“In Sao Paulo then, in the late 70s, beachwear was still pretty conservative, so everyone there looked to Rio for more provocative styles,” Niemeyer said. “My friends in Sao Paulo were always asking me to bring them back bikinis, and I thought ‘why not try?’”
And so she launched into her garage-based endeavor, at first modifying store-bought bikinis and then stitching her own out of whatever materials she could get her hands on. Rings made from cow bones, sliced with her husband’s surgical saw and chemically treated to keep them from decomposing, became the initial adornment of choice.
“I didn’t really know how to sew, so some of the bikinis turned out a bit weird, but it was a good learning experience,” she said.
Despite a series of stumbling blocks, including a flood that destroyed her little home atelier, demand for her pieces grew, quickly expanding beyond her circle of friends. Niemeyer hired proper seamstresses, most of them women from Rio’s “favela” hillside slums who worked for samba schools, stitching extravagant Carnival costumes.
“When I was pregnant with my second child, I was constantly heading up to the slums to drop off, pick up or check on orders,” Niemeyer said. “I was up there so often that my then-husband said: ‘Our kid’s going to be born in a favela.’”
After years-worth of selling her pieces to established brands that would slap their own labels on the pieces, Niemeyer opened her first store in the chic beachfront neighborhood of Ipanema in the early 1990s. Her empire has grown to more than two dozen stores throughout Brazil, and she now employs about 180 seamstresses who churn out roughly 30,000 pieces a month.
“It used to be that people looked down at swimwear designers and even in Brazil we weren’t really consider proper fashion designers,” she said. “Now, the entire world looks to Brazil for our swimwear. It’s pretty amazing.”