How This Colombian’s Near-Death Experience Led Her to Launch a Swimwear Brand

 

After many long winter months of swimwear brands sliding into my DMs on Instagram to model for them or feature them, only one caught my eye—Veranera—an e-commerce site and marketing platform that sells luxury Colombian swimwear. 

One of the reasons why Veranera stands out from other swimwear companies is that it uses these three very high standards when picking which brands to sell: social responsibility, quality and design. All of the brands that they represent have a social responsibility project. One of them, Airavata, employs women who are in prison in Medellin, Colombia, to do the art of embroidery on the swimwear. The women get paid and are even able to support their families. Designer of Airavata Carolina Ganan went through a long and difficult bureaucratic process to be able to employ women in prison. 

So to hear how Veranera came about directly from its founder Laura Velasquez, on a sunny day in May, I head to the Wing Soho, a co-working space for women. I almost walk past the entrance of the space because it only has a tiny sign “The Wing” on the door. Once I take the elevator to the fifth floor, a sunlit oasis for women opens up. Sitting on a plush armchair, I wait for Laura, observing the decor: the plants and all of the paintings hanging on the walls. Many women walk back and forth—each one of them more stunning and stylish than the other. Is there a dress code for “cool” here? 

Finally, Laura comes out to meet me—a petite woman with shiny long brown hair, wearing a striped shirt and white jeans. She gives me a warm hug and smiles with her commercial-worthy white smile. 

Laura Velasquez, founder of Veranera Swimwear. Photo: Vedant Gupta for The Urban Watch

I notice a neon sign “No Man’s Land” by the bathroom and think of my photographer, who’s running late and who’s going to be one of the only men in this space. But in a world where women still make barely 81 cents for every dollar a man working full-time earns, and where it’s mostly men holding CEO titles—it’s okay for a man to feel a little bit uncomfortable, surrounded by all the self-funded business women. Laura takes me to a communal table and I meet her intern Tamara, who’s also Colombian. When Vedant, the photographer, arrives, he points out that it’s funny the three of us are wearing stripes. We didn’t even notice that before and chuckle. After checking out the conference rooms, we decide on a sunlit corner with couches for the interview. 

Laura is camera shy and talks about herself with humility. She is originally from the coffee region of Colombia and was raised in the city of Pereira. When she was 18 years old, she moved to New Jersey to become proficient in English in order to attend college. She went to University of North Carolina at Charlotte and earned a dual degree in International Business & Finance. While still in college, she was recruited by Bank of America, where she worked until 2016. She left the bank looking for a career and lifestyle change and went on a Euro trip.

At first sight, no one can tell that behind Laura’s smile hides a lot of trauma. In Mykonos, Greece, she had a terrible accident and was airlifted to the hospital and then flown to the U.S. on a flatbed. She endured seven surgeries in seven months and had to learn how to walk again. 

In December of that year, Laura was supposed to get married—she never canceled the wedding. “The doctor said I might not be able to walk down the aisle,” she says, “He even told me—don’t drink champagne because you’re probably going to pass out.” But she was determined and walked down that aisle just fine.

In October, her friend was getting married in the Caribbean. That was the first time she traveled since the accident. Only then Laura realized she wouldn’t be able to wear bikinis that she loved so much because the accident left her with a huge scar on her hip. “Determined to get my old life back, I made it my mission to find the perfect one-piece that would make me feel as beautiful and confident as bikinis once did,” Laura says. 

After an arduous search, she finally found one at a boutique in New York City—a red one-piece that fit her perfectly. She checked the tag and to her surprise, discovered that it was a Colombian brand, called Peixoto. Laura remember this moment as the light-bulb moment for Veranera Swimwear, and now they sell Peixoto, too.

Colombian swimwear is very recognized within the country, but not in the U.S. Laura realized there was space in the American market to capitalize on by creating an e-commerce platform that sells Colombian designers’ swimwear. Given how difficult it was for her to find a swimsuit in the middle of October in New York City, she later surveyed many women and found out they had the same problem. Veranera could solve it. Selling a variety of stylish one-pieces was also really important to Laura so that women could cover whatever they wanted to cover. At the time, one-piece swimsuits weren’t that popular, but in the last couple of years they’ve become a hot trend. 

It’s hard not to notice all of these new shiny swimwear brands popping up on Instagram or pictures of model Emily Ratajkowski wearing her brand Inamorata’s bikinis. The swimwear market has been growing at a moderate pace since 2010 and in 2019 is worth over 20 billion dollars globally. The idea that “every body is a beach body” is becoming much more embraced and it’s a great thing for a more inclusive swimwear market. 

According to Edited’s data, there are many factors driving the growth, such as increased participation in exercise, growing emerging markets like China and India and a boom in air travel. Even a festival like Coachella has an influence on the market because many influencers there just wear a one-piece swimsuit or a bikini as a top (you can also wear a one-piece as a bodysuit for yoga). 

But it’s the global luxury e-commerce retailers that add to the growth of the swimwear market the most. Their customers span the planet, including loyal Chinese markets, and travel frequently. Farfetch has increased its women’s swim offering by 349 percent and Matches by 288 percent. On average, a luxury swimsuit costs around $300 and keeping an affordable luxury price point is important. The most expensive swimsuit right now on Veranera’s website is Airavata’s for $245. 

Airavata Usuzumi bikini

Veranera sells swimwear from 11 brands, but they’re going to narrow it down to smaller and up-and-coming designers while adding 100 percent Colombian made jewelry. By representing Colombian designers, Veranera wants to bring more awareness to Colombian swimwear. “When people think about swimwear, I want them to think about Colombia,” Laura says.

She is so passionate about what she does that she could talk about it for hours. Only after we are done recording the interview, she remembers to mention that she’s considering getting a Master’s degree in fashion and launching her own swimwear line. 

Laura reminds us that there’s no shame in quitting and starting over. She was a banker once, working crazy hours and making a lot of money, but numbers didn’t bring her joy. Now she’s making an impact in the Colombian communities.

“My favorite part of running this business is knowing that even on a small scale we are helping Colombian talent share their artistry with international markets while bringing a little piece of happiness to our customers,” she says.

 

Demi Vitkute

Co-Founder

Demi is a Lithuania-born, America-educated, New York-based journalist and editor, Columbia Journalism grad, and co-founder of The Urban Watch Magazine. "I love New York because living in this city feels like holding the entire world in my palm," she said. Like Alice Munro, she believes that the constant happiness is curiosity.

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