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Merrilee's Swimwear is a fashion institution

Merrilee's Swimwear is a fashion institution
Merrilee Madrigal unfolds designs she cut from super market paper bags in the late '70s at Merrilee's Swimwear in Laguna Beach. (Don Leach / Weekend)

She put the one-piece back on the agenda this summer — by way of a high leg, ultra-low sides and back lines, creating a throwback to her original '80s design.

But then Merrilee Madrigal is no stranger to creating a buzz with her swimsuits.

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Madrigal is the founder of the family-owned Merrilee's Swimwear — a Laguna Beach-based swimsuit design house and retail store known for suits with cheeky cutouts, reversible bottoms and colorful patterns.

For nearly 40 years, Madrigal has cultivated a loyal fan base among local beachgoers for her Bohemian and modern swimsuit designs, though she maintains that creating effortless and chic classics will always win over following current trends.

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"A lot of this stuff is back again," Madrigal said recently at her Laguna Beach headquarters as she looked at a halter top on a back room table.

As if to emphasize that she would rather be a leader than a follower in the fashion world, Madrigal said, "I think a lot of trends are born here."

The tie-dye prints, paisley motifs and strappy bandeaus at the Pacific Coast Highway store are a nod to Madrigal's hippie flower days in Huntington Beach, when she was sewing bathing suits for friends and family while in high school.

Word spread among local beachgoers about Madrigal's hand-sewn bikinis. To keep up with consumer demand, her mother allowed her to stay home one day a week from school to sew suits, but under the condition that she continue earning good grades.

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The deal worked, and each weekend Madrigal would sell the swimwear out of a leather suitcase in front of the now-defunct Golden Bear nightclub. The iconic Huntington Beach venue had hosted famous acts from the 1960s through the '80s, including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead.

In April 1977, Madrigal opened her first bikini store — on Main Street, within Sunline Surfboards. Jack's Surf Shop purchased the property a few years later and moved her business across the street into what was then Jose's Shoe Shop.

Shortly after, she was overseeing her own manufacturing facility, selling swimwear in shops across the U.S. and in Japan, with wholesale accounts like Pacific Sunwear, Wet Seal and Nordstrom. The company expanded with more retail locations and Madrigal selling to specialty boutiques and department stores.

In 1986, Madrigal opened the brand's 5,000-square-foot location in Laguna Beach, where the corporate office, stockroom, photography studio and manufacturing are now also located. The current Huntington Beach retail store is at The Strand, across the street from the Shorebreak Hotel. These two are her only retail locations in Orange County.

Over the years, Madrigal decided to scale back and return to her love of designing swimwear and selling the clothing directly to consumers. Her children help her operate the business. Daughter Felicia designs and manages the majority of operations, and her son, Robert, supervises the computerized and technical aspects of the company.

"The real reason we are successful is because customers know they can get a quality swimsuit," Felicia said. "My mom is a big stickler for quality, and she won't put something out on the floor if she isn't happy with it."

Together, mother and daughter look to European fashion forecasts and seek out what designs will work for the Southern California beach community. They also hire young girls from local schools to give their feedback on storyboards, and they pull from their library of swimwear designs to put a spin on classic cuts.

For example, the Halter-Kini Top was an original style from the '90s, but the look was updated with a crochet top piece and made to be reversible. The design was redone to appeal to swimmers who wanted to avoid sunburning their chests or show off the latest fashion in swimwear.

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The Sash Halter has remained a best-seller since it was pulled from previous collections. The cut was redesigned with a twist: Sash ties, like those around the neck, were added to the back to provide more comfort and support. The bikini top's cinch sliders also allow a wearer to adjust the height of the triangle or go for a more traditional halter look.

And if a customer is interested in a special order, she may pick a style and fabric from the company library without having to pay extra.

It's a prolific time for the company — 10,000 swimsuits are handmade a year by three to 15 sewing machine operators at any given time. Many of the employees, Madrigal said, have worked for her for years, some for more than 20.

The family is already planning to put another swimwear collection together, increase the company's online presence and, perhaps, return to the wholesale market.

But no matter the trend or pattern that might reemerge in a collection, Madrigal said her priority is to ensure that customers know that they can find a selection of original and fashion-forward designs at her stores.

"I can spot a bikini worn on the beach and tell you the exact style number and what year it is from," Felicia said with a laugh.

"It's cool to see that we're setting trends and that the third generation is coming in," Madrigal said. "We're keeping those old faithfuls going."

Merrilee's Swimwear is at 790 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, and 120 5th St., Huntington Beach. For more information, call (949) 497-6743 or visit merrileeswimwear.com.

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