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Making a splash

  • COURTESY MAUI GIRL
    At top, swimwear designer Terra Christa Stewart models her mother Debbie Wilson's Maui Girl bikini. The design was handpainted onto model Shannon Click for the 2011 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Joanne Gair has been painting suits onto four to six SI models a year since 1999.
  • COURTESY DEBBIE WILSON
    Terra Christa Stewart, the daughter of Maui Girl's Debbie Wilson, started her own swimsuit company, Terra Christa. Two suits, including this one, are also featured in the 2011 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
  • SI.COM
    The design was handpainted onto model Shannon Click, above, for the 2011 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Joanne Gair has been painting suits onto four to six SI models a year since 1999.
  • SI.COM
    2011 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
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Rodeo wear or bikinis?

Debbie Wilson could have taken her Maui Girl boutique in either direction, but with the 1980s windsurfing boom at Hookipa Beach, swimsuits won out, giving Sports Illustrated readers an eyeful in recent years.

This marks the fourth year Maui Girl swimsuits have graced the pages of Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue, which hit newsstands Tuesday.

Other local companies featured in the hot-selling issue are four suits by Maui-based Letarte Swimwear, Kailua-based Hula-la!’s Modern Love and jewelry by Ki-ele..

Maui was one of seven sites serving as backdrops for the models.

Most exciting for Wilson is that one of her suit designs was painted onto a model by "trompe l’oeil" body-painting artist Joanne Gair, who has painted four to six suits onto models in every Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition since 1999. Maui Girl’s suit is the first from Hawaii chosen for the honor. Before hooking up with Sports Illustrated, Gair was best known for painting Demi Moore’s birthday-suit cover for Vanity Fair in 1992.

Of the Maui Girl swimsuit, Gair said on SI.com, "If you look closely, there are a lot of little pinholes and spots painted within spots. This one definitely was a great deal of work."

Wilson’s also pleased she’ll be sharing some of the accolades with her 24-year-old daughter, Terra Christa Stewart, who started her own swimsuit company, Terra Christa. Stewart’s suits are also included in the issue.

Otherwise, creating swimsuits for Sports Illustrated has become old hat for Wilson. It has also become an industry in itself. Every year, come summer, she’ll drop everything she’s doing to focus only on Sports Illustrated, starting with a trip to L.A. to gather materials. This year she created 167 original designs just for the magazine editors’ consideration. It’s gotten to the point where they now send her a list of themes to work on.

But not too long ago she was a wannabe trying to figure out how to get into their pages.

"I had been sending them suits for two years before I got anything in. I was getting discouraged, but rather than give up, it was time to get down. Let me put all of myself into it and see what happened."

In 2008 she customized 60 suits. The year after that, she created 120 different suits. Last year she sent in more than 160.

"When I realized they didn’t have to be practical, that gave me creative license to make suits that didn’t have to go in the water, so I could go wild. Some are just costumes. I made one this year with wild boar’s teeth, and there’s one top using shark’s teeth."

WILSON WOULD have done it for the thrill of seeing her pieces in the magazine, so that first year, she didn’t even think of the attention it would bring her business.

"I didn’t realize the magazine stays on store racks all year long, and now we’re in their calendar, and for the last two years we’ve been in their hardback coffee-table book. With Twitter, Facebook and everything, it’s like a little gold mine."

She said she had an anxiety attack after watching a 45-minute special on CNBC that took viewers behind the scenes in putting the issue together. "They took 155,000 pictures of 25,000 bathing suits from people like Ralph Lauren, Betsey Johnson, Perry Ellis and Debbie Wilson, a little schmuck no one heard of. The special had 66 million viewers, and I’m just a little guy.

"What it tells me is that if I can do it, anyone can do it," said Wilson, who arrived in the islands as a 17-year-old from Maryland in 1969. "It takes perseverance. Everyone wants success but they want it right now. That’s not a recipe for success," she said.

"I didn’t go to school for fashion. I went to Leeward Community College and the University of Hawaii and majored in recreation, but I always had an eye for fashion."

All the while she was going to school, she was collecting vintage aloha shirts she found at Salvation Army stores. When she moved to Maui, she opened The Clothes Addict in Paia, stocking it with those vintage shirts as well as bikinis she made under the Maui Girl label and cowboy shirts, reflecting the years she’d spent surfing, playing soccer and riding rodeo, including taking first-place wahine bull-riding honors at the Ulupalakua Rodeo in 1979.

A New York Times article in the 1980s put her on the map, and Maui’s celebrity visitors — including Ringo Starr, Journey’s Steve Perry, Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley — flocked to her store.

Eventually, she sold out of the vintage shirts, and while her cowboy shirts fashioned from vintage silks and kimono fabric were popular, bikinis were even more popular. She eventually changed her shop’s name to Maui Girl to avoid confusion.

And the celebs keep coming. Recent shoppers have included Courtney Love, Paris Hilton and author Stephen King, who rested in a chair while his daughter shopped.

Maui Girl’s made-in-Brazil action suits sell for $84 with mix-and-match tops and bottoms. Boutique suits made on Maui sell for $150 to $200, and some of the one-of-a-kind Sports Illustrated suits will sell for $200 to $250. The most arty are hung on the store walls for decor, "and people go wild," Wilson said.

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