One of the world’s most successful swimwear lines was founded right here in landlocked Kansas City.
In 2012, acquaintances-turned-friends Gwyn Prentice and Missy Neville recognized that comfortable and stylish women’s swimsuits were few and far between. So they did something about it.
“We came up with Helen Jon swimwear because it was really hard to find attractive and high-quality women’s swimwear that offered coverage at the same time,” Gwyn says. “We tried to bridge that and create swimwear that we, ourselves, wanted to wear.”
That was eight years ago. Today, Lenexa-headquartered Helen Jon is thriving, selling in resorts around the world and being worn by celebrities like Reese Witherspoon, which led to a business partnership with the actress’ southern-style clothing line, Draper James, last year.
We caught up with the founders of the international fashion line just in time for this year’s swimsuit season.
What was the biggest challenge in getting Helen Jon off the ground?
Missy: There was a huge learning curve. This was not our background, so we were lucky enough to have met wonderful people, like our production manager LeeAnn Stevens, early on. She was at a turning point in her career at the time. It was really just about building a great team, and that has a lot to do with our success. To this day, we still have a really wonderful, collaborative team.
Gwyn: It’s funny because we started out as all female and we’re still all female.
Missy: Which was not by design, at all.
What was the turning point of the successful company that Helen Jon is today?
Gwyn: It’s hard to say. I mean, it took a while—it was probably about four years into when we started. We showed up to the first swim show without any appointments to meet with buyers. At the time, we didn’t really realize that that was the way to go to a swim show: You wanted to have your appointments lined up before you got there.
Missy: I told Gwyn that if we could ever get into Little Dix Bay resort in Virgin Gorda of the British Virgin Islands, I feel like we will have arrived. And it happened to be our first order. It’s one of my favorite resorts ever, so that was a huge success. It was very exciting.
Is it hard to run a swimsuit line in Kansas City—to be drawing up swimsuit plans while there’s snow on the ground?
Missy: I think that’s one of the things that makes us stand out. We are not from the coast. We have a different perspective going into it. We know what we’re looking for, so we really bring something different to the marketplace.
Recently, Helen Jon has added nonmedical masks to their inventory. Can you tell me more about that?
Gwyn: We have some very high-quality supplies like swimwear fabric, cups and elastic. In a lot of ways, it felt wasteful to have those supplies, along with factories that we could quickly ramp up and warehouse space, all sitting idle. Our production manager, LeeAnn, designed a face mask using our current supplies. Obviously, we want to keep everyone safe. It was interesting trying to do this. A lot of the sewers put up sheets to make sure that they keep their distance from one another. But the factories are up and moving, and we’re shipping. We’re also donating about five hundred masks to Children’s Mercy Hospital.