For years, Gwyn Prentice struggled to find swimwear she felt comfortable in.
Some suits were too skimpy — others offered more coverage, but looked frumpy.
“I was wearing board shorts and matching swim tops,” Prentice says. “I started realizing that not every woman wanted to wear a bikini.”
In 2012, Prentice and her friend Missy Neville founded Helen Jon, a designer swimwear company known for suits that are both flattering and fashion-forward. The Lenexa-based company sells its suits online at helenjon.com and in boutiques at luxury hotels such as The Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons. You can find Helen Jon swimwear locally at Nani Nalu on the Country Club Plaza.
This summer, Helen Jon collaborated with Draper James — Reese Witherspoon’s Southern-inspired clothing brand — on a special line of swimsuits with preppy blue stripes, sophisticated floral prints and pops of coral red.
Helen Jon also got a positive stamp of approval from Business Insider staffers who tried on several suits. According to the review: “All of us agreed that Helen Jon’s suits are stylish, relatively affordable, universally flattering, and exceptionally comfortable,” the article read.
We recently caught up with Prentice, who now lives in Naples, Florida, to talk about how she and Neville built an international swimwear company in landlocked KC.
How did you and Missy meet?
We started working on nonprofit events together. We started Fashion For a Cause (an annual fundraiser for Truman Medical Centers). That’s when we knew we worked well together, and we really enjoyed each other’s company.
Did you have any experience in business when you founded Helen Jon?
We did not have a business background. I wish I had had one. Missy is a counselor, a psychotherapist. My background is law. There were plenty of people who have been wonderful mentors along the way — mentors have been essential. The key is knowing that we don’t know anything.
So how did you get started?
We met with people in KC who had been in retail or manufacturing of some sort. That’s how we got hooked up with LeeAnn Stevens, who is from KC but lives in Los Angeles. We called her and said, ‘Would you want to consult with us?’ She helped guide us. We flew out to L.A. and met with buyers at resorts out there. We met with print houses. A lot of the fabric is out of Los Angeles.
What are the pros and cons of being based in the KC area?
I think KC is an incredible place to have a company because the people there are wonderful. We find incredible people who work for us, and they are essential. Our customer service reps are incredible. They give us feedback. If we’re getting a lot of requests for certain things, they pass it on to us. So you find really wonderful people to help build the company, and the community is supportive. Finding mentors is easy because people want to support one another.
How many employees do you have?
Around 15, not including sales reps. (Our swimwear is) manufactured in Los Angeles. We would love to manufacture in Lenexa; that is something we’re looking into. But swimwear requires different machines. It’s a complicated sewing process.
Who designs your swimwear?
Right now Missy and I are doing it. We have a designer in California who also helps. It’s a team approach. It can be hard, but I like that. I like collaboration.
How do you make sure the suits are flattering on a variety of body types?
We like to know for our customers exactly how a suit is going to fit their body. I’m an extra small and I try on absolutely everything. The people who work in our office try on suits and give us feedback. The best way to really know that you’re meeting your goals in terms of fit, is to ask the women who work for Helen Jon.
There’s no judgment here. We just want to provide women with what they want.
What kind of feedback do you get from women who buy Helen Jon suits?
We got a very positive reaction early on. A lot of women were looking for something with a little more coverage, but they didn’t want to look frumpy. We have a lot of repeat customers — women who just keep buying our stuff. We’re not fast fashion, so the suits last, which is very nice for our customers.
Tell us about Helen Jon’s collaboration with Draper James.
They’ve been really wonderful to work with. We wanted to make sure that we were honoring their customer, who is a slightly different customer than Helen Jon’s. They gave us their prints and we picked the ones that worked for swim. A lot of the silhouettes are ones we already had in our line.
What are some of your bestselling pieces?
Our twist bandeau one-piece has been in the line since 2012. Our tortoise halter and hipster have been in the line since 2012. Our lattice back one-piece. Those three, they just keep on going.
Are people ever surprised to find out Helen Jon’s headquarters are in Lenexa?
Yes. There’s so much talent (in Kansas City) that it surprises me that people are surprised. I guess swim is a coastal thing, but there are pools all over the country.