swimsuits and she was trying to find one online, but like they were all tiny and old, and you can’t really swim in wool. I was like, “Oh, well I sew—because I’m a nerd and I grew up Mormon—so, I’ll try to make you one!” I tried and it was awful. It was so hard to sew on stretchy fabric. But, as I was doing it and complaining about it, a bunch of other folks were like, “Oh my gosh, I would totally wear that swimsuit!” It suddenly started to be kind of a viable business idea, but I just sort of was like, “Okay, when I get time,” but it wasn’t until, I think 2014, that I finally felt ready to try doing it. I read all the things, too, because I’m a huge nerd, and figured out that I needed to find someone else to sew these, because I was not going to do that! Just nope, not my jam! So, I started doing research and found somebody here in Portland who was an activewear manufacturer, but they’d never done swimsuits. They were like, “This idea is so weird.” I was like, “It’s fine, I’m just going to put it on Kickstarter, we’ll see if it works!” It raised over 300% of what we were trying to raise, and it just blew up. So that was really cool and clearly it’s something that a lot of folks want.

REDDY-BEST: Can you talk a little bit about, your knowledge of sewing? So, you grew up in a Mormon household, can you talk about that? Was that a skill that was common? Or did you learn?

BRITTNER-WELLS: Yeah, my mom’s mom’s mom, so my great-grandma on the maternal side, had this old Singer sewing machine and she taught my grandma how to sew and my grandma had the same machine, and she taught my mom how to sew, and then my mom had the same machine, and my mom taught me how to sew. I was really tall. I was 5’10” in seventh grade and in like rural Idaho trying to find clothes that fit a 5’10” girl in seventh grade is impossible! Especially dresses! And I had to wear dresses for church every Sunday, and the waist would hit me at the boobs, and it was horrible. So, my mom started helping me to sew my own clothes and that was a skill that had been in the family forever and then, when I graduated from college, my grandma found the same sewing machine that they all had, that same old Singer on eBay and gave it to me. So, it’s sort of like a family tradition and I still have it. It’s so heavy and it’s like, industrial. Mostly what we make in my family is denim quilts out of everybody’s old jeans. My grandma would do that for everybody when they were born, and I still have mine, but clothing was really challenging, especially stretchy clothing on an old industrial machine. [Laughs] I was like, “nope! Not doing it!”

REDDY-BEST: So, the idea came about in 2014. Was that when you started thinking about it?

BRITTNER-WELLS: Somewhere between 2012 and 2014. I have a bad memory, so I’m not totally sure.

REDDY-BEST: When did you officially become a business?

BRITTNER-WELLS: I just renewed my business license and I’ve had it for two years,  so April of 2015—no, 2016. Yeah, I think two years now we’ve been like officially an LLC in Oregon.

REDDY-BEST: Can you talk about the significance of the name?

BRITTNER-WELLS: Yeah![Laughs]My wife and I were arguing about this in the car the other day. She’s like, “I totally gave you the name Beefcake!” And I’m like, “Whatever, I had it before I even met you! What are you talking about!” But yeah, who really knows? The story that we’ve figured out is that I think it came from another friend who was a roommate who was very queer and masculine of center, and they always joked around about being a beefcake, and it was always very tongue in cheek. I wanted a name that had like strong queer roots without being like, “Gay Swimwear” you know? So, the term “beefcake” has also kind of like morphed into this like weightlifting and strength thing, where “beefcake status” is like, swole and all of that, and it’s kind of morphed away from like the male pin-up. But it still has pretty queer roots and I really liked that. I also liked the fact that it’s kind of tongue in cheek, because if you go to our website and look at the models we use, none of us are swole. I think Cooper, my friend, is the only one who like lifts weights. I just sort of love that idea of like, “Fuck it, we can all be beefcakes!” You know, it’s more of a sexy, strong state of being than it is necessarily the true meaning of the word. [Laughs]

REDDY-BEST: Can you tell me about the business model for your company? How does it work? Is it ecommerce only or are you doing wholesale or trying to move in one direction or another?

BRITTNER-WELLS: Yeah,  right now the business model is don’t be sold out. [Laughs] We were for like, two weeks! It’s just me, and I’m just trying to figure it out on the side of this full-time job. So, right now I’m just trying to rein myself in and figure out how to do what we’re currently doing the best way possible. So, we just launched new fabric, and that was a whole process, and I had hoped to start doing new colors and patterns this spring, but it’s just not going to happen. One thing I didn’t know until I started doing this is that creating inventory is expensive and storing inventory is expensive. We just moved into these shared offices last weekend, and I finally have some big Ikea shelves with bins in them, and everything is organized, and it’s finally out of our tiny, tiny apartment, because I kept picking up new swimsuits from my manufacturer and bringing them home and my wife was like, “If you bring home one more box, I’m going!” It’s like, “Okay, for the sake of my marriage…” I think they were shoved in closets, there were boxes under the bed and then I’m shipping them out and we have this cat, so I’m lint rolling everything because I’m so paranoid about shipping something with cat hair on it! So, this is good, this is… We’re “professionalizing.” Yeah, it is like, an evenings and weekends kind of deal, and just trying to make it so I’m not having to loan myself money at any point, because I started this off with all of my savings and a little bit of credit cards at the end, because it took about two years and $7,000 to get this thing off the ground. That was mostly paying for a pattern maker, because I can’t make patterns, I don’t know how to do tech packs, I was learning everything on the fly and we had to make prototypes of everything, and then I sent them to friends and had them fit test it. So, we did a lot of work up until the Kickstarter and that was expensive. For just the day to day operations, the overhead is pretty low, but I still have to pay for this office, and I have to pay for Internet. We did a photoshoot with friends and I paid them in swimsuits. Like, it has been seriously bootstrapped. So, whenever folks are like, “Oh, will you do this new thing?” Or, “Oh, have you thought about this?” I’m like, “yeah,” but just keeping up with where we’re are right now is a lot of work. I was here for about six hours yesterday fulfilling orders, and I have to get back to surfing. [Laughs] I have to find a way to make this sustainable, so I don’t just burn out and quit, you know?

REDDY-BEST: What products do you offer, and then what’s your price point?

BRITTNER-WELLS: Right now, we offer mostly swimsuits. I have a little bit of pins and patches that we offer. I think I have some in my drawer! And these were just made as like Kickstarter incentives. So, I have like a little heart and a little anchor, which is just the logo, and these, I think they’re like $7 or something. We have some patches. So, right now, we started out offering swimwear in two styles: the Original, which is like a solid black, which is this one and there’s like, little stripes; this is the style that I call the Dreamboat, and this one is striped top and solid bottoms. While we were doing the Kickstarter, we just started with black, that was it. Two styles, one color, that’s it, but I had thought about launching with a few more, so I decided to make that a stretch goal, and that is where the red and the blue came in. So, this is a red Original, and then, the blue. I didn’t really mean for it to be so like, “American,” but, those were the colors that were the most requested. So now we offer the two styles: the Dreamboat and the Original, in three colors, red, black, and blue. We used to offer a shelf broad chest liner thing? It was just a simple piece of fabric. I’ve sold them all out, so I don’t even have any. It was just a simple piece of fabric across the front panel, with a little strip of elastic underneath where the breasts would be, and it worked okay, but it wasn’t binding, and it didn’t offer a lot of lift. It just kind of covered your nipples,  for a lot of folks. I realized how different everyone’s bodies are. The one takeaway from this whole endeavor has been everybody’s body is different and thank god these are stretchy, because it is really, really challenging. Fit is challenging, and so we learned that those just didn’t work super well, and people didn’t really like the fabric. I mean it was like, we’re talking 85% great feedback, but I’m a perfectionist, and that 15% who was unhappy was killing me. I talked to our manufacturer and she was like, “Your returns are crazy low,” for what we were doing, but I felt like we could do better. So, in April of this year, now, we just switched to a new fabric. It’s Italian milled, it’s made from 100% recycled polyester and extra-long-life Lycra. So, it’s more compressive, it offers better coverage. The old suits, if you wore them too small, when they stretched, you could see the white, because we’d print. Every suit is custom printed, it kind of looks like paper dolls clothing a little bit, where they print it on this huge machine, and then they cut it out with lasers and then sew them together. So, we switched to a new fabric. It just holds better, it’s got better color, the color is richer, it has better chlorine resistance, it’s more environmentally friendly, it compresses better, it smooths out better, which people said that they wanted. We decided to just line the entire front. A few folks were like, “Oh, could you line the bottoms, too?” And we couldn’t figure out how to put like a penis holder in there? [Laughs] It’s been really challenging to try and figure out unisex sizing. So, we ditched the chest liner, and now we just line the entire front in the same fabric that we use, so it’s just white. The color lining made the stripes look dingy, so we just left it white and then we also put a little strip of this silicone stuff around the legs so that they don’t ride up, because I hate it when my pants ride up. [Laughs] Especially when you’re surfing, you don’t want to be on your board yanking it down all the time. So, those are the specs. This iteration of the swimsuit, I feel really, really confident about and the feedback has been awesome so far.

REDDY-BEST: They’re so adorable! I’m really glad I know now, too, about the leg because I was like how do they stay? You know, I hate that! You know, it’s so annoying!

BRITTNER-WELLS: Yeah! Yeah, and it adds to the cost of the swimsuit, but I think, when I was doing this, I never envisioned this as something that would be my full-time job because fashion is so risky. H&M could steal these designs tomorrow and make them for 30 bucks, and mine are $99. Like, that is an expensive swimsuit, and I totally understand that. It costs me about $42 each to make a swimsuit. The price went up when we switched the fabric and started lining the whole front, but I’m trying so hard to keep it under $100. Just because I want it to be an accessible suit. I just I think it’s worth it and I really hope that people love them, and I want them to be perfect, because I realize I’m asking folks to pay a lot of money for them.

REDDY-BEST: I think it’s hard for some people to understand the cost, and then labor and that it is such a risky business. Okay, so they cost $99, and what did they cost originally?

BRITTNER-WELLS: They were originally $98. On the Kickstarter I started at $85, because I was thinking maybe I could give a little bit of a discount. And then it was $95 and I was like, “oh, maybe I could sell them for $95,” but then that was not really making sense, and so I bumped it up to $98 and for the volume I’m doing now, I think I can keep it at $99. If that volume drops, it’s not going to work. I have to order suits in batches of 100 to make them the $42 price, if I do fewer than that, it gets really expensive really fast.

REDDY-BEST: Do you want to expand what you made? Beyond the current styles?

BRITTNER-WELLS: [Laughs] You know, I’ve had to think about it a lot because we’ve had a lot of requests for long sleeves, we’ve had requests for built-in bust support, such as underwire or padding, but I think I’m just going to keep it simple, and just focus on doing kind of like the outer layer, and then if you want to put like a binder, or a real simple bikini top under it– kind of like you would a rash guard. Like, there’s not rash guards with bust support in them. Like, it’s just understood that you’re going to have to put a bikini top under it, and boobs, oh my god. I love boobs, I’m a lesbian, it’s great, but I do not want to make clothing for them. Like, making bras is so intense. My manufacturer’s already been like, “No. If you want to do that, you need to find someone else.” So, I think I’m just going to stick with making what we make in great fabric, a ton of sizes. I would like to do some more color ways. I think some patterns would be really fun. I really want to stick to 1920s styles. I feel like that will help me not chase trends, because there was a moment when I was like, “Oh! What if we did like a solid gold one?” It’d be really fun, but these are expensive enough to make and try that I can’t really afford to chase trends right now. This may change. Maybe someday I’ll like get venture funding or like, I don’t know, do all of that. It’s terrifying and I need to learn so much more before I go there, but. I’m really trying to just stay focused on doing what we do and doing it well and keeping it simple.

REDDY-BEST: And, so it’s you. Is there other…? So, a typical day is just you doing all of these things, like?

BRITTNER-WELLS: Yeah. Yeah, my work is about two blocks that way, at my day job. So, after work I walk over here, and I just hang out and answer emails, and try to catch up with whatever happened on social media that day, and package and ship swimsuits. My wife, god bless her, is my best unpaid consultant. She is always there to help bounce ideas off of her, and to help me figure out how to deal with customers sometimes, to remind me to have some work-life balance, and she totally did the photoshoot. She got all the models together, handled all the release forms, and handled getting everybody’s sizes. She was amazing! So, I can’t say that I do this all alone, but most of the day-to-day is just me, like when you email, hi. [Laughs]

REDDY-BEST: Yeah, and then, so you hire a pattern maker and you have a manufacturer.


REDDY-BEST: And like you work with them to do the sizing and you design ideas but then you work with them to make it into a fruition. Like, to build it and.

BRITTNER-WELLS: Yeah, and they, JLD-Studios, which is here in Portland, in North Portland, they specialize in leggings. So I kind of snuck in as a swimsuit maker, and I’m the only non-leggings person that they do, but I have been super grateful to them because they answer all my questions, and talk me through all of these things, because I read enough that I kind of knew what I was doing, but they were like, “Oh, you don’t want to piece the stripes in, we’ll just print them.” I was like, “Oh, of course, that’s amazing!” And they have no minimums, so while doing two swimsuits is still hella expensive, I can just do two of something if I want to experiment around. That said, I have people contact us sometimes being like, “Oh, will you make me a custom swimsuit?” And I’m like, “Oh, do you have $2,500?” And then they’re shocked, but it’s a whole team there. You know, they’re professionals, they pay fair wages, which is really important to me. Even just adding in the extra sizes, which I only went up to 3X in the Kickstarter, and then I expanded to 5X. That was several hundred dollars to add two more sizes. So, it is not for a lack of ideas that I don’t do more,[Laughing] but I appreciate their professionalism and I appreciate their turn around. They’re a really strong partner and it feels like I have more of a team even though I just order the fabric, have it shipped to them, they source the bindings and the silicone and things, and make them, and then give me a ring when they’re ready to pick up. So, towards the beginning, we had a Tumblr post that just went viral. This user, “rare.device,” who has an awesome Tumblr, posted about our suits and it got shared like 30,000 times. It’s been crazy, but so many of the comments were like, “Oh, these are so expensive!” And like, “why have you forsaken poor people?” I get that feedback sometimes on Twitter, but I’m trying to not make more poor people by paying all the people involved in the making of a swimsuit. There was a really great documentary, and I have a whole post on my website about the true cost of making swimwear, because it was shocking to me too! You know, if I could make and sell these suits for $40, I’d do it tomorrow! Like, if I knew that I could make them and pay everyone along the way, I’d do it! Like, I’m not charging $99 so I can like buy a private jet. I’m doing that so I like can pay taxes and pay for like the storage of this. I have not paid myself yet. I have paid off the debt I incurred to get here, but I’ve been working for two years and have not drawn a paycheck. So, that has to change. So, there’s this whole documentary called The True Cost, I’m sure you’ve seen it, but I just flat out put it in the blog post. I was like, “watch this documentary, because once you see the conditions that Bangladeshi workers are in making your $4.99 H&M bikini..”. Don’t get me wrong, I still shop at mainstream stores, but I am trying to shift that. I’m trying to, in my own way, pay more for clothing that was produced sustainably because I think that the whole system is broken. My hope is that people understand that, and those that support Beefcake Swimwear are also supporting a better system. I hope these suits last a lot longer, [Laughing] because my goal is to make them better made as well, and worth the $99. It does seem to be shifting, I do feel like there’s a little bit of a groundswell being like “this is not sustainable.” Like, the clothing that we produce is garbage that you wear once and then toss, like not okay, and I grew up in a family that was like, we weren’t poor, but we didn’t have a ton of money, and so if your pants ripped, you patched them. I literally was, two days ago, was putting in iron-on patches in my thighs, it wears it out. I was patching my Madewell jeans the other night because I was like, these are great except for these holes in the crotch so I’ll just put an iron-in patch in them. And my wife was like, “cool babe.” [Laughing] I’m like why I would throw something out that is fine, I can fix it, and then the crotch and she was super happy about it.

REDDY-BEST: Okay, so I think, some of them you just kind of answered naturally, which is nice. Oh, so what made you… So, the next are kind of about the design process. And so you talked a little bit about that, who’s producing them, where you source materials from, but where, you know, the 1920s aesthetic, where did that kind of come from? Or where did, I don’t know, why that?

BRITTNER-WELLS: Honestly, because that’s what my friend said she wanted. [Laughs] So I just started looking at 20s swimsuits, being like, oh what do they look like. These are not totally true to that aesthetic because those ones have that weird little skirt on them, which I didn’t want to do, but the stripes, the stripe placements, and the colors, there’s a lot of museum exhibits that are online that you can access and there’s some beautiful colors and patterns in those. Because you can’t really find pictures of folks on the beach that are in color from the 1920s because they didn’t have color photography. So, the old swimsuits that have survived, those are the ones that I like to look at and those are the patterns that I have, in my head. [Laughs]

REDDY-BEST: Yeah, and then, so is there anything else, and I think you’ve kind of answered these, but maybe if you have anything else to add, you know, just talking about the design process, how you go from concept to final product. I don’t know, I feel like you’ve kind of gone through that, like you have the idea and then it goes, you work with your manufacturer.

BRITTNER-WELLS: Yeah. The original did come from that suit that I tried to make, where I just got some stretchy, thick, black swimsuit material, laid my favorite running shorts and my favorite tank top on top, traced in chalk, cut out, and then just basted it together.  And that was like as far as I got in the process before I was like, “Oh this is not going to work.” So, I did bring in that suit when I was first meeting with my manufacturers. I just kind of held it up and I was like this is what I’m thinking, and then they used that and pulled it apart and kind of used that to build the first pattern.

REDDY-BEST: Do you ever look for inspiration for new ideas for the future?

BRITTNER-WELLS: I mean, I’m a Libra, I love fashion, I love beautiful things, and so I try really hard to listen to what people are requesting. I think we’ll probably do another color first, with the same patterns. I really want to do green, and the patterns I have in mind are inspired from a couple of things on Instagram, I use Instagram a lot, and I love the visuals, and there’s a few pictures of old swimsuits that have really beautiful patterns on them. They’re kind of girly though so I do worry a little bit about that. And then, yeah, that’s about it. There’s one brand that I do keep an eye on, called Seea. They make these gorgeous, long sleeve, kind of like with shorts — surf suits, they call them, and I think about that sometimes but sleeves are not 1920s, and they’re really hard to do. So, as much as I am inspired by and love those, I’m just trying to rein myself in.

REDDY-BEST: So, you don’t think about trends, and trend-watching is not really something you’re thinking about in your design process?

BRITTNER-WELLS: Not really. If something major comes up, maybe… But, I couldn’t find anything that looked like the 1920s online. You can find one-piece swimwear with little shorts on it, it’s usually called a unitard. So, if you just Google “unitard swimwear,” these come up in just solids. So, the stripes are already something new. Maybe if a huge [emphasis theirs] trend comes online, then maybe I would do something like that. My manufacturer was already like, “Spring! Let’s do something new!” And I was like, “Haha! Maybe next year.” I keep an eye on it, and if enough people ask for something I’ll try and do it. We’ll see.

REDDY-BEST: So, I might say you more listen to your customers, what they are interested in and then try to respond to them.

BRITTNER-WELLS: Yeah. One thing I would love to do would be a separate piece that is like a sports bra that is specifically made to go under these suits, but for that, I’ve already been told “no” by my manufacturer. So that’s going to be a whole process of going out and finding someone else. . . So, that would probably be the number one innovation on my mind. I don’t know, we may try it and see, but there’s too much variation in what folks want to even be able to do that right.

REDDY-BEST: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I mean breasts are difficult, because they’re just all different shapes, they’re different! I mean, there’s a lot going on there. [Both laughing] Sometimes they’re different sizes! You know, it’s intense. Do you ever look at any celebrities or style icons or artists? Or people who are inspired by the 1920s?

BRITTNER-WELLS: Yeah, not really. I do try to keep some eye on what trends are, but, again, just for my own sanity I don’t really.  I do just look at photos from the 1920s and see what folks are wearing back then and seeing what the styles and patterns were. So, if you know of any like really amazing 1920s style blogs, send them my way. [Laughs]Usually I just look at like, Pinterest.

REDDY-BEST: Can you talk about the you use in your imagery, such as, who are they and why did you choose them?

BRITTNER-WELLS: [Laughs], the models are all friends and acquaintances, because I was doing this on a budget of nothing. We hired a local photographer, who is a queer woman of color, whose identity was really important to me. My wife and I searched around Portland and got some recommendations, and hired her, Renée Lopez. She was amazing, and highly recommended. Then the models were friends, and in casting them, we tried to be conscientious and not like, “check all the boxes,” but to be really intentional about making sure that everyone was a little bit different, and that our imagery was really representative of different skin tones, different styles, different gender presentations, and different body types. So, I think we had folks in sizes medium through 4X in the photos. We also tried to pay attention to even little things, like making sure we had blues and reds and blacks, and my wife did a fantastic job of that. So far, the feedback has been really, really positive. Also, we didn’t touch up any of the photos. I just talked to the folks in them and I was like, “so, if you have cellulite and stuff, are you going to be mad if I don’t Photoshop you?” And they were like, “no.” If something was truly unflattering, like, they were making a funny face, then no, we wouldn’t use that, but, my intention with the photos was to be diverse and fun and real. So that a person could come to the website and see themselves, hopefully, at least a little bit, in someone that was on there.

REDDY-BEST: How do customers find out about your brand? How do they purchase your products?

BRITTNER-WELLS: Yeah, I think, right now, we’re getting the most referrals from Facebook, just word of mouth, folks sharing on it. I don’t really advertise. I’ll like boost a Facebook and Instagram post once in a while, but, the brand got picked up a couple of times during the Kickstarter. One was this website or TV show, I’m still not totally sure, called Right This Minute, and they took my Kickstarter video and remixed it and then talked over it, kind of like it was The View. It was so weird, but it blew up and I got a ton of orders from like, “Gladys in Wisconsin.” [Laughs]  I feel like the younger, queer community finds it on Tumblr or Instagram, through word of mouth. Then there’s this whole grandma contingency that is so sweet and lovely, and I think that they mostly still find me from Right This Minute or Facebook. It’s been surprising and awesome to see how different everyone is. I’ve tried to dig in and see who my ideal customer is and I think that my Facebook algorithms are probably like, “what! [Laughs] Like, who is this?” Because, we’ve gotten orders from all over the world, all ages. , I just got an email from a woman who’s 78 years old and loves our swimsuits and is thrilled that we’re making them, and then, the next day I’ll get someone who is masculine of center, queer, and wears a 5X and is like, “thank you for making something I feel comfortable in.” It is a wild mix of folks coming from all over the place.

REDDY-BEST: So, that’s interesting that the grandmas, because sometimes, older generations are not always as accepting or understanding as the younger ones.

BRITTNER-WELLS: Yeah, no. I got an email from a woman who was like, “I can’t support your brand because your name is porn!” And I was like, “Did you forget to put the ‘swimwear’ in when you googled ‘Beefcake?’” Because my mother-in-law did that, and she was like, “Hm.” I was like, “you’re welcome!” [Laughs] I do realize that it could be, I don’t know, offensive to some people, but for me, I just wanted to be really authentic and be like, “this is who I am, this is what I believe in, this is what I’m trying to do, and if you object to this then don’t wear my swimsuits, and I’m fine with that!” Like, “if you don’t like queer people, don’t shop here, and that’s fine with me!” Like, you can believe what you want to believe and support what you want to support, but if you want a cute swimsuit, you have to support a gay lady. [Laughs] Fashion is so queer! I’m like, “don’t you realize you’ve been buying queer people’s designs forever?”

REDDY-BEST: How much, would you say, is social media important to your business?

BRITTNER-WELLS: I think it’s really important for sharing. I am so bad at Twitter. I didn’t even have a Twitter account. Like, I had one, but I never posted on it until this and now, I have to have one. I feel like I need to have a bunch of ways for people to access me, but, I struggle with the Twitter. [Laughs] I’m such a grandma. And I have really mixed feelings about Facebook, especially with all the recent dirt that’s come out about how they’ve been harvesting people’s information and I have strong negative feelings about Facebook, but I also recognize that as a business owner who does need to get the word out in an affordable way, that it’s kind of a beast you can’t avoid. I try to be pretty responsive on social media, but it just it ends up being nights and weekends, because I have a job that I care about, and so, it’s important, but I could probably do it better than I do right now. I was recently asking my wife about it. I was like, “So, can I hire you to do social media? Because I’m not real great at it!” But, it’s necessary.

REDDY-BEST: What are you most proud of so far?

BRITTNER-WELLS: That we’ve done it! [Laughs] That this crazy idea worked! Back when we were at the apartment and I’d be packing up swimsuits on our kitchen table every night, and just talking to my wife, being like, “did you ever think you were going to marry a swimsuit company owner?” It’s so weird! And fun! It’s been a really good challenge, but the absolute best part is getting emails or—God! I wish I had the postcard with me! A woman sent me a photo, and she’s clearly an older lady, and she was taking a selfie with a film camera in the bathroom, and she just wrote on the back, “I love my swimsuit, thank you so much!” She had white hair and  it was like, a fucking grandma selfie! And she’s thrilled! I got that the day after I’d gotten like a snarky email or something and I just put it above my desk, and I was like, “This is why you’re doing this,” because, like I said, I’m not in this to make money, clearly! I do need to figure out how to make it more sustainable, but, that feedback of having people feel comfortable and excited about being active: that’s my main motivation, and those emails are the best.

REDDY-BEST: Is it surprising that older folks are interested?

BRITTNER-WELLS: Mm-hm[ affirmative]. It shouldn’t have been, now that I think about it, because I think, part of the struggle—and there’s also a whole like modesty-dress contingent, which I have mixed feelings about, having grown up in like conservative, modesty-oriented culture, I’m like, [shudders]. Like, “I understand that you like that, and you think that’s important.” It shouldn’t have been surprising to me that older women like it, because most of those swimsuits are so feminine that if you are at all not feminine—like how I identify as a woman, and I identify as a lesbian, but I’m not super feminine, so there’s not a lot of options for that that are also kind of stylish. It’s either floral with a skirt, or like utilitarian Speedo brand unitard. So, I think that that gap—which wasn’t apparent to me—exists. I’m sure other people are going to come and try to fill that, too.

REDDY-BEST: What do you think has been most successful, so far?

BRITTNER-WELLS: I hope that I’ve done a really good job of listening to people and responding to them and trying to fill needs, such as, when they asked for more colors, I did more colors. When they asked for better fabric, I used a better fabric. They asked for more sizes, so I’ve done more sizes. I think that we’ve been really responsive, and I hope that we can keep that up.

REDDY-BEST: Would you say you’re queer focused?

BRITTNER-WELLS: Yes. Yeah, I just want it to be, you know. I debated with that for a long time. Even for when I was writing the main copy on the website, I was like, “what do we…What are we? What’s our identity?” And, for me, I wanted to leave it as open as possible. You don’t have to be queer to wear this. That’s why we started, and that’s who owns this. It’s sort of like how queer people have been shopping in straight identified brands forever, so why couldn’t straight people shop in a queer identified brand for once? So, I’d say that we’re queer-centered, but when someone who is queer sends me a query or ask, like, my responses are different. If I can tell they are queer, I’m like, “Oh, hey family!” Like, “yes, we’ll figure this out!” So I’m biased towards queer people, so, I would say that yeah, it’s a queer focused brand, but you know there was a question in here about what was surprising about identifying as a queer brand, and the most disheartening thing was feedback like, “Why are you being constrictive about what queer people should wear?” That really took me aback, because I was like, “I didn’t think…? I’m not saying if you’re queer you have to wear this swimsuit.” That was so weird to me and that made me tweak the language slightly. I feel like the queer community is not, in many ways, as well off as straight community, and I think that’s just a fact, and so, the feedback about how expensive they were, was really difficult for me, because I hear that, and I understand it. It’s such a struggle, you know? I still feel guilty for charging a fair price, you know. So, that was really challenging. There have been hurtful comments, too. About like, “who are you? This straight-looking white lady to be like, ‘oh, this is what the queer community should wear.’” And I’m like, “ugh, I’m not trying to shove this on anybody. You know, I’m just trying to give an option by being really honest: this is who I am.”

REDDY-BEST: It’s interesting because you charge a fair price, but the price is what gets criticized.

BRITTNER-WELLS: Yeah, which is a lot compared to what… I think that’s been the most frustrating part. God bless my wife, because she’ll be like, “do people email this shit to Target?” [Laughs] You know, it’s like, on one hand, you try to be open and transparent and easy to reach, but then you just get this bullshit of harsh criticism that I’m like, “really, would you email Target about this? Or would you be like, eh.’” So that part is… challenging. It’s challenging to be so accessible, and I don’t know that that’s going to last. [Laughs] We had a moment on Facebook the other day where we were just dealing with white men queries. I had this dude who contacted me who was from some big name agency and wanted us to like put his company logo on our swimsuits so he could use them at this big fancy party with all these fancy sponsors. I had so much fun telling him no. [Laughs] I love telling straight white men no, which is when my wife was like, “no one’s going to email Target asking for this.” He was being so condescending that I wrote a post about it on Facebook, and I was like “So, what should our customer service white dude name be? Should we name him Brent? Should we name him Cliff?” I was taking inspiration from that company where the ladies who made up a false male co-founder because they were so tired of dealing with men. There may be a moment where even if it’s not really a Brad, there might be a “Brad” at Beefcake at some point. [Laughs]

REDDY-BEST: What would you say are some of the struggles, large and small?

BRITTNER-WELLS: I mean, the weirdly personal criticism is a struggle. I’m also a super-sensitive person, so that has been really hard to deal with. And time is struggle. It is so [emphasis theirs] time consuming. As well as the challenge of balancing my desire for growth and creativity, and pushing this brand forward, but also balancing. Doing what we’re doing well is challenging. Yeah[Laughs].

REDDY-BEST: Do you ever get negative feedback? Or is it mostly positive?

BRITTNER-WELLS: [Laughing] Yeah, well. I mean, I’ve gotten emails from women who are like badass swimmers who are like “this is the best swimsuit I’ve swum in, in years,” and that was awesome! It’s mostly people who struggle with body dysphoria that send emails that are really, really positive and really awesome. I mean, when I’m honest, the criticism has been so limited compared to how many swimsuits we’ve sent out. We sent out, I think, 450 swimsuits last year and we’re at about 400 or 500 this year, which, if you know how much they cost, you now know all about my finances. [Laughs] But, out of those almost 1000 swimsuits now, we’ve had maybe 25 exchanges, and probably the same amount of returns. I mean it’s really small, and I think it’s below industry averages, and the positive feedback is some I get almost every day. Almost every day, I get an email that’s like, “this is awesome, thank you.”

REDDY-BEST: And then, you talked about how you funded through Kickstarter with a little bit of personal savings. Is anything else to add about that?

BRITTNER-WELLS: Yeah, just that clothing is expensive, and margins are small, and to make sure you really want to do this before you do it. [Laughing] It’s all one lesson. My mother and law was like, “you guys are going to be millionaires!” And I was like, “Cute. Cute. I’ll tell you when I get paid!”

REDDY-BEST: I don’t know if there was anything else to add about your ethics and sustainability practices?

BRITTNER-WELLS: I mean, just that I’m really excited that the new swimsuit is made from recycled material. I think that’s really cool, and a few folks were like, “well, why don’t you get US-made material?” And I was like, “if you can find me some! Gladly!” But most fabrics are coming from overseas, and you’re either going to choose somewhere in Asia or somewhere in Europe, and to me, Italy seemed the best.

REDDY-BEST: Do you ever do any type of community outreach stuff? Or are you interested in doing that in the future?

BRITTNER-WELLS: Yeah, totally! Again it’s just a question of time and resources, but, when we were doing the photoshoot, we were approached by a woman who works with queer homeless youth and she was like, “these suits are amazing, we should work together somehow!” I would love, at some point, to build in 5% of profits or swimsuits go to like helping teens with gender dysphoria. And again, I’m really responsive if somebody emails me and is explaining their situation. Like, I have a mom who has a trans son who’s looking for swimwear and they couldn’t really pay full price, and so I gave them a discount code. You know, it’s things like that, where I do what I can. I’m still working on it!

REDDY-BEST: Yeah, yeah, and, I mean, you haven’t paid yourself, and that’s part of a sustainable model. Not everyone can be Target. [Laughs]

BRITTNER-WELLS: The most frustrating thing to me is when corporations brag about their giving, and then when you look at their budget—and I work at a nonprofit, so I also have like a different view—and see that their corporate giving is so tiny compared to how much they talk about it, and that is frustrating. That’s more from a nonprofit perspective, and they view giving to nonprofits as if they want returns on it, in this weird way. I don’t know, I just have a lot of opinions about corporations. I mean even H&M, who is taking back all these clothes, when you ask them what they do with it they were like, “oh, a bunch of them go to incinerators in Sweden,” or something. I’m probably getting it wrong, but it was like, “oh, we burn a bunch for fuel,” and I’m like, “burning clothing? Is that a sustainable?” So, I feel like things get really greenwashed in corporate giving and I don’t want to do that. I’m a big admirer of WildFang. They’re literally around the corner and I go to their storytelling and I met their founder, and they seem to do really cool work around giving back a percentage or donating proceeds to different groups. So, they seem to be doing good work, so it’s possible.

REDDY-BEST: So, is there anything else that we didn’t talk about that would be important to know about the brand’s history, about your background, or any other stories related to this?

BRITTNER-WELLS: I don’t think so. I mean, it is a journey and I am learning every day how to do this and I do hope that people feel like that it is a company that cares about them as human beings. I’m not just out to make sales, you know, like I really want to put a product in the world that helps the environment and people and is inclusive and helps them be active. That’s my main goal. I’ve watched a lot of queer companies go under and that’s been sobering. Like Saint Harridan, I think was the most recent. It was hard to lose such a cool company, but, that is in always the back of my mind, too—the failure rates are really scary. So, for me, it’s how do I keep doing well, and make it work for the near and far future.


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21st Century Queer Fashion Brands Copyright © 2020 by Kelly L. Reddy-Best & Dana Goodin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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