Small Brand Spotlight: How Two Friends Launched Their Downtown-inspired, Made In NYC Sustainable Swimwear Brand

by Freya Drohan

In what sounds like the script of a perfect reality TV show, two friends decided to turn their love for travel, fashion, and pop culture into a cool downtown-centric swimwear brand. But DOS SWIM, which is designed and made in New York City, has an abundance of substance to go with its style. Founders Shay Johnson and Paula Hess explain how a flattering fit comes first, why they went full throttle with the brand in 2020, and why Laura Harrier, Venus X, and Paloma Elsesser are fans….

You met while working together at Opening Ceremony—what were your respective roles at the time?
Paula: I was working on the design team for an in-house brand, I have specialized in knitwear and cut and sew development. I have been working in the industry for over 10 years.

Shay: I was a creative producer working with the marketing and e-commerce team. Paula and I never overlapped professionally before we started the brand. We actually met and became friends before Paula started working at Opening Ceremony.

What’s the glue that keeps your friendship together?
Paula: We come from two different worlds, have very different personalities, and different styles, but always complement each other. A true yin and yang dynamic. And it somehow just works. We are best friends before business partners and the brand is an exact representation of the two of us, both individually and together.

Shay: We share the same passion for travel and discovery which is super important to us and a big part of our DNA as a brand. We have traveled the world together and have shared so many special experiences that have bonded us together.

L-R: Shay Johnson and Paula Hess (courtesy)

When did you decide to launch something together?
Paula: Initially we just made swimsuits for ourselves to fill the void of what we were looking for in swimwear.

Shay: We both love swimwear and would often buy vintage bikinis before a trip as they felt a bit more special than what was on the market and fit better. There are a lot of minimalistic swimwear brands on the market, which are great for a certain woman but not us. We love color, trims, and added details that elevate the swimsuit. We wanted to make swimwear that actually fit well, celebrated different body types, and represented us. We officially decided to launch DOS SWIM after many trips and responses from our friends wanting to buy one for themselves.

You started Dos Swim to create the type of swimwear you couldn’t find yourselves. What’s the brand vibe all about?
Both: We try to be as real and down to earth as possible! We love a good splurge, however we believe in balance. We wanted to create high quality swimwear with interesting details at an affordable price. It’s super important to show that our styles can be versatile and not only made for one type of girl. We love to feature our community and the girls who love DOS SWIM. Authenticity and realness is key in today’s world! I think the more down to earth you are, the more people draw to you because you are giving them something that is attainable.

How is Dos Swim different to what’s on the market?
Bottoms, specifically, were always a point of contention, they are either too low on the leg opening or too high, exposing too much or too little. We wanted to fix that. Fitting swimsuits takes a lot of time, since there is not much fabric to work with, ¼” here and there makes a huge difference. Getting the right shape of a swimsuit bottom is a real feat. We have spent hours fitting our swimsuits to create the best fit for that specific style. There are so many varying body types and not all styles look great on every person. It’s about finding the right fit for your body type and ultimately what makes you feel the most sexy and confident. Which we keep in mind when making specific design decisions. We love vibrant colors and prints which are a huge part of our collections. We try to create a really strong vibe. This past summer collection was inspired by surfers from the early 2000s and was sporty and sexy with bright bold colors and prints.

Paula Hess and Shay Johnson (courtesy)

What references are always on your mood board?
The Vogue Italia archive! We always refer back to our travels which is where we are the most inspired. As well as NYC: the people, the energy… there is nothing like it! And our friends. We are surrounded by a really talented and creative group of people who give us so much inspiration.

What was the process like trying to find suppliers in NYC to align with what you wanted?
It was a process and still is. We were recommended a few places from colleagues, but ultimately we had to figure it out on our own. Not one place has everything you are looking for or the level of quality that you want. We look for quality over quantity! It’s frustrating at times but we are getting there. We have our suppliers that we have been working with the past year and are constantly building the list as we grow.

Tell us about the sustainability and transparency ethos that underpins Dos Swim?
To be more sustainable, we do small limited production runs. That has proven to be less wasteful and more exciting as there is only a certain number per available. Once we sell out, it’s gone! All of the prints in our collection are carefully sourced deadstock lycra. There are so many amazing printed fabrics that have already been produced and are not being used. For solid colorways, we often use Italian ECONYL® which is made from 100% regenerated nylon from post consumer materials. Keeping as much [of the process] as possible located in NYC is very important to us—we need direct contact to the Garment District as sourcing the fabric and trims is a big part of our design process. We need to see and feel everything in person. Our factory—which is a woman-owned, all-female team—is also located in the Garment District. It is great to have direct contact with them as we are super involved in the process.

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What does a perfect day spent in a bikini look like for you?
If it’s on a hot summer day in NYC, going to the beach until the sun sets with a homemade rum punch in hand. Or it could be a day by the pool in Miami, on a boat in Mexico, or somewhere on a tropical island. A perfect day in a Dos bikini does not exist in one place.

Did you quit your jobs during COVID to focus on Dos Swim?
We did not quit, but it happened to be during the time we both transitioned to working freelance. It was a strange and scary time, as we had no idea what was going to happen next. I think we had the same feelings as the rest of the world. During quarantine, we decided to really try and push the brand and make it full-time. It is a lot of work for two people, so this time has actually helped us immensely to focus, plan ahead, and move in the right direction. We are still unsure what to expect, as this year has by far been one of the craziest in our lifetime. But we are excited about the future and growth of the brand!

You have some pretty high profile fans! What’s it like to see your designs on a celeb so soon after launching the brand? Who would you love to see wear Dos Swim?
It was nothing we planned or certainly pushed at the time, it just happened , we created a brand where we could share our love for travel, art, and fashion with our friends. We wanted to build something that people could relate to and made you feel invited. Rihanna would be a dream! She’s iconic!!

What’s next? Do you have any plans to collaborate with people?
We are launching our Resort ’21 collection soon and have some exciting things coming in 2021. Stay tuned!

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