Karla Colletto’s Swimsuit 101

The local swimwear designer shares her tips for choosing—and caring for—the most flattering beachwear.

Enter the Vienna, Virginia, warehouse headquarters of the brand Karla Colletto and you’ll find, to the left, a room of women working away at sewing machines. To the right, fabrics in a rainbow of colors fill floor-to-ceiling shelves, while a printing press-like machine cuts out swimsuit silhouettes.

What began more than two decades ago as a side project for two siblings—Karla and her older sister, Lisa—has today become a respected brand carried at such retailers as Saks Fifth Avenue, Harvey Nichols, and Neiman Marcus. Yet every bit of the company’s swimsuit-making process still happens here.

Karla Colletto grew up in a small New England town and, after studying at Endicott College in Massachusetts, went on to work for the late fashion designer Alfred Fiandaca. “[Alfred] showed me all the intricate details of creating a couture garment,” she says. “It was a great opportunity for me to learn all those dressmaker techniques, which I feel we put into what we do today.”

Passionate about fashion, the sisters decided to create a label of their own. In 1981, Karla moved to the region to be closer to Lisa, who worked for a swimwear manufacturer in Baltimore. With Lisa’s sewing experience and Karla’s business and design knowledge, they later that year debuted their first line of apparel—pieces ranging from bridal to sportswear.

But swim, Karla says, is where she found her niche.

“We were intrigued by stretch fabrics and noticed there was a void in the swimwear market,” says Karla, who felt that there wasn’t a high-fashion brand making modern, timeless swimsuits—what she calls “aqua couture.”

Their first swimwear collection sold to the former Woodward and Lothrop department store, catapulting the brand to recognition.

“Next, we sold at Saks. And the next year our pieces were in Bergdorf Goodman’s windows,” she says. “It was really exciting.”

On the top level of the Karla Colletto headquarters is Karla’s office, and save for a rack of current product and a small meeting table, it’s relatively minimalist. As is Karla’s taste in fashion: She likes shopping at H&M and the local boutique Relish, and favorite designers include Dries Van Noten, Prada, and Marni. These labels—much like Karla’s own—don’t offer much in the way of busy pattern and design, but rather a sleek, simple elegance.

Colletto’s latest suits have come a long way from their cotton beginnings: A canary-colored, halter-top one-piece with metallic detail steals the show in Colletto’s latest swimwear collection, Early Cruise 2015. Colletto says such bright, shiny looks are in demand: “The sporty look—bold color-blocking, perforated fabrics, scuba-style swimsuits—are very popular, as are pieces with some shine.”

Here, Colletto shares her advice on buying a swimsuit that makes you stand out.

Dress for Your Body Type

“If you have a larger bust, it’s best to wear a piece that has some construction to it, to give you that body-contouring shape. Deep necklines can really flatter that body type, while, say, a string triangle top may not be the best look,” Colletto says. Wider straps help to balance and keep things in proportion, while square or high necklines help to minimize a full chest. “At trunk shows, I’ve seen some of our one-shoulder suits look really flattering on large busts and broader shoulders. For a smaller bust, pick something with detail on the cup to give the illusion of volume.”

To make fuller waists look slimmer, Colletto suggests something with ruching in the midsection or a diagonal pattern. “Camo is a big trend right now, and having a subtle pattern like that can help distract from a tummy.”

For wide hips or thighs, she recommends “a suit that’s dark on the bottom and lighter or patterned on the top to draw attention away from hips and upper legs. Sporty, color-blocked styles are great for athletic bodies but also work well with curves, because the bold, vertical panels have a slimming effect. A front-zip suit creates a nice line and brings everything in to the center.”

Care for Your Suit

“Bathing suits get put through a lot, and they’re not indestructible. Even when suits, like ours, are made with Xtralife Lycra, they’re not going to last forever. Make sure you follow proper washing instructions: We recommend hand-washing suits in cool water. A mild lingerie or swimwear detergent works best. Don’t machine-wash your suit, and stay far away from bleach.”

Be Open-Minded

“Sometimes things you don’t expect look the most flattering. Try on a range of styles, colors, and patterns,” says Colletto, who also suggests shopping at a store with a knowledgeable staff that offers good service. “There’s nothing worse than having to run in and out of a dressing room—you lose patience. You want the help, and someone who is going to be honest with you.”

Pick Something You Feel Confident In

“One of the most rewarding things about this role is being able to make a woman feel really good about herself and her body,” Colletto says. “Choose a suit that’s right for your lifestyle—if you’re running around the beach chasing kids, you probably don’t want to wear a plunging neckline. Same with tricky closures. Ultimately, you have to feel good and be comfortable in the suit, so choose the cut that is most flattering for you even if it might not be the latest trend.”