Bikini Season: Never Fear, Popina is Here
Venturing into Popina’s Swimwear Boutique might feel like you’ve started your vacation early. Bamboo and greenery create a tropical ambiance with sea creature mobiles dangling in the store’s sunshine-esque lighting. Give your legs a rest at the comfortable seating area and enjoy a complimentary Corona while the kids play in the children’s area. Swimsuit shopping is a dreaded experience for many, but Popina wants to make it a day at the beach.
With a storefront in the Pearl and Hollywood districts, the shops not only transport customers to a faraway destination, but to another place in time. Many of Popina’s suits are inspired by the retro styling of the 50s and 60s- an era that the owner and designer Pamela Levenson has always been passionate about.
“When I was younger, I would shop at secondhand stores to find suits, but they were always kind of rotted and you couldn’t wear them anymore,” she says. “I would always wonder why nobody would bring that styling to modern day.” With the advantage of current technology and improved fabrics, Levenson wanted to make those styles wearable and current again.
Popina has a wide range of products- from suits for kids all the way up to suits an 80 or 90-year-old woman might purchase. In addition to their custom line, the store features, products- including some men’s wear- from 30 outside brands. Levenson attributes much of Popina’s success to Portland’s widespread support of local business. “I love this city, there’s such a creative energy here,” she says.
Levenson shares her background and thoughts on the company:
I was going on vacation to Mexico during the winter in Portland and I couldn’t find a swimsuit. I’d always loved all the retro styling of the 50s and 60s so I stayed up all night designing suits and it kind of became a passion for me. I really wanted to find a way to get my suits out there so I ended up opening Popina in 2006. It was really to have a vehicle for selling and marketing my suits. The line has really expanded- there’s still a nod to the beginning with the retro styling, but we have a lot of other styles now as well.
What was your background in apparel design before swimsuits?
I studied fashion design and worked in the Los Angeles area for Guess Jeans and a few other manufacturers in the 80s. I was doing everything from in-store merchandising to apparel design. I grew up in Victoria, so moving to Portland felt like coming back home to the Pacific Northwest. I worked in product development for a while with a division of Norm Thompson. It was always a dream of mine to have my own business; I didn’t necessarily think it would be swimwear but it became a sort of natural transition.
Not at all. Because I have worked in apparel for so long, it was really refreshing to do something completely different. I’d worked with stretch fabrics a lot and coincidentally when I was in college, I did an apprenticeship with a tiny family-owned swimwear manufacturer in Hermosa Beach. It was a block off the beach. I did all the patterns for the custom suits. We had three sewers who did all the sewing of the suits. They gave us a lot of autonomy considering we were college apprentices. It was nice to have a little bit of experience with patterns and fabrics.
Tell me more about that first swimsuit you ever made.
Believe it or not, I made three different suits. I developed a little boy short, a retro one-piece, and a bikini (which is our current hipster). They were wearable, but there are a lot of specialty machines involved in the making of swimwear, so it’s harder to emulate swimwear on a home machine. The styles have evolved, but they still resemble those first pieces I made for my trip to Mexico.
It is really challenging. When you come out with a new line, a lot of it has to stick to a schedule. I have to schedule at least two or three days that I commit to creativity. I get sidetracked, but if I don’t do that it’s easy to get swept up in the day-to-day business.
Do you wish you could just focus on one aspect?
I’m really happy to be on both sides of the spectrum. Running the business allows me to have creative freedom and control things how I want them. You’re always beholden to somebody and for us it’s the customer. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Do you think being a female business owner affects the way people perceive your company?
If anything, it’s positive. There’s as much support here for women-owned businesses as there is for local businesses. Ultimately, though, if you don’t have a good product, great customer service and a wide variety, it’s hard to compete in the marketplace. We strive to make it a comfortable environment for women to shop because it’s such an emotional purchase. It’s such a struggle to even get yourself to go in there and do it. Almost everybody says they dread doing it.
There are other people out there. The thing about competition nowadays is it’s everywhere, because it’s on the Internet. People don’t see what’s in their city as the only thing available to them. You have to be able to compete even on a local level. We’re always aware of what else is out there. We love having our Popina brand because it’s unique to us. We design it, we make it in Oregon, and it’s only found at Popina. We do sell on the Internet, but it’s an exclusive thing that’s ours and we’re really proud of that.
What do you see as the primary advantage for customers to shop at a boutique like Popina versus a larger department store?
We strive to give the absolute best customer service. All of our sales associates are experts in what they’re selling. They try on everything that comes in, they work with hundreds and hundreds of women so they’re aware of all the different body types and what works for them. Because we just specialize in swimwear we can become experts on it. We do have a really broad selection; we have bra-sized swimwear now, which is really important to many women.
I have a real passion for the city of Paris and I really enjoyed being there and learning the language. But having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, I just love the passion of the people here and how much people love their city and really care about supporting local businesses. To me, it’s the difference between being a big fish in a little pond and a little fish in a big pond. Here you’ll run into a friend downtown, but that just doesn’t really happen when you’re living in LA or Paris.
Do you think Portland being so supportive of local business could ever create so many local business that it causes a different set of problems?
If anything I would say it’s helping. If there are 20 antique stores on one street, people think to go to that street and hang out at several of those stores. It’s similar with smaller businesses. With so many around, it makes a statement in a way.
What’s the best part of your job?
The best part is the creative aspect and owning my own business. I love being able to have an idea and bring it to fruition. Making something that I love and seeing a happy customer walk away with it is so rewarding. Also being able to hone the fit based on direct input from customers- I feel like I’m directly in touch with what I’m doing.
The most challenging aspect is probably managing our day-to-day operation and keeping up with all the different curveballs. Swimwear sales can really be influenced by weather. Sometimes you do everything right, but there’s just a really rainy and cold summer and you don’t do as well. It can be challenging to manage things when outside forces affect things that are out of my control.
I noticed you have a unique exchange policy- can you explain that?
We do allow people to return for a full refund with receipt and tags attached. After two weeks we give in-store credit. I know a lot of swimwear companies don’t allow you to return things anymore. We wanted to keep it as liberal as possible because sometimes things are different in the comfort of your own home and you might change your mind.
I have a few different places. There are not a lot of places to buy fabric in the US anymore. I use wholesale versus retail. There are very few fabric mills remaining in the US. I buy from 100 percent American companies, but the fabric is imported.
Where do you see Popina a few years from now?
I feel like we’re still establishing ourselves as a Portland brand. We want to continue to do that, continue to serve our customers and really hone what we’re doing. I am also starting a cover-up line. We don’t plan to expand outside of Portland.
Anything else you’d like to share?
We can’t stress enough how much we strive to make it a friendly and welcoming environment to help de-stress the whole process of finding a swimsuit. Almost every person dreads it, so we want people to know we will be there to help you through the process and make it way less stressful. We want you to feel good about going on vacation and putting on your suit.
By Haley Martin
Pamela’s photo by Dax McMillan
Product photos by Kevin Focht