In the late 1990s, Orange County became a serious player in the fashion industry. With major surf and sportswear brands like Quiksilver, Billabong and Volcom calling it home, insiders gave the county a nickname: Velcro Valley, referencing the Velcro fly used on board shorts.
Monica Wise, at that time a rookie bikini designer, was lured by the California laid-back lifestyle and the rich history of beach culture. So in 2000, she packed up her swimwear company, L*SPACE, moved from New York to Orange County, and opened shop in Santa Ana. “I knew I had to root myself right in the heart of Orange County in order to keep my finger on the pulse,” Wise says. She was right: Since that well-timed move, L*SPACE has grown to become a major player in the world of women’s swimwear.
These days, her bikini brand graces the pages of multiple fashion and fitness magazines. What’s more, L*SPACE was named the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association’s “Swim Brand of the Year” for seven consecutive years, from 2007 to 2013, and was named the “Mercedes Benz Presents Designer of the Year” during Swim Week in Miami in 2010. “We may have been rooted in surf industry, but we evolved into a contemporary brand,” Wise says.
Growing up in a small mid-western town in Ohio, Wise says she “lived” for the warm months. As soon as she could, Wise moved to Florida, where she started her bikini business in a small store making one-of-a-kind suits. “I had a love affair with bikinis, and I was constantly on the beach,” Wise says. “It just became a natural thing for me to become involved in bikini design.”
After a short stint in New York, she landed in Orange County, where she decided to keep her production local, rather than manufacturing overseas or in Mexico, like her competitors. Wise wanted the ability to turn orders around quickly, and having a local factory would help meet that goal. But more than that, she wanted to be able to visit her production line regularly to “make sure the quality was perfection.” To this day, every L*SPACE bikini comes out of the factory in Santa Ana— and quality of fit is still a top priority. “Nothing is worse than an ill-fitting bikini,” Wise says. “If it doesn’t fit right, you won’t wear it. It’s such a small amount of fabric, so it has to be perfect. Fit is everything.”
L*SPACE is also known for the “hand,” or feel, of the fabrics the company uses. Wise draws on fabrics from around the world, but mostly from Europe, and people have told her that they can pick out one of her swimsuits just by the feel of it. The same could be said about the prints and colors in the line, which are fun and vivid.
Wise finds the majority of her inspiration during her travels. A fringe accessory bag that she spotted 9 years ago inspired her to design a fringe bikini, which became an iconic style the brand has been known for. “Ideas come from everywhere! You can find inspiration in your daily life,” she says. It was love at first sight after spending an afternoon in Corona del Mar when I first moved to California. I was blown away with the coastal seaside vibe. So it’s no surprise that the Orange County lifestyle heavily influences her line. “It’s critical to the brand that our suits give off that California cool,” she says.
These days, she knows that women in California —and everywhere—want their suits to serve multiple purposes. A woman might wear a bikini top, for example, under an open-back T-shirt, even when there’s no pool or beach in sight. That’s why Wise has included clever details on the back of many of her suits — like crochet panels on racerbacks, pretty crossing straps or double bands in colorful prints. She’s included several bralette styles, a trend she says “won’t go out of style anytime soon because it’s so practical.” Like the swimsuits, L*SPACE’s new clothing line, introduced three years ago, is trendy and timeless. The tank dresses, maxi dresses, tunics, shorts and pants, meant to be worn over a swimsuit, are “intended to take a woman from the pool to the beach to dinner,” Wise says. And if Wise has her way, they’ll do even more than that.
When she was trying to come up with a name for her company, Wise realized that a lot of things that were important to her, personally and in business, started with the letter “L”—words like Love and Laughter. “I was trying to find my ‘L’s in my life, and creating my ‘L’ space,’ ” Wise says. “I want all women to do the same thing—find their space.”