RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Before she became Brazil's bikini queen, with an empire of chic boutiques and legions of VIP fans, Lenny Niemeyer was locked away in her garage, making swimwear from scraps of used cloth and sliced cow bones.
It's hard to picture the perfectly coiffed blond businesswoman in a sun-lit corner office in her Rio de Janeiro headquarters hacking though bovine femurs with a surgical saw to make ornamental loops for her first bikini bottoms. But the determination that propelled Niemeyer from her garage atelier to the summit of the Brazilian fashion industry still glints in her grey eyes.
"It was all improvised. I had no idea what I was doing and one thing just led to another," said Niemeyer, seated at a desk littered with sketches, heavy art books and a rainbow of spandex swatches — the inspiration for the Spring/Summer 2013 collection that hit the runway on Wednesday at Fashion Rio, the city's five-day-long fashion extravaganza.
Known for her use of muted earth tones and the clean, almost architectural lines of her swimwear, Niemeyer sells some 350,000 pieces a year, mostly at her 26 boutiques throughout the country, but also at multi-mark shops in Britain, France, the Bahamas and in 23 U.S. states. Recent signature pieces include a bikini covered in a green, red and blue explosion of printed macaw feathers, an asymmetrical one-piece with a wavy metallic stripe down one side and a cage-like long-sleeve one-piece made from a mesh of 1 centimeter-wide strips of spandex.
While still almost alarmingly itsy-bitsy by American standards, Lenny's bikinis are less revealing than most bikinis here, and less flashy and cutesy than the bubblegum pink offerings of many local swimwear labels. Though Lenny's customers run the age gamut from adolescent gamines to sexy seniors, her devotees are widely regarded as mature and self-assured. Lenny emphatically doesn't count on the teenyboppers — fans of things shiny who are bent on showing a maximum of skin — that constitute the core customer base for so many other Brazilian swimwear brands.
The brand of choice for well-heeled Brazilians for more than two decades, Lenny leaped to international fame in 2007, when Nicole Kidman wore one of her swimsuits in a racy "Vanity Fair" spread, then ordered several Lenny suits of her own. Lenny's swimwear bikinis make regular appearances in Vogues the world over, helping her win a legion of heavy-hitting fans who include celebrated fashion designer Carolina Herrera and pop sensation Lady Gaga, who donned a turquoise strapless number by the designer while in Rio last year.
Brazilian-born, London-based socialite Andrea Dellal swears by Lenny's beachwear. Whether she's on the sand in Ipanema or a yacht in Capri, you can bet Dellal's swimsuits, cover-ups and tunics are all from the label. Top models including Naomi Campbell, Mariacarla Boscono, Isabeli Fontana and Gisele Bundchen have walked in Lenny's shows.
In Brazil, where her bikinis start at around $125 and are among the most expensive on the market, she's adored. "Lenny took beachwear to another category," said Alexandra Farah, a fashion columnist on the BandNews television network. "She took it from something that was really a little vulgar, all about showing skin and looing sexy, and she made it into something elegant, that breathes chic."
"And it feels very natural, not forced, because she leads the kind of lifestyle the brand is all about, one that's full of elegance and sophistication."
The daughter of a sugar cane and orange grower, Niemeyer is a native of Santos, a port city that rubs shoulders with Brazil's industrial megalopolis, São Paulo. She describes herself as an artsy kid, into drawing and painting. After studying fine arts in college, she fell into a job as a landscape designer, planning gardens and yards for private clients.
Her marriage to neurosurgeon Paulo Niemeyer, nephew of Brazil's legendary late architect Oscar Niemeyer, and their subsequent move to Rio, cut her off from her landscaping clients, but Niemeyer wasn't one to stay home.
"In São Paulo then, in the late seventies, beachwear was still pretty conservative, so everyone there looked to Rio for more provocative styles," said Niemeyer. "My friends in São 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," said Niemeyer. "I was up there so often that my then-husband said, 'Our kid's going to be born in a favela.'" (She wasn't.)
After years of selling her pieces to established brands that would slap their own labels on the pieces, Niemeyer opened her first signature store in the chic beachfront neighborhood of Ipanema in the early 1990s.
Her empire continues to expand, and Niemeyer now employs some 180 seamstresses who churn out roughly 30,000 pieces a month at her humming headquarters-and-factory .
"It used to be that people looked down at swimwear designers and even in Brazil we weren't really consider proper fashion designers," said Niemeyer. "Now, the entire world looks to Brazil for our swimwear. It's pretty amazing."