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Agua Bendita

Handmade swimwear from the colourful scraps of Colombia

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Agua Bendita makes super-luxury handmade bikinis, inspired by their Colombian roots: gorgeous, sophisticated, and alive with colour and innovative fabrics. Catalina Álvarez and Mariana Hinestroza founded the brand whilst studying fashion, inspired by the scraps of brightly coloured fabrics discarded by Catalina's father's clothing factory. Nearly a decade later, their suits are seen in stores around the world and on celebrities on the beaches of the world. What makes them particularly special are the contributions of Colombian artisans, 700 single mothers with a passion for making beautiful clothes.

Agua Bendita was founded in 2003 by Catalina and Mariana while they were studying fashion design at the local Colegiatura Colombiana University. For a class project, they came up with the idea of taking discarded offcuts of fabrics and sewing them together to make bathing suits.

The idea of designing hand-made swimsuits from sample fabrics caught on. It quickly grew from a university project to the swimsuit brand all of their friends wanted to be wearing. As demand grew, they reached out to large textile manufactures in Medellín and Bogotá, and asked them for fabric samples, the more quirky and colourful the better, which many of them gave the fledging designers for free. They continued to produce amazing, individual handmade items.

Several years and some domestic success later, Alvarez and Hinestroza decided that they needed to reach customers outside of Colombia and travelled to the 2006 Miami Fashion Week. Their exhibition display was tiny and tucked away in a corner of the event, but an editor of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition from stumbled upon their small collection and loved what he saw. A few months later, SI’s Swimsuit Edition featured Marissa Miller and Bar Rafaeli wearing Agua Bendita swimsuits. “The day that edition came out I had more than 400 or 500 messages from people who were interested in the swimsuits,” says Alvarez.

When describing her and her-co-founder’s inspiration for the style embodied by the company’s suits, Alvarez looks to the  her fellow countrymen and women – their happiness, extroversion, and diversity, especially in the way they enjoy their country’s warmth and natural environment. In a phrase, the founders of Agua Bendita have tried to embody “part of the essence” of their country through their design.

Today Agua Bendita is sold in over 50 countries around the world, from small boutiques to department stores such as Nieman Marcus. The brand is a favourite of fashion models such as Kendall Jenner, Bar Rafaeli, Irina Shayk and Candice Swanepoel; as well as by Colombian models María Fernanda Yepes and Ana Sofía Henao.

The two founders have worked hard to create a program called 700 Hearts. The program employs single mothers that have been called the soul of the company as well as heroes. It is their to improve the life of every woman they employ. Over 700 of these local women, with a passion for handmade items, work hard to put together each piece in the Agua Bendita collection. Beads and other decorations are carefully added to the swimsuits, one piece at a time. The 700 Hearts are meticulous at their job and ensure that those who purchase these swimsuits are getting the best possible product. They are excellent and combining modern and traditional styles in each swimsuit they create.

The Medellin-based company now ships more than 150,000 bikinis per year, plus 50,000 other items of beachwear. At the traditional Colombian-style red tiled house that is Agua Bendita’s headquarters in the green hills on the outskirts of Medellin, the founders have continued to expend, bringing in a CEO to look after the financial side of the business. Alejandro Ceballos admits that the company had looked into moving production abroad, to India, China and Bali, but ruled it out.

“It didn’t make economic sense” says Ceballos in an interview with then BBC. “There’s not such a big difference in the pricing, but also we do not want to be investing in developing suppliers abroad. “That would take a lot of time, a lot of effort, and we wouldn’t have the capacity to control their production the same way as we can do here in Colombia.”

To reach its customers, Agua Bendita sells wholesale, as well as through its own shops in Colombia, franchises round the world, and direct global sales via its website. Although ecommerce currently only accounts for 6% of revenues, the company says it is rapidly increasing.

With the global swimwear market now a multi-billion dollar industry, Marguerite Le Rolland, a fashion and retail consultant at market research group Euromonitor, says that Agua Bendita has been clever to create a “recognisable visual identity”. “It is a cluttered market. As a way to stand out, swimwear brands have to think about a particular design that will make them easy to recognise,” she says. “Having a recognisable visual identity means that the promotion of your brand will be done by all these fashion bloggers and Instagrammers.”

However, the founders say that the company is not resting on its laurels, and is instead continuing to expand the range of swimwear it sells that doesn’t stick to the house style. “We cannot just sell birds and flowers,” Alvarez says. “We have to have a perfect mix, understanding that there are so many trends, and sometimes you have to be part of those trends.

The company also plans to expand beyond swimwear and beachwear to “athleisure”, clothing that can be worn both while doing exercise or simply as casual wear. Alvarez adds that it also wants to expand its range of clothes for children and men, and that selling online will be a key focus. “Ecommerce is very important to these ideas, because I think it has no barriers, no limits.”

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