PODCAST: Interview with Genderless Beefcake Swimwear
Lauren: Hey, and welcome to the Sustainable Style Podcast, we're your hosts, Lauren Engelke.
Kaitlynn: And Kaitlynn Gee.
Lauren: And today we're discussing inclusivity with Mel Brittner-Wells, the founder of Beefcake Swimwear. Beefcake Swimwear is a genderless, size-inclusive, up to 5X, and made in the USA from recycled materials swim brand and the suits are super, super cute. Picture a vintage swimsuit from the 1920s.
Kaitlynn: I love it.
Lauren: They're amazing. So, Mel, I have to say that KP and I immediately connected with your mission. Tell me how this all started. Why swimwear? Why size inclusivity, everything?
Mel: Oh, thank you. It actually started because I had a friend who really wanted a 1920s swimsuit and I had grown up Mormon, so I knew how to make my own clothes like a nerd. And so I offered to make her one, not realizing how frustrating it would be to sew on stretchy material. So as I was making her the swimsuit, I kept complaining about it and other people were like, Oh, I want one. And at some point I realized it was probably a pretty good business idea. And so long story short, two years later, after many prototypes, we launched on Kickstarter and made over 300 percent of our goal. And now we're an online business.
Kaitlynn: That's awesome.
Lauren: And what an amazing business model, like complaining about your thing until people are like...
Kaitlynn: Fine. I'll buy it!!
Kaitlynn: No, I love that too, because I feel like making it gender and size inclusive you just widened the amount of people that can buy your product. Yeah, I feel like everybody should do that.
Mel: I mean, it just well- I was in Portland, Oregon at the time and in this like queer punk household and size inclusivity, it just felt like a "Duh". I mean, you just had to do that. And a lot of the folks who wanted to wear the suits were definitely plus size. So from day one, it's always been about being really inclusive.
Lauren: Yeah, I think it's so natural when you're- please don't take this the wrong way- But when you don't come from a fashion background and you're not thinking about it in terms of, you know, the factory is giving me four sizes, which four do I choose? When you're coming from a common sense background and you're like, well, these are the sizes my friends are, and this is what I want to make for my friends, it becomes very natural to think of making a brand inclusive.
Mel: Yeah, it really takes away like the whole sample size issue. I don't even know what a sample size was when I started.
Kaitlynn: I love it!
Mel: The first one was an extra large because that's what I wore and my friend who was shorter than me wore roughly the same size. So I just chalked it out on a piece of stretchy fabric in my basement based on a pair of shorts and a tank top, and then basted it together. And then just lucked out by finding a manufacturer in Portland who had zero minimums and was very friendly and helpful in my same town, which was just crazy in hindsight.
Kaitlynn: That's serendipitous.
Lauren: And it's so rare to find a place with zero minimums.
Mel: Oh yeah.
Lauren: Miraculous. So let's talk about why it's so powerful for gender inclusivity and size inclusivity to go together.
Mel: Yeah, I think those two go hand-in-hand because at some point, whether you are plus size or queer, you had to break down this box society was trying to put you in. And once you break out of that, whether it's your gender or your sexuality or your body size, it becomes easier to bust out of other boxes, too, at least in my personal experience. Once I figured out I was queer, I was much more accepting of my body. And I think it was just because I realized that you don't have to fit in that mold you are told you have to fit into your whole life. And for me, once I broke one box, I was like, fuck this, let's break them all. And I just felt so much more confident in my body and who I loved and who I was attracted to in all of those things. So I think it just sort of is human nature for all of those things to go together.
Lauren: That's so beautiful. Like you shifted your way of thinking and it changed everything.
Mel: Oh, yeah.
Kaitlynn: It sounds so freeing when you say it.
Lauren: I'm literally uplifted.
Kaitlynn: I'm so inspired right now. I love it.
Mel: Well it's like that scene in Shrill. The pool scene.
Kaitlynn: Yeah, I was thinking about that. When you were talking about the sizes and everything, that was the first thing that came to mind.
Mel: Yeah. Oh I cried when I watched that.
Kaitlynn: Oh my God. It's so good.
Lauren: Yeah, it was beautiful. Just taking a second to think about it.
Kaitlynn: Just picturing.
Mel: My dream, my secret dream when we were watching it - I was like, maybe someone will be in a Beefcake suit in the background.
Kaitlynn: That would be so exciting.
Lauren: That would be great.
Mel: They filmed it in Portland. It could have happened.
Lauren: I gotta say, one of the things about the suits that I love is the design is so simple. It's literally like a 1920s style suit where the top has a sort of a scoop neck tank top, and then it's connected to slim shorts with like a three or four inch inseam. And it's simultaneously cute and completely inobtrusive. And so I could totally see almost anyone I know wearing it and feeling good about themselves.
Lauren: And at the same time, if I saw someone else wearing it at the pool, I would be like, oh, that's cute and different. And then I would just go about my day. And that's the beauty of it, that it's - it's different. But it also totally fits in and makes as much of a statement as you want it to.
Kaitlynn: Yeah, I think that's the best part of the way that people wear it differently. Like you can wear it a little bit looser. It's like you can make a statement with it if you want, but you also can kind of blend in a little bit more if you want. It's just such a good design.
Mel: Thank you. I mean, it was literally based on photos I saw of 1920s swimsuits. I just wanted to recreate that. The original is called the original because it's based on, I don't know, dozens of photos I saw of men and women wearing the suit with the stripes in roughly the same places in roughly the same sizes. And I just thought, well, that worked 100 years ago. We'll just try it again and see what it does.
Lauren: When you made it for your friend, that first iteration, what was her reaction?
Mel: You know, I didn't get to see it because I mailed it to her in California. But she wrote me and was just like, I love it. It's perfect. I want one. I want tons of them. But the most fun part has been the photo shoots, seeing people's reactions, because we've just had friends and acquaintances in our photo shoots for the most part. And they would put on the suits and they would step out of the dressing room and start dancing. I was like, when was the last time you ever saw anybody put on a swimsuit and start moving with joy?
Kaitlynn: They don't do that when I dress them.
Mel: It was just it was so fun because it was like, you see most swimsuit fashion shoots, I think of like the Sports Illustrated where it's like, oh, sexy, sexy, sexy. And that's I mean, you can be sexy in these suits. Absolutely. I've seen it. But you can also, like, play volleyball or bend over or run around after your kids and not be afraid.
Mel: I can't tell you how many times I've flashed my boobs to my friends from bikini tops. I'm just like, oh, hi, here's my boobs again. Yeah. So it's just it's so nice to feel comfortable and attractive.
Lauren: Yeah, I think that definitely stands out in your photo shoots - they struck me right away because everyone's smiling and looking like they're actually having a good time.
Mel: Our photo shoots are so fun.
Lauren: I believe it. I want to go. They look like a really fun day on the lake.
Kaitlynn: Yeah. I love them. I'm looking at your site right now, just so I can look at all of the pictures from the photo shoots. And it's just the sweetest thing.
Mel: So good. And we just did another one here in Montana that was so much fun out on the river where my wife used to go when she was little with her family, like, it was just so much fun.
Kaitlynn: Oh, my gosh.
Lauren: These would be so cute in children's sizes!
Mel: Did I sound terrified? (laughs)
Kaitlynn: Oh, my gosh. Yeah. I think my favorite thing about the styles is that, yeah, of course you have the the fit, which is kind of universal there, but also the coloring and everything. There's nothing that looks more feminine or more masculine like both of them could really go however, for anybody.
Mel: Yeah, we're trying that. I have a couple patterns up my sleeve that are a little more femme, but I know gay men wear pink and flowers too, and some very confident straight men. So feels we'll try it.
Kaitlynn: Yeah. I feel like my husband would steal that from me.
Mel: That's the goal. Here we go. Swimsuits that your husband will steal.
Lauren: So speaking of different prints, you've got some really cool, sustainable innovations going on. You're using recycled polyester, which is made from like old fishing nets and then you're also using dye sublimation. Can you tell us a little bit about the sustainable measures from that swimsuits?
Mel: Sure. So the fabric we started using the new fabric about a year and a half ago, just because a lot of folks were asking me about the sustainability of our fabric. And I, like a novice, had not really thought about it from the beginning and then realized, oh, yeah, we should be doing this. That's kind of another "no duh". And so we found, again, total luck and serendipity, the rep from Carvico in Italy, was in town in Portland, visiting like Nike and Columbia. And we managed to snag his attention and he came to my little manufacturer up in Portland and sat with me and the owner there and opened up his suitcases full of the most beautiful fabrics I've ever seen. And we found a great supremely sustainable one that is also great for printing on the printing is important because there's no water waste. And that part I did figure out early on that sublimation printing comes out of the printer kind of looking like paper dolls' clothing. So we literally had enough ink print the shape of the set and then they cut it out with lasers and sew it together. So there's zero water waste. There's no research on like off gassing or anything like that. Like it's extremely earth friendly. It's extremely good for the people who work, who are sewing it and printing it. And also, it's really nice for me because then I don't have to - I don't have a lot of waste. And they're pretty good about using the scraps.
Mel: I know for a while they were making dog toys out of some of the scraps. Some other company was using them. I was like, do what you will with the scraps. I don't I don't care as long as they're getting reused. That's awesome.
Mel: Then so that is a really low waste process. We only make about 100 suits a month right now, so there's no inventory wasted. We sell every suit that we make, which I didn't realize - I mean, I just did it because I'm bootstrapping it, so it made financial sense. But then I learned that there's so much waste in the fashion industry. It's something like 35 percent of clothing make gets made, never gets worn and just gets destroyed or dumped.
Lauren: That's totally crazy.
Mel: I mean, honestly, for me, I'm like, how do you afford that?
Lauren: Yeah, it's I mean, it's interesting how you sort of tie it all together that reducing waste is also just good business sense.
Mel: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
Kaitlynn: Yeah. I feel like it's all about efficiency there, too.
Mel: Yeah. Which when you're bootstrapping is very necessary. But we do splurge on little things like we're getting some new hang tags made that are on 100 percent recycled paper. I haven't found any of the hygienic liners that go in swimsuits that are not just plastic. So anybody has any hot tips? Email me.
Mel: I would love to find something. Packaging is still plastic, but I don't double wrap the suits. I just send it in the single envelope that you get. Just trying to cut down on waste, which also happens to be a little bit cheaper for us too, which is great.
Lauren: Yeah, I think it all makes sense. And you know, as you switch over using your old packaging until you use it up is also sensible.
Lauren: So I think a lot of people would be curious about how doing Kickstarter changes your business and changes your life when you go through it and you have such an amazing success. What was that like for you?
Mel: It was kind of surreal. I also am very grateful to my wife because I launched this Kickstarter while we were also planning our wedding.
Mel: Thank you. I'm still amazed that she agreed to marry me. But, you know, go big or go home and planning a Kickstarter - I think I spent about a year planning it beforehand.
Mel: Just researching other successful Kickstarters, what they did, how they staggered their rewards, reading horror stories. And I was actually a little bit afraid of having too much success because if we had sold another hundred suits... We shipped the last ones in October. I mean, swimsuit season was over, but I tried to set up that expectation beforehand that the different tiers would ship late. But it was it was really fun. It was mindblowing to see how excited everybody was. One really fun thing is we were on this TV show of some kind. I still don't fully understand what it was, but it aired in the Midwest and all of a sudden, like the grandma contingency came on and all the sudden, like I had all these backers like Nancy and Beatrice.
Kaitlynn: Oh, my God, I love this.
Mel: It was amazing. And it was just it was really fun to see the diversity not just in like size and gender, but just the diversity in age, just way. I think we send a suit to every single state in the continental United States except for Nevada maybe or Delaware. We got a huge range and it was really, really fun to watch that happen.
Lauren: Wow. These suits are totally grandma friendly, now that I think about it.
Mel: Oh, yeah.
Kaitlynn: I was just thinking like actually my nephew would fit into an extra small. I don't even know if you need to make kids sizes.
Mel: Oh, my gosh, I like gasp and laugh because I - thinking about expanding is so intimidating when we've been sold out for the past month of three of our top sellers. I'm still trying to figure out how to scale.
Kaitlynn: Yeah, sure, that takes time too.
Lauren: Do you think you'll be able to scale with your current supplier?
Mel: I hope so. We're talking with them about them hiring another sewer or two and trying to figure out what that looks like. They have a couple of other brands that they also work with that seem to be doing pretty well.
Kaitlynn: Cool. Interesting.
Mel: Yeah. I've just also really appreciated the fact that they're women owned, their super size inclusive, they didn't balk when we originally were just gonna do up to 2X and then I immediately realized no, we need to go bigger. They were like, yeah of course, let's do it.
Kaitlynn: I love that.
Lauren: So your first run ever. How many sizes did you do?
Mel: 10. Because we did extra small through 5 X, which is what we still do today.
Lauren: Wow. I'm high five-ing you from here.
Mel: Yeah, I didn't do the math when I first made it. At one point we had already decided to do that, and I was like, wait a second, if I have one of every suit in stock I have to house like 60 suits on hand just to have one. And I was like, oh, shit.
Lauren: Oh, wow. I didn't even think about that. When you add the color ways.
Kaitlynn: Multiplication, man.
Mel: Yeah. English major - bad decisions. Yeah. Yeah. And again, like, God bless my wife. There was a point when in our apartment, we just had swimsuits like stuffed in every drawer. And she was like, you gotta get an office.
Lauren: You must be so organized by now, though.
Mel: I try. I'm glad that this is not a video.
Lauren: If it was a video, everybody would know that we were filming in our closets with our dogs. Like Mel is the only one here who's sitting in a real chair.
Kaitlynn: Or wearing real pants.
Mel: Oh, my God, it's amazing.
Lauren: Mel, what are some of the hardest challenges of starting your own business?
Mel: I think I underestimated how much time it would take. And customer service is hard for me, to be totally honest. It's the best, it's the highest high, it's the lowest low. Where I'll get an email from someone who says that they put on the suit and burst into tears because they haven't worn a swimsuit in 10 years, and they feel comfortable. I've actively cried reading people's emails to me. But then there's also the kind of mean ones where I think that people forget that it's just me and my wife answering these emails. Like we're not a corporation. We care, you know. And when we did, I did make up a customer service person who I call Nate, who sometimes deals with people.
Kaitlynn: This is my favorite story.
Mel: Well, I can't I cannot claim this genius idea for myself. I read about two female founders who made up a male founder to deal with people because it was so frustrating. They just had to invent someone who was this, you know, electronic person who was male into the world because it was so frustrating. Maybe there's some people who think Mel is a 50 year old man. I doubt it. If you look at the website, I think it's pretty obvious who I am. But yeah. That's been the most overwhelming part, I think is that feeling of displeasing customers because you care. I wouldn't do this if I didn't care about it. I have a day job. This is my quote unquote side hustle. So it takes a lot of time. It's a lot of evenings and weekends and well, it hurts.
Kaitlynn: It started as a labor in love for you because you did it for somebody that you care about.
Mel: Yeah. Oh, yeah, absolutely.
Lauren: It's so interesting.
Mel: It was very unexpected. And I still like somedays, um, I just look at my wife and I'm like, did you ever expect to be married to someone who owned a swimsuit company?
Kaitlynn: Did you see this coming?
Kaitlynn: I'm still in love with Nate right now. I can't get over it. Do you feel like this is - not off topic, But I'm just curious, do you feel like you got a different response from people as Nate than you would have as Mel?
Mel: Oh, I'm sure. Yeah, absolutely. Also, Nate can be like kind of a dick. And he doesn't have to use exclamation marks.
Kaitlynn: He doesn't have to be like. Hope you have a great day!
Mel: Oh, yeah. No, no. If I feel like being terse, I just sign things Nate.
Kaitlynn: I love that.
Lauren: Well, I hope that you keep doing what you're doing because this is amazing.
Mel: Thank you.
Kaitlynn: Yeah. I'm really loving it.
Mel: Thank you. I was just so thrilled. I was browsing through your your Web site and looking at all the work that you do to help other folks working in sustainable style get attention. And I just think it's amazing. And I think this is the future of fashion. I think that fast fashion is not sustainable in any sense of the word. And this is how this is where we're moving in the future, for better or worse. Like we're running out of resources to squander. We're gonna have to be sustainable pretty soon, right?
Lauren: Yeah. And I would say that clothing like yours is at the core of it. Like when I help people narrow down their closet, the stuff that you're keeping is the stuff that makes you feel good and feel confident. And one of the things that I look for when dressing a client is always what outfits make you feel like your best self. And these swimsuits are totally that answer. It's not a swimsuit that's - you know, you're spilling out of, that you're uncomfortable in. This is a swimsuit that you put on because you feel great. So I think these are the items that become the foundation of your wardrobe.
Mel: I hope so. Thank you. Yeah, I love that. And I always hope that that's how someone feels when they put on a suit is very comfortable and confident. I mean, the term beefcake is kind of tongue in cheek. The Grandma contingency also got a little annoyed with me because they would Google "beefcake" and forget to put "swimwear" after it.
Mel: It's like, you're welcome.
Lauren: Jesus, Nancy.
Mel: Right??. Like, you know, it's cheesy. It's kind of silly. Like if you Google Beefcake, it's like a lot of gay male porn. And it was my idea was like a pinup 50s man. And I just loved the idea of ogling a dude. You know, like a dude being eye candy, because that's not what we typically think of.
Lauren: I'm picturing David Hasselhoff. That's like the only thing that comes to mind right now.
Kaitlynn: If he had a thin handlebar mustache. Oh, yes.
Mel: This was so ridiculous. And it's a term of affection between my friends and I, as we like joke, about being so beefcake because we were carrying all the groceries and, you know. So I hope that I hope that like that sense of humor and playfulness comes through in the brand. Because I think that's important. I think we all need that.
Kaitlynn: I mean, it definitely does with your marketing. The images that you guys have- I love it. I want to be there.
Mel: Oh good. OK. Well, you guys are invited to the next photo shoot.
Lauren: Yes. We're there!
Kaitlynn: Yeah. I already got my flight. Perfect.
Kaitlynn: Oh, my gosh. I love it. I already have three of my swimsuits picked out that I want to buy because they're perfect.
Lauren: KP, do you want to do the sign off today?
Kaitlynn: Yeah. Did we ever decide on a signoff?
Lauren: Not really.
Kaitlynn: Ok, well, here goes nothing. Well, everybody, that was it. Please tune in next time. And also that's all, folks.