Designer Profile: Monica and Kelsey Rush, Founders of Bikini Empire

Bikini Empire is a collaboration between twin sisters, Monica and Kelsey Rush. The brand came together in 2014, after Kelsey was frustrated with the lack of sustainable swimwear available to purchase.

Monica and Kelsey work together on all aspects of the company, from designing the swimwear, to the photoshoots, and running their online store.

The main focus of the brand is to create sustainable swimwear that is both ethically made and fashionable.

Learn more about Bikini Empire through our exclusive interview, below!

AB: What inspired you to create a swimwear brand?

M&K: Monica and I were frustrated by the lack of creative, sexy and ethically made swimwear. When we started Bikini Empire in 2014, there weren’t a lot of options on the market- mostly surf brands like Roxy and Billabong that have a lot of cute styles, but you’ll see at least 10 girls with the same bikini

AB: Who or what is your muse?

M&K: Since our inception, we have been inspired by the female form, and the beauty that all women possess. It might sound cheesy, but we truly believe that most women are more beautiful and sensual than they give themselves credit for. We aim to celebrate the female form, and allow women to feel good about themselves and their body. 

AB: Bikini Empire is a size-inclusive brand. What gaps did you see in the market that you were trying to address when you started out?

M&K: When we first started out, we really noticed that most brands either marketed themselves as a straight size brand, or a plus sized brand. Straight sized brands usually only ever showed models wearing a size XS or Small, with very similar model dimensions – very tall and very thin. Although we have not created a plus sized range (yet!) we have always wanted to shoot models that are wearing the whole size range that we offer as a company. On our website and social media, we have photos of our swimwear in sizes XS through XL, because that is a true reflection of our customers. We find models that have varying body types, some athletic, some curvy, some petite and do our best to capture an array of beautiful women all with different and unique bodies. We have noticed a big improvement in the fashion industry in the last couple years, and there is more representation of different body types than there used to be, but we still notice that there is often a classic model body type (read: size XS, and very thin), and a gorgeous, curvy plus sized model. What about sizes small through XL? We love seeing models that represent those sizes as well!

AB: Has that mission changed at all? Are there any new gaps you’re trying to fill?

M&K: When we first started Bikini Empire, we were more focused on creating swimwear that was good for surfing. As we are both avid surfers, that is still a consideration when we are designing our styles, but we decided to focus more on creating really sexy, timeless, and fashion forward swimwear. We understand that the majority of our customers are not surfers, so our aim is to create swimwear that is extremely flattering and comfortable, while still looking fantastic.

AB: Can you tell us a bit more about the design/manufacturing process that takes place in Bali, and how that plays into your relationship with the ROLE Foundation? (If you can explain what the role foundation is here, that’d be great!)

M&K: Yes absolutely! We work with a fantastic manufacturer in Bali that is considered one of the leaders in the entire country for environmental practices, working conditions, and commitment to the community at large. They donate 10 cents from every piece we order from them to the R.O.L.E. foundation, SOS Indonesia, and Bali Wise, 3 non profit organizations who are working within the community to support locals, feed those in dire need, and educate community members about environment sustainability.

The ROLE Foundation runs a zero waste facility and environmental development programs in Bali. Their vision supports zero waste to oceans, sustainable businesses for coastal communities, and through BALI WISE – women’s business education and development. They also regularly educate the staff on how to keep the environment in mind, around waste management and more.

AB: Bikini Empire is also a family-owned business. What learning curves have you run into while working with family?

M&K: Honestly, for the most part it has been absolutely wonderful working together. Bikini Empire gives us a reason to talk on the phone every day, a common goal, and the ability to travel together and work on really fun creative concepts and photoshoots. Some of the best times we have had with Bikini Empire has been when we are on location for a photoshoot, and we get to see our hard work and the creative process come together. One of the most memorable shoots we did was in Palm Springs, we only had a few days, and had so many different locations we wanted to capture. We executed the shoot flawlessly, and we were so proud of the photos and the final results.

AB: Why has sustainability been at the forefront of your brand’s mission from the beginning?

M&K: Sustainability has been at the forefront of our brand since the beginning because living a low impact lifestyle has always been near and dear to our hearts. We grew up eating food out of our family’s veggie garden, and shopping almost exclusively second hand. As we got older, the emptiness of fast fashion and cheap disposable clothing seemed to be becoming more and more popular. We both love clothing and fashion, and found ourselves wanting to either support smaller, independent designers, or buying second hand. Creating a swimwear collection that is sustainably made seemed like a no brainer for us. We didn’t want to cut any corners.

AB: Though you are twin sisters, you lead such different lives. Monica – you live in the Dominican Republic with your partner and son and freelance in fashion while tending to Bikini Empire. Kelsey – You live on Gabriola Island, on a communal property in an off the grid cob house that you built with your partner, Charlie. You are also involved in the Canadian cannabis industry. How have your different roles/passions inspired or played into your business?

M&K: Although our lives may look quite different from the outside, we have a lot of overlapping interests, friends and goals in our lives. We spend at least 2 or 3 months together every year, and have structured our lives through our business to be able to spend as much time together as possible. Monica still has a very strong connection and roots on the west coast of Canada. We have found that working together on Bikini Empire allows us to bring our two worlds together to inspire the project. When we are in the Dominican together we test out samples in the surf and do tropical photoshoots that are iconic of our brand. Surprisingly, most of our customer base is in Canada and the states, so a lot of our styles are inspired by our summer days with friends on the west coast and Gulf Islands of British Columbia.

AB: As a growing company, how do you find balance in the ever-increasing amount of work you have to do?

M&K: This is definitely the most challenging part of running a business. The work is constant, but there isn’t always someone there to remind you to do it. We both value our work life balance, and spending time with family, friends, and our dogs always takes priority over work. That’s not to say that we don’t hustle and get stuff done, but neither of us think it’s worth it to be successful at the expense of your relationships and quality of life. 

AB: Your newly released River Collection is unlike a lot of what we see on the swimwear market: it’s filled with luxurious textures like rich velvets and corduroys in a variety of shimmery jewel tones. What inspired the use of these textures since traditionally, it would be silly to use them for swimwear? (Not waterproof!)

M&K: We have been incredibly fortunate to work with a manufacturer and fabric supplier that are really pushing the limits of what we traditionally consider to be swimwear and active wear fabric. We source our fabric from two main factories, one is in Italy and the other in Indonesia. We have been using these fabrics since our inception and many of our customers consider them to be a hallmark of our brand. We were so excited to see the shimmery fabrics, and velvet and corduroy textures when they were first released, but we wanted to make sure that they were soft, comfortable and durable before including them in a collection. All the fabrics that we use have been tested by us, and we can say with 100% certainty that they are waterproof, breathable and quick drying. 

AB: Although Bikini Empire seems to be on the pulse of a lot of desirable trends, your swimsuits still teeter on the edge of timelessness. How do you design with that in mind?

M&K: We do our best to ignore trends as much as possible, and design our swimwear with two simple questions in mind- ‘what do we want to wear?’, and ‘what am I going to reach for time and time again?’ We have this idea of the desert island bikini, like if you could only pick one bathing suit to wear if you were stranded on a deserted island, what would it be? What do these desert island bikinis have in common for all women, regardless of body type and style? Ensuring that all our bikinis and one pieces are sexy, timeless and comfortable we are creating entire collections of desert island bikinis. We also really love swimwear that can be worn beach to street, like comfortable and supportive sporty styled tops, and one pieces that fit like a great bodysuit.

AB: What are your goals for Bikini Empire?

M&K: We would love it if Bikini Empire became a household name and more women could feel empowered by our flattering cuts and dedication to ethical fashion. Traditionally, many women loathe shopping for a new bathing suit, and we want to change that. Our goal is for our customers to feel excited and optimistic about their options for swimwear as a mode of celebrating their unique beauty and body type. 

AB: Is there a message you hope to send with your brand?

M&K: Traditionally, many women loathe shopping for a new bathing suit, and we want to change that. Our goal is for our customers to feel excited and optimistic about their options for swimwear as a mode of celebrating their unique beauty and body type. 

AB: Any up-and-coming plans you can let us in on?

M&K: We are planning to segway into some ready to wear pieces that embody our company’s vision for swimwear. Imagine the perfect tropical getaway dress or fabulous lounge wear outfit. 

AB: If you both had to choose a favourite suit from Bikini Empire’s new collection, what would it be?

M&K: The Goddess top and Lettuce Bottoms in Teal – We love the way this set fits and the color is just so intoxicating. But it’s not just that, we love the names of these two products and what they represent to us: Celebrating the divinely feminine and empowering ourselves with self care and a love for food : )

For more information, check out their website, here!

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