Anna Kosturova's designs have been featured in SI, FHM, and even Hollywood movie posters.
Anna Kosturova is a household name in the close-knit world of swimwear designers, with her teeny-weeny crochet bikinis gracing the covers of Sports Illustrated and FHM. While other designers might seize on this opportunity to expand rapidly, for the blunt-speaking Slovak immigrant, less is definitely more .
“First off,” says Anna Kosturova, “love the tits.”
The bikini designer, dressed in faded and ripped black jeans, black high-heeled boots and a grey off-the-shoulder H&M top, has pulled up a picture on her laptop of Kate Upton, the young model wearing one of Kosturova’s skimpy crocheted creations. It’s early February and the image is from the forthcoming Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, that teenage boys’ wet dream – and, to those in the multibillion-dollar swimwear business, the industry’s pinnacle showcase. This year marks Kosturova’s sixth appearance in either the print or online edition of SI. Her work hit the magazine’s cover in 2008 and for 2011 she has a dozen pieces online and Upton – wearing a light blue bikini with shells and tassels – featured prominently on the magazine’s contents page. The swimsuit issue, which sells millions each year, was one half of a blockbuster month for the Slovak immigrant. As SI arrived on newsstands in mid-February, the romantic comedy Just Go With It, starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, hit No. 1 at the box office. The movie poster features Aniston in a Kosturova dress.
With all this publicity, Anna Kosturova Lucid Design Inc. could be a very big deal – if its principal wanted it to be. Instead, Kosturova maintains a bare-bones operation, with only one other full-time employee, business manager Marnie Cochrane, to keep her company at the firm’s Downtown Eastside headquarters. A wider cast of about 40 contractors, from accountants to sales reps and the workers that hand-make Kosturova’s wares at a factory in the Philippines, support the enterprise.
Kosturova imagines that eventually she’ll produce an entire lifestyle brand for beach resorts, but she actively tries to keep the business smaller than it might be. Even as her work garners attention, she shuns it, refusing to disclose more than a hint of the size of her business. Kosturova says there’s “simply no advantage” to talking numbers, lest it spark the attention of government auditors. “We have nothing to hide,” she says, but “all we can say is that the business continues to grow.”
Her fans rave. “She’s a phenomenon, to make SI every single year,” says Heather Carlos, co-owner of New York City wholesaler 3 Femme, which connects Kosturova to retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Victoria’s Secret and also hosts editors hungry for hot new pieces. 3 Femme signed on Kosturova two years ago and has made the brand its largest offering.
“Even though she’s a niche brand, editors know her, consumers know her,” says Carlos. “And she really did it on her own, started it from nothing.”
Anna Kosturova was born in 1968 in Roznava, a small city on the Slovak side of the former Czechoslovakia. A life-long hockey fan, she broke her nose as a child playing the game. Oceans and beaches, however, were her real dream. “The ocean is just – it gets me high, every time I look at it.”
She attended university in Liberec, on the Czech side of the country before it split, and earned a master of science degree in mechanical engineering, specializing in textile technology.
That engineer’s rigour and precision have served her well. While Kosturova’s effusive personality is infused with an artist’s passion – she jumps to the next sentence when only halfway finished her current thought, swears as often as an X-rated comedian, and laughs heartily and easily – creation is an exacting process: “There’s no – Whooo! – crazy-ass inspiration that shows up out of nowhere. It’s a very technical procedure for me. It’s not so glamorous. It’s literally: The brain is a computer, pack it with data, and something will fall out.”
At the age of 24 and with university finished, Kosturova decided to finally seek out the ocean, moving to Vancouver to join friends. She remembers, growing up, “something strangely whimsical about Canada” and, compared with the electric but violent culture of America, “it seemed peaceful.”
Her first job in the city was in the kitchen at The Railway Club, the downtown Vancouver music and booze institution. After rejection from the MBA program at SFU – her English wasn’t yet up for it – she enrolled in fashion arts at Vancouver Community College. After graduating, she was hired by a local clothing wholesaler as a designer to oversee two collections a year. She was introduced to the potential of crochet and, crucially, to a factory in the Philippines that supplied the wholesaler.
Kosturova makes her way to market
All the way along she knew she wanted to be her own boss. “Designing is such a personal thing,” she says amid the pile of magazines and packed racks of clothing in her studio, a second-storey brick-walled loft on the 100-block of West Hastings. “I feel like I’m spilling my guts in public. Working for others I had no control. I’d make something beautiful and if the catalogue is shot by a shitty photographer, I’m screwed. I was struggling with those control issues – I don’t know if that’s going to sound good!”
Ahead of a beach holiday in Australia, she asked the Philippines factory to make her a bikini from an idea she’d come up with on the side. Down Under, in December 2001, she got an inkling she was on to something when she drew ample attention wearing the bikini, dubbed the Beach Goddess. It was the same style that would eventually make the SI cover. “It freaked me out how much people asked me, ‘Oh my god, where’d you get that?’” says Kosturova. The fledgling businesswoman saw something of an informal market test: If these people liked it, many others would. “That was the business analysis,” she says.
Back home, Kosturova enrolled in a 12-week how-to crash course on starting your own business at BCIT, funded by an EI grant (a program now on hiatus after the federal Conservatives cut the funding). The program taught her how to create a business plan and schooled her in everything from market research and marketing strategy to cash flow projections and working capital requirements. “You know, sometimes there’s bullshit courses. Everyone at BCIT had something valuable to tell you. It put everything into perspective, money-wise. It’s: Bang, down on paper.”
“When she came in she was very motivated and had an idea that she felt would fly,” remembers Ken Takeuchi, a long-time business advisor for the program. “She had the passion. She realized she needed structure, organization, for her thinking.”
The first obstacle out of BCIT came in the form of a junior clerk at Vancity. Kosturova had taken her BCIT-vetted business plan to the credit union’s Be My Own Boss microloan program and got a flat no. Her imperfect credit history was a one-strike-you’re-out red flag. She says a missed credit card payment – incurred during those EI months when she relied on plastic to get by, living in the same loft where she now works – was to blame.
Kosturova was jarred but not so easily denied. Reared in a totalitarian state and having worked the kitchen at The Railway Club on arrival in Canada, she had an immigrant’s pluck. “If someone tells you no, don’t ever take that for an answer.” She heats up. “I got this 20-year-old loan officer . . . I could be her grandmother. She said, ‘Don’t waste both of our time.’ First of all, how can a 20-year-old decide my fucking life? I was devastated. I was like, ‘Should I hang myself? Should I blow my head off?’”
A couple of days later, she got a call, from another business advisor connected with BCIT to whom she had sent her business plan. He was impressed by the idea and encouraged Kosturova to push again at Vancity, telling her to demand more serious consideration from a senior staffer. This time she scored the loan, some $30,000, and bolstered by additional funds from friends and family she was in business.
Success came dizzyingly fast. In July 2004, Kosturova made her first pilgrimage, solo, to the SwimShow in Miami, the marquee sales event in the industry’s calendar. From her small booth Kosturova caught the attention of key buyers and editors – crochet, that bohemian curiosity from the 1970s, stood out surrounded by multi-hued Lycra offerings – and by November of that year, Anna Kosturova Lucid Design had scored its first magazine cover – lad mag FHM – with a cream-coloured bikini worn by a then little-known actress named Katherine Heigl.
It was then that the real business education began – an extended seminar in hiring the right people. Kosturova now wishes she had spent a bit more time in the capricious industry before striking out alone. Buoyed by early success, she worked to capitalize on her FHM cover, signing deals in New York and Los Angeles to bring on PR people and sales reps. She was quick to trust people who seemed to have credentials and believed in her work – and was burned just about as fast. She rues the thousands of dollars wasted on PR reps she feels did little to advance her name or product, never mind sales reps who didn’t sell. Trying to run the whole thing alone from Vancouver didn’t help.
“We had sales reps snorting coke and doing nothing. It costs you money,” she says. “Something happens, fix it, move on. You can’t draw too many conclusions from someone fucking you over.”
She calls it “the art of leaving.” “I’ve learned to pull the plug on ineffective relationships when I’m not getting what I need. You can tell if anyone is good within three months. At the beginning I had a history of staying too long with the wrong people.”
Business, meanwhile, just kept getting better. Kosturova landed a piece online in SI in 2006 and the next year found herself in the print edition. This time she wasn’t naively buoyed; she was emboldened. She had cut off the people who weren’t working. It was the real birth of a DIY ethic entwined with a go-slow mentality.
Her advice to the chastened entrepreneur as a young woman: “Don’t think you can’t do it. You can do your own PR, you can do your own this, your own that. A lot of people go, ‘I’m an artist, I don’t do sales.’”
Model Marisa Miller in the Kosturova Beach
Goddess bathing suit bottoms on the 2008 cover of
The 2008 Swimsuit Illustrated cover
Then came The Cover. Diane Smith, Sports Illustrated’s senior editor in charge of the swimsuit issue, calls it a lottery. Hundreds of designers and pieces, thousands of photographs, the dozens of models and the various locations, the subtle nuances in light.
Kosturova’s Beach Goddess design – or at least, the bottom of the bikini – made it, on supermodel Marisa Miller, topless, save for a beaded necklace. (Which led to a flood of orders and a few worried requests: “‘Can you design a top?’” Kosturova jokingly recalls the questions. “‘I’m from the smallest town in Arkansas and I don’t know if I can pull it off.’”)
Smith is a “huge fan” of Kosturova, who she credits with reinventing crochet and constantly coming up with new ideas each year. “She’s an amazing artist and you really need to be an artist to do what she’s doing,” says Smith. “It’s really special.”
The cover was “the Holy Grail,” Kosturova says. For business, it made for “a good year,” with sales rising 30 per cent. But recession intervened in 2009, and with it the heady growth came to an end. In 2010, she changed sales reps again – the 3 Femme connection was made – and Kosturova tried to do more business through her website. She also started to diversify, with the addition of a children’s line, Anna Kosturova Girl (the suggestion of an influential buyer at Barney’s), as well as cover-ups, skirts and dresses. (The latter wasn’t a recession-fighting plan, incidentally; her dresses go for $240 while the bikinis sell for around $150.) Today swimwear accounts for about half of revenue, with the other items making up the rest. Kosturova mulls ideas of expansion – crochet in house wares, covers for pillows and iPads and the like, as well as an entire beach-resort line.
One of the few quantitative hints of the business ledger that she’s let slip came long ago, before the major SI success. Kosturova told the Vancouver Sun in 2006 she expected about $700,000 in sales that year, a rare bit of press about Kosturova outside the fashion pages. Today, while she’s not buying up million-dollar homes in Vancouver, she says her living is comfortable. But with this year’s double success of SI and the Aniston movie – which, Kosturova notes, produced online sales in the ensuing six weeks “equal to 35 per cent of all our online sales in 2010” – big-time potential seems ever more likely.
Jennifer Aniston wearing a Kosturova dress on the
Just Go With It movie poster.
Still, Kosturova and Cochrane are careful not to blindly rush to capitalize. They sweat to fulfill orders, with three-quarters of the business done through their two go-to sales reps, 3 Femme in New York and Lori Schwartz in L.A., which distribute to about 150 boutiques, department stores and online retailers. The remaining orders go through Kosturova’s online store. When wholesale orders come in, Cochrane tallies them and the intricate pieces are then hand-made in the Philippines. For online orders and particularly popular items, the business keeps a warehouse stocked in Washington state to ship to U.S. customers.
For Kosturova, rapid expansion is folly. “You know what that is? It’s ego. That’s when shit goes downhill,” she explains over a late-afternoon beer in her studio. The self-made success knows there’s room to grow, to build a lifestyle brand, to do shoes, sunglasses, to dress a woman for a resort vacation – all this potential stirred by what she’s already built. Yet she is wary about chasing after it. It’s her bumpy beginnings holding her back, as well as the engineer in her, the pragmatist. She’s had minority investors from the start but inquiries from heftier financial backers have been received and, for now, parried.
“What I appreciate is the organic. I don’t want to sound like I’m hippie or some shit, but you grow as you need, rather than bang this, bang that. It’s better to start with a few variables and watch the results, correct it before it gets too complex and too many people start to depend on you. I just wanted to first learn the equation A plus B equals C.”