The daughter of crooner Johnny Rivers (“Secret Agent Man”), the granddaughter of actress Debbie Reynolds and the niece of actress Carrie Fisher (aka Princess Leia), Rivers seemed destined for a life of celebrity in the entertainment business. However, the modest young entrepreneur, who grew up on an eco-ranch in San Luis Obispo that was run entirely on solar energy, decided instead to combine her passion for “going green” with her longtime love affair with surfing. The resulting line of tough, durable, sexy eco bikinis, with a signature “butterfly cut” for minimal back coverage, is proof that there is more to Rivers — and less to her bikinis — than meets the eye.
Happy Endingz Eco Swimwear is the very first swimwear line in the world made from 100 percent recycled nylon. When Rivers first began toying with the idea of starting her own line of bikinis, she says she found that there was a conspicuous lack of swimwear options for the environmentally conscious.
“When I started researching what I could do to make the brand eco, I realized that there weren’t many companies out there trying to do that,” she said. “There were some bikinis made from organic cotton or bamboo, but nothing high performance that would actually stand up to regular swimwear in the water.”
As she continued her research, she found one manufacturer that was producing recycled nylon, a material that is alleged to be twice as strong and twice as soft as regular nylon. Although skeptical at first, Rivers, who also gives private surf lessons on the side, says that once she began testing the material herself out on the water, she became a believer. She also found that the packaging could be made from recycled paper and organic cotton, further reducing the startup company’s carbon footprint.
Armed with a cadre of green materials, Rivers got to work designing the incipient line of Happy Endingz bikinis, which she appropriately dubbed the “One Bikini to Change the World Collection.” Once again, the 28-year-old showed her eclecticism by diving into the world of fashion design, despite having majored in psychology at UCSB. Rivers says her degree is not wasted in the world of a startup fashion business, however.
“My degree had nothing to do with fashion, but the good thing about a psychology degree is that you really learn how people choose things, and what will influence people to buy one thing over another,” she said. “That actually really helps with fashion, I think, because a lot of starting a new line is in knowing how to market it — sometimes that is the hardest part, especially as a small company.”
Starting out as a small company was one thing that Rivers was adamant about. Unlike some entrepreneurs who aspire to launch on a grand scale right out of the gates, she says she wanted to set an example for other small local businesses, and show that it is possible to be successful while conserving resources and making the most out of minimal ground-level capital.
“I mainly wanted to inspire other young people, young designers, because not a lot of people get access to a ton of funding at first,” she said. “There are so many young people out there who have so many great ideas, but it can seem very unattainable. So I just wanted to help show people that you can do it.”
With that ideal in mind, Rivers connected with co-founder Lyndon Lea, managing partner of Lion Capital. Lea has a history of finding smaller companies that represent attractive investment opportunities, and growing them. Several years ago, he and his private equity firm bought Jimmy Choo Shoes and expanded the boutique brand to more than 60 stores worldwide from 23. Now a household name in designer footwear, Jimmy Choo Shoes was sold in 2007 by Lion Capital for $362 million. Lea also owns parts of American Apparel, as well as numerous other companies.
Because of Rivers’ partnership with Lea, money was no longer a roadblock for her burgeoning company. Still, she decided to start with an initial investment of less than $20,000, a pittance for today’s startup business models. So with one simple yet sleek bikini style in three colors (gold, pink and blue) the 2011 “One Bikini to Change the World Collection” was born.
As for the company’s not-so-subtly suggestive name, Rivers just smiles and laughs as she recalls its beginnings. Like Rivers herself, the Happy Endingz name defies peoples’ expectations.
“When I first told my mom that I wanted to start this company, she asked me what I was thinking of calling it, and I said, ‘I thought maybe Happy Endingz,’” said Rivers. “My mom kind of laughed at me and asked me why I would call it that. I said, ‘You know, like happy endings for the earth, because it’s going to be green.’ She said, ‘Vanessa, you know that’s something that happens at a massage parlor, right?’
“Once I thought about it like that, I actually thought it was pretty funny,” she continued, chuckling. “Plus it works because our bikinis are cut with minimal back coverage, so the name Happy Endingz is sort of appropriate because girls get to show off their cute butts!”
In addition to being available for sale on the company’s Web site, Happy Endingz Eco Swimwear is currently being carried by retailers Lola Santa Barbara, The Bikini Factory in Summerland and Rincon Designs in Carpinteria, and may soon be available at Nordstrom. In keeping with her philosophy of helping others understand the importance of going green, Rivers has established the Happy Endingz Alternative Energy Fund, to which 10 percent of all Happy Endingz profits are set aside to help other small businesses that are trying to convert to eco practices.
Rivers is currently working on the 2012 collection, which she says will feature four new styles in three or four new colors. And lest anyone think she has completely disavowed her celebrity DNA, Rivers is also working on a reality TV show about her foray into the world of fashion. The show, which will be centered around three young entrepreneurs in Santa Barbara (Rivers obviously being one,) is being pitched to MTV, VH1 and several other top networks.
In the meantime, the Santa Barbara surf instructor-turned-fashion designer and business owner says she is having the time of her life, and sticking to her company’s stated mission: to make the world a greener place, one teeny eco bikini at a time.
— Kevin McFadden is a Noozhawk contributing writer.