After traveling to Australia, Martha Duerr fell in love with the Aussie approach to swimwear.
“There’s more whimsy about it, more print, more color. They really have fun with it versus American swimwear, which is more practical, utilitarian,” said the Hilo native.
At the time, Duerr had been living in San Francisco and designing for Levi’s and Old Navy for five years while dreaming of starting her own brand. Her meditations on how to bridge the gap between leisure and active swimwear to build a better swimsuit led to the launch of Pali Swim.
She recently returned home, for a working vacation, this time to visit local boutiques that might be interested in carrying her line. To date, Kailua’s Island Bungalow and the Honolulu-based online shop Echo & Atlas have picked up her Pali Swim designs.
The company is named for the pali overlooking Honolii, where Duerr grew up. Her aim was to help women swim, surf and bodyboard in comfort without having to worry about losing their tops or bottoms.
“You can look cute but keep your top on, which is hard to do with a lot of brands,” Duerr said. “Naomi Gassel and I started Pali Swim after both deciding to take a chance on designing something we’re really passionate about.”
She and Gassel, a friend and amateur surfer, met while they were both working for Levi’s.
They found a small factory in San Francisco that specializes in swimwear, and the staff there contributed to the fit of Pali Swim suits.
“They’re women who know what it’s like to be in the water, so the pattern maker, the seamstresses will try it on and I’ll tweak the designs on the spot. We try to make our swimsuits for the average person, the girl with a booty, the girl with curves.”
The Pali Swim inaugural collection launched last month and is made up of a one-piece swimsuit, two tops (bikini and tank styles) and two bottoms (bikini and high-waisted versions), all fully lined for modesty, plus two rash guards and a towel hoodie for warmth out of the water. Prices range from $68 to $148.
Pali Swim’s first collection is ambitious in taking on more than swimsuits, but Duerr said that working for large clothing brands put her in the habit of designing well-rounded collections.
“I’m used to doing a ton of designs really fast,” she said. “I’d design five seasons for Old Navy in one year.”
Duerr said she got help sourcing the terry cloth for her hoodie, which she has nicknamed “the Snuggie of the sea,” from her Hilo sewing teacher, Tammy Bennett.
“Growing up in Hilo, the community really supported my love for fashion,” she said. At Fabric Impressions, Bennett taught her how to customize patterns at the age of 9, and from there she was unstoppable.
“In high school I somehow convinced my Catholic school to include a fashion class in their strict curriculum.”
Because of her positive experience studying sewing for nine years, she still entertains thoughts of running a sewing school, but a different world awaits.
Now 27, Duerr left Hawaii at 18 to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, where, after four years of cold weather, she was ready for another move.
“My sister Sasha Duerr is a professor at the California College of the Arts, and I was always calling her from New York, crying because it was too much of everything, too much cold. She told me I had to move out west, and I ended up going home for summer before moving to San Francisco.”
When Duerr expressed interest in starting her own line, she found support from Sasha, an artist, knitwear designer and author of two books on natural dyes, “The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes” and “Natural Color: Vibrant Plant Dye Projects for Your Home and Wardrobe.”
“She always joked that I own more swimsuits than socks, so she was stoked,” Duerr said.
Sasha Duerr hand-dyed the fringed ombre Cabana straw hats ($48) offered in the Pali Swim online shop. The hibiscus-dye hats are already sold out. Others dyed with madder root (light peach) and oak gall (light charcoal gray) are still available.
These days, Duerr said she spends summers in her element: in a swimsuit at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, where she said the water is between 55 and 70 degrees and everyone else is in a wet suit. The cold would likely be off-putting for anyone else from Hawaii, but, she said, “It’s nothing compared to the East Coast.”
For more information, visit paliswim.com.