‘We want to be in your suitcase’: Who is Tara Grinna and what’s next for her swim brand?

Myrtle Beach swimsuit designer continues to expand her business

Tara Grinna, swimsuit designer and Myrtle Beach resident, shares about her business, working in the swimwear industry, how she came to Myrtle Beach and what’s next for her brand and stores.
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Tara Grinna, swimsuit designer and Myrtle Beach resident, shares about her business, working in the swimwear industry, how she came to Myrtle Beach and what’s next for her brand and stores.

Swimwear was not on the horizon for Tara Grinna while studying to be a fashion designer at Florida Atlantic University in the 1980s.

Her specialty was evening wear — the sometimes floor-length gowns with lace and rhinestones, far from high-leg bikini bottoms.

In fact, she only had about two weeks of swimwear training in school — it’s a technical craft, she said. But when the opportunity to work in swimwear came along in Palm Beach, Florida, right as she was about to graduate from college, she took it.

Grinna has been working in swimwear ever since.

“I’m completely driven by creativity,” Grinna said. “I don’t go to work — I love what I do everyday.”

Over the last three decades, Grinna has paved the way in the swimsuit industry as one of the first to offer swim separates and has continued to open and run brick and mortar stores as swimsuit sales have moved online.

Tara Grinna, a Myrtle Beach swimsuit designer and manufacturer, accompanied by her dog Harold Jingles, talks about building her company over the last thirty years from her offices above her Barefoot Landing store. JASON LEE jlee@thesunnews.com

Grinna, a Myrtle Beach resident and owner of Tara Grinna Swimwear and La Plage, is in a season of making changes to her business. The 57-year-old designer will close her original shop, La Plage on Kings Highway, this year and is renovating and making the Tara Grinna Barefoot Landing location her flagship store.

“We’re closing La Plage because we’ve waited forever for something to come across the street there,” Grinna told The Sun News. “It just hasn’t happened.”

She said the store is disconnected from her Tara Grinna Swimwear and not conducive to her business’ new concept — expanding into resort wear and accessories.

Though the store will close, Grinna said her other stores continue to thrive, offering a shopping experience for clients of all body types.

The beginning

After seven years in southern Florida for school and working as a swimsuit designer in Palm Beach, Grinna moved to Myrtle Beach in 1987 — her mother lived in the area, she wanted to be closer to family, and she loved the change in seasons, unlike south Florida.

Grinna knew there was a need for custom swimwear, and with the help of her father, she purchased a license to use a computerized measuring system that was created by the woman she worked for in Palm Beach.

“It was a great idea, I thought, because at the time, no one was addressing fitting issues,” Grinna said. “You bought swimsuits in small, medium or large. … You didn’t buy a top and bottom separately.”

So, with a license to use the measuring system, Grinna opened La Plage — her first store that has been open in Myrtle Beach for 32 years. The store, at 2304 N. Kings Highway, is in its last season before closing, Grinna said.

“We really played defense for about five years,” she said of the beginning years of her business. “We had a niche in the market that nobody else had.”

Grinna was breaking the norm — which was suits sold together. She had heard from a panel of experts while visiting Atlanta, Georgia that it was a mess to sell separates, not worth it and at the end of a year selling separates, there would be different tops and bottoms left over.

“I’m a kid basically coming into their world and changing their world a little bit,” she said. “All of the design labels slowly came around” to selling separates.

It was scary, she said, to be one of the first to step out and create swimwear separates.

Ophelia Kinlaw, a 10-year employee of Tara Grinna, sews a bathing suit in the Conway factory on Wednesday, June 13, 2019. JASON LEE jlee@thesunnews.com

Her line initially catered to many women who had bigger busts, and the average client was between 35 and 60 years old. People recognized the business as being the first brand to address fit issues, Grinna said.

“I was able to offer that to real figure types,” she said. “It was real suits, for real people — not to just look good on the runway.”

A woman would come into the store searching for a custom swimsuit and a stylist would put her in a black sample piece and measure her.

“You’d choose a fabric and you had your custom swimsuit,” Grinna said. “And it was really successful.”

Gail Oliver pieces together a swimsuit before sewing in the Tara Grinna factory in Conway, S.C. on Wednesday, June 13, 2019. JASON LEE jlee@thesunnews.com

The measuring system diminished, Grinna said, as fabrics changed through the years, so they had to rely on sewers with experience to produce the swimsuits. Grinna, who had a young daughter at the time, was working from 8 a.m. to midnight.

“What we sold during the day, we manufactured at night,” she said. Her company had about three sewing machine operators working in Conway when the business started, compared to about 20 now.

In the mid 1990s, Grinna opened her Tara Grinna storefront, which now has seven retail locations from Virginia to Florida. At one point, she had about 20 wholesale buyers, including Nordstrom.

Who is Tara Grinna?

Originally from the Chincoteague Island area of Virginia, Grinna was raised in Maryland before moving to Florida for college and the first years of her design career.

In 1988, she married her husband, Rune Grinna, the company’s factory manager who came to the United States from Norway in 1987 to be a pilot. He worked as a pilot for a few years before working at the business full time. His wife, he said is a hard worker and as a designer, makes most of the big decisions for the company.

“She’s the face of the business and I’m the behind the scenes,” he said. “We are kind of like a perfect match.”

Grinna said she and her husband enjoy going out to eat at local restaurants and consider themselves “foodies.” The two are members of First Presbyterian Church in Myrtle Beach and have five Chihuahuas and two beagles.

Together, the couple has a daughter, Kirsti Kelliher, who works as the company’s director of retail operations.

While growing up, Kelliher said her mother was the “best thing” to look up to as a young girl.

“She’s very determined and a go-getter,” Kelliher said. “She’s not going to let anyone tell her ‘no.’”

The name Tara Grinna is known globally, Kelliher said.

“I’m extremely impressed with what she’s been able to do in a small town,” she said.

Kelliher remembers traveling around the world for photoshoots and watching her mother work. She was so inspired at 10 years old by her mother’s work ethic, she begged Grinna for her own swim line. Grinna expected her daughter to pitch a name for the swim line and designs. And by 14, Kelliher had her own line.

“She believed in me and trusted what I was doing,” Kelliher said, adding she gave up after-school activities to work on her swim line.

Kelliher said her mother knows how to find great items while thrift shopping and they enjoying spending many dinners together.

“We’re a pretty tight-knit group,” she said of her family.

The brand now, what’s next

Grinna never imagined her line would expand to what it is today. The business, she said, has changed “quite a bit” over the years — from advertising techniques to the rise of social media and selling products online to witnessing other swimwear stores closing.

“We’ve seen brick and mortar stores shut down and meanwhile, we’re expanding,” she said.

The one thing that has not changed in the business is swimsuits are still manufactured in Horry County.

Entering a Tara Grinna store is an experience — clients are offered champagne, and there’s even bourbon for the men, a stylist caters to the client, taking away any dreadful try-on experience women may fear, Grinna said.

“We really pamper and wait on that client,” she said, adding their reason for doing so is to make it less overwhelming. “Stylists know the brand inside and out.”

The Barefoot Landing location is becoming the flagship store and is now undergoing renovations that include a runway, and the Charleston store just celebrated its one-year anniversary.

The average cost for a swimsuit today is $180. It’s made with quality fabric, including exterior fabric used for lining, Grinna said. Swimsuits vary from full coverage to cheeky bottoms, offering styles for all body types. The average client now is between 27 and 65 years old, according to a recent client study for the store.

Grinna said her company is starting to sell products to Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons hotels.

Spools of thread fill a container at the Tara Grinna swimsuit factory in Conway. JASON LEE jlee@thesunnews.com

The line has expanded into selling sandals, jewelry, scarves and, most recently, resort wear, which includes cashmere and furs. Products that are not made at her Conway factory are made in Italy in warehouses that also make products for brands like Armani and Hermès.

“It’s not cheap,” she said of her clothing and swimsuits. “But it’s probably a fifth of what you would pay if it had an Armani label on it.

“Whether you’re vacationing in the islands or Arctic, we want to be in your suitcase,” Grinna said.

The Sun News Reporter Hannah Strong is passionate about making the world better through what she reports and writes. Strong, who is a Pawleys Island native, is quick to jump on breaking news, profiles stories about people in the community and obituaries. Strong has won four S.C. Press Association first-place awards, including one for enterprise reporting after riding along with police during a homicide. She earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from Winthrop University.