As seniors in college look ahead to their final semesters, most are applying for jobs and wondering what their career will look like. However, Riss Barlow already knows what she is going to do as she plans the next move for her international, award-winning swimwear company.
Barlow’s success has led to her inclusion in BusinessQ magazine’s list of 40 Utahns under 40. Barlow said when she first found out she would be part of this elite group, she did not really think it was that big of a deal, saying she does not really care for the attention. But when she saw the other people included in the group, she was grateful to be among those people.
“Sometimes you are grinding every day and it’s really hard to get your head above water to look at how far things have come, and so that was one of those moments for me where they compared me to these people that I have always looked up to and it was super tender,” Barlow said.
How It Started
Barlow founded Nani swimwear in 2016 with her mom, Janna Barlow, and her mom’s friend Amy Rasmussen. According to the company’s website, Nani is the Hawaiian word for “beautiful” and the trio of women are passionate about empowering women to find confidence and feel comfortable in their own body.
Riss Barlow said the idea for the company came to her mind when she was a 13-year-old girl on a family trip for spring break, struggling to find something to wear. She approached her mom with the idea to make swimsuits.
“She kind of laughed at the idea like any mom would do to their 13-year-old daughter asking to start a swimsuit company,” Riss Barlow said.
Nothing came of it until two years later when she heard her mom and Rasmussen talked about starting a blog together and brought up the idea again. The two older women agreed, and from that point on, they were all in.
Janna Barlow said the decision to start the company came at a transition point in her life as she had just decided to close a brick-and-mortar home décor shop that she owned. When Riss Barlow first came to her with the idea, Janna Barlow was not on board with swimsuits because they did not know anything about the industry, but decided to jump in anyways.
“We were a team and there was a need,” she said. “We were all really driven and because there were three of us we kept the ball rolling.”
They took a year to research the industry, find a factory, develop a product and build out a website. In the early days of Nani, they did almost everything themselves, from finding their own fabric to tagging the suits before packaging and shipping them.
They found a factory in Los Angeles to make the suits and print the designs on the fabric, which is where one of the company’s biggest challenges arose.
“The factory printed the design on the wrong fabric so it faded in chlorine,” Janna Barlow said.
The LA company told them to just tell customers that suits were only for fresh water. Instead, the Nani team spent hours refunding customers and started searching for a new factory. In the face of failure, Janna Barlow said giving up was not an option.
“I got these two women with me, new challenge, new adventure,” she said.
Rasmussen said traveling to southeast China to see the new factory is one of her favorite memories of the journey. From there, things took off.
At the time, Riss Barlow was working two jobs and going to school full time in addition to running Nani. She saw herself at a crossroads, and decided to go all in with Nani. Once she did, she started to see the impact that her company could have. One defining moment for her was when she won Designer of the Year at Phoenix Fashion Week in 2018.
“That was really incredible to see all of my designs on the runway and then that announcement was a cool moment,” she said.
How It’s Going
The company website says the brand focuses on modern and trendy designs combined with functionality and coverage that every woman can love. All the photoshoots for the swimsuits feature women in real-life outdoor activities such as surfing or hiking.
Nani employees Olivia Conan and Kenidy Wilkins said they love the culture of the company and what it stands for. They work at Nani headquarters in Logan, Utah on a team of women that helps oversee the day-to-day operations of Nani. Wilkins said it was inspiring to see a company owned by women being run by women.
“This is such a happy and supportive company that hypes everyone up,” Conan said.
The brand emphasizes sustainability and inclusivity. Rasmussen said the swimsuits are waste free and made of recycled water bottles, and the team is working to include sizes up to 4X to build confidence for women of all shapes and sizes. Additionally, Nani chooses to give back as part of their mission to empower women. They donate to Community Abuse Prevention Service Agency, a “nonprofit domestic violence, sexual abuse, and rape recovery center” in Logan, and to the Huntsman Cancer Center for women with breast cancer.
“We’re super passionate about our mission to instill confidence in women so they can live a beautiful live with confidence and coverage,” Rasmussen said.
The team said one of the best parts of Nani was hearing the feedback from customers. Janna said that the comments endlessly pour in, and once a friend of hers was visiting Iceland and saw a “Nani suit in the wild.” The website has nearly 6,000 five-star reviews.
As Riss Barlow looks ahead to graduating college in Spring 2023, she said she wants to continue to build out Nani into a swim and surf brand. She wants to continue to grow and develop Nani’s brand and reach.
“I love it right now so much and my plan is just to go all in on that,” she said.
Her advice for other young entrepreneurs would be to just go for it. When she started her business, she had not even graduated high school.
“There’s no excuses. You can learn anything and learn along the way too,” she said. “If anyone can learn anything from my story, I would tell them just go for it.”