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Melbourne to Millennials, all thanks to Instagram

Vibrant, color-saturated bikinis are popping up on beaches everywhere this summer. The perpetrator: a budding swimsuit company with Australian roots called Triangl.

Triangl is a classic rags-to-riches tale, of the digital age. Boy, broke, meets girl, they fall in love and, with little to their names except one another and a big dream, sell everything they own on eBay and throw the proceeds into a start-up.

In 2012, former Aussie-rules footballer Craig Ellis and fiancee Erin Deering left the comfort of their home in Melbourne and bought a one-way ticket to Hong Kong. Their plan: to launch a swimwear line.

Money was so tight, they ate canned food and packed orders from their tiny apartment. “We would run to the post office with three big tubs of bikinis and hold up the line for two hours processing the packages one by one,” says Ellis. “They wouldn’t let us have a bulk ­account because we lived on the fourth floor and the postman wasn’t going to come up and collect everything.” ­Momentum picked up, and by April 2013 they were shipping more than 100 orders a day. Just two years later, BRW Rich List anointed Deering the second wealthiest woman in Australia under 40 with wealth of $36 million.

In a market where up to 90 per cent of start-ups fail, and even compared with the 10 per cent that don’t, Triangl’s success isn’t just pat-on-the-back; it’s stratospheric.

The brand was born from a gap in the market. “There were the big swimwear labels like Seafolly, but nothing much in the $100 ­category aside from surf brands,” says Ellis. They ­initially started wholesaling but in 2013 moved ­entirely online, selling only through their website, Ellis credits this move as the key to their success. “Erin was spending all this time chasing wholesale payments, but we also needed to sell  the next range while they owed us a bunch of money. It was an awkward relationship and a flawed business model. With e-commerce you get paid instantly, so we’ve had a ­really profitable business since day one.”

Launching Triangl was a big risk and Ellis didn’t have the best track record. He went bankrupt in 2009 after St Lenny, the T-shirt brand he founded with fellow AFL player Nathan Brown, folded. Ellis rode a pushbike to work and earned minimum pay, all the while keen to sink his teeth into another ­design business. Hong Kong appealed because of its proximity to the powerhouse Chinese factories, which somewhat avoided the delays and difficulties Australian designers faced when manufacturing locally.

“Instead of going straight to market with a perfect product, like so many brands do, we tested the waters with small batches. It ­enabled us to gauge the response of customers, and because we weren’t doing large runs we were open to experimenting,” Ellis says of the independently owned company. They tried two fabrications — neoprene and nylon-spandex. Contrary to their expectations, the former won out. “We weren’t going to argue with the customer, so that’s what we went with.”

The bikinis, in shades dubbed Cola Pop, Blue Crush, Candy Sunset, Pink Lemonade and so on, retail for less than $100 and have resonated with 20-something millennials who don’t blink an eye buying swimwear online. Traditionally used in wetsuits, the flexible scuba material neoprene is trending across the apparel industry, with luxury brands Kenzo, Alexander Wang and Balenciaga applying it to dresses, jumpers and bags.

The couple’s original goal was to sell one bikini a day, equivalent to $30,000 annually, to cover costs. Yet by the end of their first year in business, Triangl had turned over $5m.

The following year, sales reached $25m; last year’s figure was $45m. “It’s grown way beyond anything we ever imagined,” says Ellis. He and Deering have a supply-chain office in Hong Kong with a staff of 10, and a parent company based in the Channel ­Islands where “all the ­decision-making happens”. Ellis plans to open a design office in New York.

After an initial six paid blogger posts, they had no marketing budget, so the couple turned to Instagram.

Triangl hasn’t spent a cent on advertising, ­relying wholly on the photo-sharing platform — think suntanned ­models frolicking on tropical beaches — where it has 2.8 million followers. “Having no money was a blessing in disguise,” says Ellis. While they do give swimwear to celebrities and others who influence trends, there’s “nothing transactional”, he says. “This way, there’s a sense of authenticity that’s way more powerful than a billboard.”

Beyonce and Miley Cyrus are fans, but it was young reality star and Kim Kardashian’s half-sister Kendall Jenner whose Twitter posts prompted a sales surge in the US. It’s the strongest market at the moment, but Triangl ships everywhere and has processed orders from Kazakhstan and Mongolia.

Ellis favours Instagram because it is quantifiable — posts drive traffic. “It goes to show the power and reach of social media.”

While Triangl’s colour-blocked, back-trimmed styles are hardly breaking new fashion ground, they are distinctive and, unfortunately, easy to copy. In the middle of last year, Triangl devotees leapt to its defence when lingerie behemoth Victoria’s Secret released a series of lookalikes. “Victoria’s Secret knock off Triangl ­bikinis needs to stop,” one loyal fan tweeted. But Triangl took no action.

It’s also happening on home soil. “In one sense it’s flattering but it’s disappointing that Australian brands are the ones taking inspiration. But we are now in a position to allocate budget towards the protection of the brand,” says Ellis.

While fashion copyright is notoriously hard to prove, Australian swimwear label Baku and retailers Bras N Things and Target have ranges heavily inspired by Triangl’s popular balconette Milly and Poppy designs. Last year The Fashion Law blog asked: “Triangl: The World’s Most Copied ­Bikinis?”

The forecast is sunny. Expansion is inevitable but there’s no urgency. “We want to keep our offering really tight and maintain focus on our niche for now,” Ellis says. “We don’t want to offer too much up-front and dilute what the brand represents. The product needs to be the best it can be before we broaden into other ­products.”

Away from the business, Ellis and Deering have just moved to Monaco with their baby, who at seven months has been on 28 international flights — first class, of course. “It’s not a bad life,” says Ellis, and his wife’s Instagram account bears this out, chronicling a whirlwind of luxury shopping, designer shoes and five-star island resorts.

The lifestyle appears enviable, but there’s no such thing as work-life balance for these entrepreneurs.

“From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep at night the conversation is all about Triangl,” Ellis says. “Someone else might find it ­boring, but we love it.”

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