I had the pleasure of interviewing Mei-Ling T. Millet. She is the founder of Kokí Swimwear. The arts have always been present from the time she was born. She inherited her talent and love for the arts from her mother as well as her grandfather, the late Jorge Millet. While in high school, she focused her energy in fashion while attending the Saturday Live Fashion Program at the Fashion Institute & Technology in New York City as well, as Lisa Thons’ School of Design in San Juan, Puerto Rico. These two experiences redefined her love for the fashion industry. During her tenure at Miami International University of Art & Design, Mei-Ling focused all of her energy on mastering her craft. In 2008, all her hard work paid off by graduating Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts Degree in Fashion Design. At the conclusion of her college career, Mei-Ling embarked on a new journey. Influenced by her past experiences living between Puerto Rico and New Jersey, Mei-Ling decided to fuse these cultural experiences into her own swimwear line. As a way to pay homage to her Puerto Rican roots, Mei-Ling came up with a logo that would represent the tiny frog of the island called Coquí. Thus, Kokí Swimwear was born.
Can you tell our readers about your background?
I was born in Carolina, Puerto Rico. My interest in the arts was evident early in my childhood, as I loved to draw. Living in Puerto Rico as a kid, I would spend my weekends at the beach with my Mom, which is where my passion for the beach and swimwear began.
At the age of seven, my family moved to New Jersey. Residing in New Jersey was different than Puerto Rico, but those experiences molded and influenced my future. During my junior year in high school, I focused my energy in fashion while attending the Saturday Live Fashion Program at the Fashion Institute & Technology in New York City.
Once I moved back to Puerto Rico, I was determined to focus on all the different aspects of my dream from modeling to design school. I attended Puerto Rican fashion designer Lisa Thons’ School of Design in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Here I was exposed to the world of fashion and it solidified that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
While attending Miami International University of Art & Design, I graduated Cum Laude which truly prepared me for the fashion industry.
What inspired you to start your business?
My family consists of mostly women who are all different sizes that have experienced the same issue I had when shopping for swimwear. I always had difficulty finding swimwear that would fit correctly. At that time, bikinis were sold together so it was hard to find stores that provided them separately. My goal for Koki Swimwear was to eliminate that issue for buyers. I wanted to create swimwear that was unique so that women could choose their correct sizes.
How did you start your business? What were the first steps you took?
With $700, I was determined to create my own online swimwear boutique. It all started with the name. I wanted a name that represented me and my island. Koki was inspired by the coqui frog. The coqui frog is one of the most common frogs in Puerto Rico and is a national symbol to the island. There is a Puerto Rican expression, “Yo soy de aquí, como el coquí”, which translates to I’m from here, like the coquí.”
That first season I created 8 designs each with two colorways and had a photo shoot on the beaches of Puerto Rico. The following seasons, I created designs based on different inspirations related to island life. I have been fortunate to work with amazing models and photographers that have presented Koki Swimwear in amazing images at locations such as the Dominican Republic, Australia, Jamaica, Aruba, Philippines, and Antigua.
What has been the most effective way of raising awareness for your business?
I found that the most effective way to raise awareness about Koki Swimwear was through social media. We are in a generation where social media allows you to interact with companies, celebrities along with customers. Platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Snap Chat have made huge impacts in regards to networking along with reaching out to our customers directly.
We strive to have our customers feel as though they are part of Koki Swimwear. When customers post pictures in our swimwear, we encourage them to tag us on their social media pages.
What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
Having an online store comes with some challenges. In the beginning, one of the biggest challenges was having customers shop online versus going to a store to purchase swimwear. We acknowledged the difficulty in shopping online and finding the perfect size. In that regard, we implemented a size chart on our site that customers can refer to in order to purchase an accurate size. We have received positive feedback and to date, we have not received a return order due to an incorrect size.
How do you stay focused?
I find that going to the gym and/or running clears my mind, which helps me regain my focus. Also, I like to research competitors and see what is out there. This helps me focus on things I want to improve on with my company so that I can be better than the next swimwear company.
Being an athlete while growing up, competition has always fueled me. I always strived to be the best in every aspect of life. By being the best family member, friend, and all-around individual helps me remain grounded and focused on my long-term goals. I strive to make those happy that have supported and believed in my dream.
How do you differentiate your business from the competition?
Our swimwear is inspired by an island lifestyle. They are hand-crafted and only a certain number of each style will be produced to give our clientele that one of a kind experience and exclusivity that they seek. Our swimwear is stylish and fashion forward.
What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring and new entrepreneurs?
Follow your dreams, believe in yourself and do not give up. When someone says you cannot do it or that financially your idea does not make sense, just take a deep breath, do your research, and find a way. All you need is one person to believe in you in order to fulfill your dream and that person is yourself.
What’s your favorite app, blog, and book? Why?
My favorite app is Spotify because fashion and music go together. Music is the one thing that motivates and inspires me while designing.
I do not have a favorite blog, as I tend to read anything that has to do with fashion.
My favorite book is the Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.
What’s your favorite business tool or resource? Why?
My favorite business tool is Instagram because we get to interact with the customer. Taking the time to get to know our customers helps us develop new styles for them.
Who is your business role model? Why?
I have a couple of role models in my life. My mother is the role model who inspired my creativity and my grandfather is also my role model in regards to hard work and dedication. However, from a business standpoint, I would have to say that Puerto Rican fashion designer Luis Antonio is my role model. Like myself, he went to a fashion design school and later returned to Puerto Rico to start his fashion company. He pursued ways to exhibit his talent and he made his debut at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week with his 2015 Spring-Summer Collection. His determination is what I admire.
What do you have planned for the next six months?
In the upcoming months, I will be working with BikiniTeam TV on their swimwear tour. Koki Swimwear has had huge success in obtaining customers when sponsoring swimwear for BikiniTeam TV.
Also, I would like to start a charity geared to giving back to Puerto Rico. My island suffered huge losses as a result of Hurricane Maria and there is still work that has to be done.
How can our readers connect with you?
The readers can connect with us through our website www.kokiswimwear.com and our social media pages.
Facebook: Koki Swimwear