Is this the world’s hottest bikini?

MySmallBusiness is running a selection of readers' favourite stories from 2015 over summer. This is one of them.

Two Christmases ago Craig Ellis and Erin Deering were living on tinned food in Hong Kong. They couldn't afford to fly home to Oz.

Triangl's new range.
Triangl's new range. 

Unemployed, and with just $500 between them, they had moved to the Asian city with dreams of starting a swimsuit company, after a fateful chat on a Melbourne beach in 2011.

"We'd been sitting on the beach at Half Moon Bay (southern Melbourne) in November 2011 and Erin was frustrated because she needed a new bikini and telling me that her only option was a $200 boutique bikini, because there was nothing non-surf brand for under $100," Ellis recounts. "We realised we had found a gap in the market."

Craig Ellis and Erin Deering have turned a beach chat into a booming business enterprise.
Craig Ellis and Erin Deering have turned a beach chat into a booming business enterprise. 

They sold their belongings on eBay, amassing $10,000, Ellis found "a small design job" in Hong Kong and they moved, because they knew their future business would benefit from being close to manufacturers in China and being based mid-way between the northern and southern hemispheres from a shipping point of view.

Unfortunately, once Ellis's job ended and the couple couldn't find work locally, they were soon living on canned soup, despite the fact Ellis has had a unique career, including stints as an AFL player, pilot, clothing designer and entrepreneur.

Desperate, the couple phoned a few friends and perhaps it was festive goodwill but two trusting friends offered to lend $25,000.

And so a bikini brand called Triangl was born in a tiny little flat in central Hong Kong.

Their plan had been to design, manufacture and wholesale their unique, geometric design swimsuits.

But within a few months they knew their business model was flawed.

"Erin, whose background is e-commerce, was spending hours ringing around all these boutiques, chasing small outstanding accounts for $100 or $200," Ellis says. "The return just wasn't there."

Australian Retailers Association executive director Russell Zimmerman says Triangl's distribution quandary is not in isolation.

"Many retailers who may have started off dealing with wholesaling are now, with leasing costs so high and margins reducing, quickly changing their distribution models to get a longer profit," Zimmerman says.

"Retailers, particularly smaller ones, have had to quickly evolve to survive but it is certainly not about saying 'this is the end'.

"It is about understanding what's happening and if it's not working changing quickly, because those that do often prosper as a result."

Triangl's watershed moment arrived during a big heart-to-heart one day on the beach.

"We realised that if we could just sell one bikini per day that would make $30,000 per year and that would be enough to pay our living costs," Ellis says.

"We worked out how many viewers we'd need each day to achieve our really very modest ambitions and in January 2013 stopped all wholesaling, adopted a vertical business model and promised we'd never discount, never go on sale and never sell off-line.

"It was bold, and by February 2013 the business had already grown exponentially."

Social media has been pivotal to building market awareness.

The pair started gifting swimsuits to followers, and world spread online. Today Triangl has more than 1.4 million followers on Instagram, thanks to American celebs including Kendall and Kylie Jenner and singers Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé, who have posted photos modelling the snazzy synthetic rubber swimsuits.

"It (Instagram) has been a huge part of the mix for us," Ellis says.

"Some people do not want to post images of themselves in bikinis, which we understand, but when Kendall tweeted a photo of herself to her five million followers, that was a huge milestone for us in terms of brand awareness in the US market."

Triangl claims it is the top dog in the online togs market and the planet's fastest-growing swimwear brand, and it is difficult to argue the toss.

By December 31, last year Triangl had made about US$5 million and will post revenue of US$25 million this year.

About 120,000 of the distinctive triangle-based swimsuits sold during this year's northern hemisphere summer alone.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data put the value of exported swimwear for women and girls at $13 million in 2012–13, a drop in the ocean compared to the United States, where women spent about $8 billion in 2012 on two-piece swimsuits, data verified by NPD Group shows. On average, US women own four swimsuits each.

The US produces 250 per cent more sales for Triangl than its next-biggest markets, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia and Sweden.

It is easy to see why Triangl has its sights on building its share of the US market next year.

When Triangl started, local brands Seafolly and Zimmermann were dominating the Australian swimwear market but today Ellis and Deering don't really see them as rivals.

"We did US$90,000 yesterday alone, which was 'Black Friday', their biggest pre-Christmas trading day, when most retailers discount to try to attract that last-minute shopping trade," Ellis says.

"We don't do any discounting yet still sold huge numbers. The US is going absolutely crazy."