SURF // 01 MAR 2022
CREATING BOCA CUSTOM DESIGNS
With crystal blue waters and soft white sand, the emblematic beaches of Venezuela seem like a dream that could only exist between the pages of a magazine. Growing up along the country’s Caribbean coast, Vanessa Zavadzkas was enamored by it’s tropical seas and coral reefs. She splashed through her childhood, swimming, surfing, and diving. “ I used to dive in one spot that was so kid friendly, but still a reef. I think that’s what started my obsession with bathing suits,” she laughed.
Contrasting against the light sand, were vibrant swimsuits that reflected the kaleidoscopic scenery and wildlife of the area. Handsewn by locals, this swimwear exemplified the essence of Zavadzkas’ coastal community. She explained, “They were all reversible, it was just such an inspiration. And then I was just, like, obsessed with buying them.”
Captivated, Zavadzkas began to dream of the day that she could make her own suits. When she and her family moved from Venezuela to South Carolina, she found that sewing was not a popular activity among her age group. “Everyone just thought I was a grandma,” she laughed.
Finally, in high school Zavadzkas was given a chance to use a sewing machine. After creating her first project, a pair of pajama pants, she was immediately hooked. “I just kind of went crazy and bought my own machine, “ she explained. “But it was hard.” Living in a community that preferred to purchase swimsuits instead of making their own, resources at local sewing stores were limited. Zavadzkas was forced to order material and thread online. “Things would come in, and they weren’t good quality or it didn’t look like the picture. It took a long time to actually find really good places to buy my stuff.”
Unshaken by the challenges in her path, Zavadzkas continued to hone her sewing abilities through college. With her love of the ocean permeating every aspect of her life, it should come as no shock that Zavadzkas’ chosen major was marine biology. So, with her sewing machine in hand, Zavadzkas moved to Hawaii.
Spending as much time as possible in the water to enjoy the abundant activities Hawaii’s oceans have to offer, Zavadzkas soon found herself making alterations to her and her friends’ bikinis. As she explained, “I had a big group of friends who I would surf with and our problem was always, we can’t find a suit that will stay on while we duck dive. I mean, it’s Hawaii. It was like, we’re surfing, surfing, [these swimsuits are] not going to work out for us. And I started making little changes to our suits.”
It wasn’t long before Zavadzkas decided to forgo the alteration process and instead create her own swimwear that would fit her and her friends’ needs. In designing and creating more athletic swimsuits, Zavadzkas came to know the ins and outs of what makes a cute, yet sturdy suit. “The learning curve sucked because I was wearing my prototypes, and I was like, okay, my bottom just fell off, or my strap is like, nowhere to be found. Just crazy stuff,” she laughed. Holding onto one of those initial prototypes, a pair of bottoms, Zavadzkas is reminded just how far she’s come in her sewing ability, even if she doesn’t like to look at them. “I hate them. I hate keeping them because they’re so ugly,” she laughed.
Impressed by her designs, Zavadzkas’ friends encouraged her to sell her swimwear. “I always talked about it,” she smiled. “My friends were tired of it. They were like, dude, just do it.” So in 2020, Zavadzkas launched her own swimsuit brand, Boca Custom Designs. “When I started the first year sucked. I would give somebody the bathing suit and be so nervous, I thought all the threads were going to vanish.”
Even with a few orders upon launch, Zavadzkas was anxious about being able to support herself. Craving the stability of a definite income, she found work at a marine canvas shop. The position was ideal. In a beautiful studio with great coworkers, Zavadzkas’ was living out one of her sewing dreams of using a Juki industrial sewing machine. She also bonded with her boss, who had started the canvas company himself, over the trials and tribulations of starting your own business. Zavadzkas couldn’t have been happier.
Except when she was making swimsuits. While sewing at work, Zavadzkas would find herself wishing she was at home making suits instead, day-dreaming of the tropical prints and playful silhouettes. So, with great heartache, she gave her resignation. Conveying her admiration and love of the job, Zavadzkas explained to her boss, “It’s nothing personal. I just feel like I just want to do this.”
Understanding her drive, Zavadzkas’ boss quieted her anxieties by telling her, “always bet on yourself.”
“It sounds cliche, but every time I get nervous, I’m like, always bet on yourself. Always bet on yourself,” she laughed. “And it’s so shocking that so many of us get so scared that we don’t even bet on ourselves, but we expect other people to. And it feels stupid that I had to be told that, but it really opened up my eyes.”
Now two years later, that bet has paid off. Through hard work and the support of her community, Boca Custom Designs has flourished. Stationed in a small town, Zavadzkas often sees her suits both on and off the beach. Zavadzkas recalled a time when she spotted one of her swimsuits while out at a bar. When asked by her friends why she was staring at a stranger, she said in hushed excitement, “that girl’s wearing my one piece as a top.”
Taught at an early age by her uncle the importance of conservation, further reinforced by her years studying as a marine biologist, eco friendliness is a top priority for Zavadzkas’ brand. Starting from the fabric itself, she hunted down a local company that works in line with her values. “It’s all recycled, and the way they dye it is really responsible,” she explained.
To limit waste in production, Zavadzkas creates her suits in small batches, not wanting to have excess product laying around unused. Not even the leftover fabric is safe from Zavadzkas efforts. “I just try to not create any waste. I’ll use all my scraps for stuff or things that can be used,” she explained. “I’ll literally have a little bit left and I’ll make myself a sunglasses case because I am worried about the waste aspect.”
Though Zavadzkas has refrained from advertising her swimwear as a sustainable brand. As she explained, “I’ve watched a ton of documentaries and the marine biologist in me is just like ‘no that’s not true’, it’s false marketing. I do take steps to be eco-friendly. But is my whole brand sustainable? No, it’s impossible for it to be. And I hate that false marketing aspect and I don’t even want to put that near my stuff.”
Aside from eco-friendly practices, Boca Custom Designs also honors and appreciates every step of the process in creating a swimsuit, even the parts Zavadzkas isn’t involved in. Along with using recycled materials, the fabric Zavadzkas purchases are all designed by local artists. “The artists are really what you connect to,” explained Zavadzkas. “And then that gets passed down to my hands, and then I sew it. I just feel like once it’s done, it’s much more of a bigger deal than just a pair of bottoms because so many people came together to make this happen.”
In the process of creating a new swimsuit design, one thing hasn’t changed since her first prototypes in Hawaii, Zavadzkas still tests every single piece. “No one’s going to know, like me, what the problem is,” she smiled. “Even if someone tells me what the problem is, it’s going to be hard for me to tell. So I literally wear every suit that I release. I wear it for about a week, and I go surfing in it. I go hiking in it. I go to yoga classes in it. And if it doesn’t pass my own test, I don’t release it. Or I say that it’s not for sports. But there’s a lot of times that I say they are for sports, and it’s because I ate shit [while surfing] for 4 hours, and it never fell off. I drank gallons of water and duck diving eight foot waves, and those things stayed on.”
Duck diving, spearfishing, sailing, Zavadzkas puts her pieces through the full gamut of aquatic activities. This rigorous testing process is the foundation on which Boca Custom Designs’ core principle is based; to provide swimsuits for women at every age, interested in any sport, that make them feel cute, comfortable, and confident in the water. Whether it’s a mom on the beach running after her toddler, or a girl sunbathing by the poolside, Zavadzkas wants these water-women to be able to enjoy the moment they’re in, instead of worrying about the structural integrity of their swimsuits.
For Zavadzkas, the most rewarding part of the creation process is seeing the real world application of her work, women loving and appreciating her suits. Along with the occasional spotting at local bars, Zavadzkas has received images of women wearing her swimsuits while out in the ocean. “When girls send me things where they’re spear fishing or when they’re surfing or getting shacked under a tube,” she said. “I’m like, ‘this is overwhelming for me’. You don’t wear a suit that you don’t like surfing. You’re basically wearing the stuff that works that you like.”
Looking forward, Zavadzkas hopes to upscale her swimwear by adding adjustable straps and underwire. While excited to make her swimwear accessible to more people, Zavadzkas is approaching these additions thoughtfully. She explained, “A lot of those things are made from plastic and metal. So it’s a bittersweet moment of upscaling my swimwear to something more professional and cleanly finished but doing so will take me a step back from [my current] level of sustainability].”
Even with these growing pains Zavadzkas is grateful to pursue her lifelong obsession with swimsuits. After years of doubt and uncertainty, she now works everyday to create something she loves. She smiled as she said, “I just feel like my perfect day is like waking up, getting out in the water, and then coming in to sew.”