Keri O’Shea was on vacation with her family at the Round Hill Resort in Jamaica in 2012 when her oldest son pointed out a man in a tight, white, European-style swimsuit. “You have good taste,” she told her son. “That swimsuit is Ralph Lauren.” A year later, while on vacation at Club Med in the Dominican Republic, she saw that same form-fitted suit everywhere, only not as elegant. “They were dingy green and camouflage ugly brown, just dreadful colors,” she recalls. She knew she could design them better, in nicer patterns and fabrics. “I started thinking, ‘Oh, these men need a new line. They need a high-quality, sleek, glamorous suit.”
O’Shea, a former chemist with a background in interior design, and a mother-of-four, started designing some samples in 2014. “I felt the desire to do something with my life besides be a mom,” she says. She was in her mid-40s at the time and hadn’t worked since before she was married. So she researched online and found a fabricator to produce her samples. She contacted an old acquaintance based in Albany who worked in the garment industry, with hopes of manufacturing in Troy, NY. But, after much back and forth, O’Shea’s contact couldn’t commit to the project. The samples sat in her closet.
The hunger is different later in life than at 23, when [building a business] is all you have and you’ve put all of your resources into it.
She vented her tribulations to her friend Heather Durst while taking their sons to the Norwalk Aquarium, and immediately, her idea lured Durst in. Durst saw photos of the samples on O’Shea’s phone. “I fell in love,” Durst says. “I knew these suits were special, different. We really felt like providing men and children with a swimsuit in which they can be fully themselves.” And so, their amphibious swim line Blù, and their children’s line Sweet Cheeks, was born.
They started with a small initial investment, $8,500 total, which went to inventory, trademarking, and establishing an LLC. (They both mention, however, that out-of-pocket investments are still ongoing.) They also each paid personal lawyer’s fees for negotiating the ownership of their business: Keri, who is the founder, owns more of the company, but all decisions and investments are split 50/50. “I hadn’t written big checks like that, $5,000 for this, or $2,000 for a lawyer,” Durst says. Doing so made them commit to seeing Blù through. Elsewhere, they try to conserve their spending. “We work from home,” Durst says. “We keep all our suits in my barn at my house.” They worked between mom duties, while the kids were at school or napping.
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They started with trunk shows, hosting them in friends’ homes, and then in an office building in Times Square that they secured for free through Durst’s husband. They invited everyone they knew. They joined the holiday boutique at O’Shea’s daughter’s high school, which had a participation fee of $100. And whenever O’Shea would travel—visiting family, supporting her daughter’s lacrosse tournaments—she would bring suits with her to local boutiques, asking the shop owners to sell them. “We’ve done old-fashioned leg work,” Durst says.
It was their collaboration with Massachusetts-based children’s clothing store Petit Peony, however, that boosted their retail channels and brought Sweet Cheeks into department stores like Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, brick-and-mortar retailers like J. Crew, and online channels like children’s e-tailer Maisonette. O’Shea had met Petit Peony’s owner Kate Bowen in Palm Beach, FL, bonding over their shared interest in parent/child swimsuit sets. “If that connection didn’t happen, we would not have been in department stores,” Durst says. O’Shea and Durst hired Petit Peony, paying an undisclosed monthly fee, not only for the collaboration but for the education. “When we paid for the collaboration, we paid for a lot more,” Durst says. “We got an express route to learning the fashion industry, learning how to make certain clothing, how to pick designs, and how strategy works.” Sweet Cheeks x Petit Peony launched in August of 2019. (Durst and O’Shea own all the designs from the collaboration.)
Then, COVID hit. Shops that had made orders in March started backpedaling. Neiman Marcus and J. Crew both filed for Chapter 11. Brick-and-mortar stores, which were already struggling to straddle old and new worlds of retail, closed their doors. “We were really scared,” O’Shea said. They fell short of their annual projected revenues. Trunk shows that they had signed onto were canceled, and their contracts with the brick-and-mortar stores ended, though they are happy to announce they will be launching independently on Maisonnette—their biggest revenue channel—later this year.
We’re much less emotional, less in our head.
O’Shea and Durst see this new era as their time to innovate. “You can’t think like 1985,” Durst jokes. “You have to be able to adapt.” They’ve redesigned their website and doubled down on marketing, gifting suits—through the help of willing friends and a very small marketing budget—to celebrities like Eva Longoria, Jessica Alba, and Alessandra Ambrosio, who have shared the suits online. They’ve redesigned their business model for 2021. They’ve contracted “Blu reps,” women brand representatives who will sell their suits, split the earnings, and grow with the company. “Women need to work, especially in this economy,” says Durst. “We’re looking to invest in women and hope that they invest in us and we can lift up as many around the country as we can with our product.” They’re collaborating on a new suit with Petit Peony this Spring and are in talks with other collaborators for summer 2021.
Reflecting on having started Blu in their mid-40s, both women assert that with age comes more patience and less ego. “We’re much less emotional, less in our head,” says Durst. Age also brings security, both financial and psychological, which makes for a more grounded approach to their relationship as co-founders and as friends. And having tech-savvy teenagers who are naturally skilled at Instagram is helpful too. But starting a company in one’s 40s often comes with responsibilities—marriage, children—that younger founders are privileged not to consider. “When you have a spouse who can support you, there is an ownership to that spouse as well. If I’m taking time away from my family, I have to own that and justify it,” Durst says. “The hunger is different later in life than at 22, 23, when that’s all you have and you’ve put all of your resources into it.”
O’Shea’s and Durst’s main advice for aspiring female entrepreneurs is to find your raison d’etre. “You have to like it. If you don’t like it, don’t do it,” Durst says, because it is an all-encompassing endeavor, one that doesn’t stop in face of responsibilities or pandemics. “Keri and I may not work nine hours a day, but we do work seven days a week. And when you really believe in something, that motivates you, it shows through in your product.”
Keri O’Shea and Heather Durst’s advice for women starting their own business:
1. If you have a partner, choose someone you like and trust, and legally negotiate the ownership. “It’s like a prenuptial agreement,” Heather says. “It’s icky, it’s not really fun, but you have to have that conversation.”
2. Trademark your name, and protect your logo.
3. If you collaborate with another company, ensure contracts. “People tend to forget what was said,” Keri says.
4. Trust yourself, but lose your ego. “You think you’re right, or your partner thinks they’re right, or your manufacturer thinks they’re right—you have to check that at the door,” Heather says. “Sometimes I can’t check myself in a moment of emotion, and Keri can tell me to calm down, and I do.”