Her passion for drawing has always been a part of her. Born in São Paulo, Brazil, she studied visual arts in the 1960s and her first job was in the architecture field. It was at that time, she recalls, that she truly learnt how to draw. Today, Lenny Niemeyer is an international name in the world of beachwear. Currently with 19 dedicated stores, the designer’s eponymous brand is also present in around 250 multi-brand stores spread across Brazil, and exports to the most diverse countries across the globe. She admits that, “although it was my dream at the start of my career, the business wasn’t created to grow”. But fate (along with her creative vein and resilience) decided to give her the run-around.
The designer spoke with Essential and revealed how it all started. “It happened by chance. I’ve always enjoyed drawing, and my degree is in visual arts. I really wanted to work and all I knew was how to draw. So I got a job in the architecture field. I loved it; I learnt a lot and ended up changing to landscaping because I liked painting. I put the two things together and set up a landscape architecture practice. I worked on that for six or seven years. In the meantime, I married a carioca [a native of Rio de Janeiro], moved to Rio and didn’t have a way of transporting the landscaping work. We were starting a life.”
It was then that her friends from São Paulo started ordering carioca-style bikinis from her. Lenny wanted to go further and adapt them to the paulista (São Paulo) woman, more classic in character but bold nonetheless. “In those days, bikinis were a triangle at the front and another at the back, and I thought there wasn’t much mystery.I decided to take that apart and do something different. That’s how I started. I bought a bikini and added two ox-bone hoops.”
Her success quickly escalated to a much higher level, and in the late ‘70s, she started designing bikinis for well-known brands, such as Fiorucci, Bee, Richards and Andrea Saletto. “That was my main schooling. At the time, I learnt what it was to sell to the public at large. I started to understand what people wanted and what post-beach fashion was. Rio de Janeiro was actually my big inspiration. The typical carioca improvises a lot, from the shirts to the trousers to make shorts. Paulistas didn’t know how to dress like that; they didn’t have that beach know-how. So I started to make those clothes for those who weren’t as creative. And it worked out!”
She spent ten years designing for other companies, until a plan from the Brazilian government ended up halting orders for her products. “I was left with kilos of Lycra in stock. But then a store in Ipanema came up and I decided to risk it: either I sold them myself, or I’d be broke. I opened the store and in those days I did everything, from serving customers to creating each piece. The cariocas would come in and think that the use of silk for beachwear was brilliant, as well as the big patterns… When you do something with love, consistency and feeling, there is an audience for everything.”
Comfort and quality are features that she highlights in her brand that has been going for almost 30 years. “I think what sets Lenny Niemeyer apart from others on the market is the modelling of the pieces. That factor means it reaches a vaster audience. People are always looking for comfort and quality. Patterns and timelessness are also qualities that customers like. I love seeing women with collections of mine from ten years ago.”
When designing, everything serves as a basis, because “any theme is a theme as long as you want to tell a story”, but nature is in fact the Brazilian designer’s greatest source of inspiration. She admits that the biggest challenge she has faced throughout her career has been knowing how to manage a company. “I create, I do fashion, but actually managing 200 people in the factory is complicated.” Regardless, her success has been guaranteed, having received countless distinctions over the course of her 40-year career. Her latest award, Designer of the Year 2018, was presented at Unique by Mode City – Paris, the international fair that brings together the most prominent lingerie and swimwear brands. “I think that having your work recognised is always nice, and in Europe it’s incredibly important. I’m very honoured to receive this award, and it’s actually an incentive for people who are starting out now.”
For the future, Lenny just wants the chance to continue doing what she most loves, but with the difference of having more time for herself and those closest to her, something that she didn’t have during her long career. “The overview I have is that it was all worthwhile. I feel very fulfilled with my profession, despite giving up a lot of time. My expectation is that I can still enjoy my life without stopping doing what I’m doing. I don’t want to stop working anytime soon,” she concludes.