Red Carter in his New York showroom

Last summer, just as bikini season was ending and Miami was gearing up for another winter, there was some big local fashion news. Red Carter, the Santa Ana, California-born designer who created and grew his namesake brand of swimwear in a Miami Beach apartment, licensed his label to outerwear manufacturer Amerex Group. It was a coup for Carter, not only because it would allow him to concentrate full-time on designing swimwear (and step away from the day-to-day of running a business), but also make it possible for the line to expand its distribution and product offerings. The downside (for us here in Miami, anyway) is that Red Carter, both the man and the brand, have relocated to Manhattan.

“Right now, I look at the Chrysler Building. [But] while I’m not physically in Miami anymore, I’ll [still] get my inspiration from there,” he says. “I have reverence for the city; I always will. And there’s no better influence for swimwear. So I’ll still visit and collect my thoughts. But my challenge is to take this opportunity and maximize it.”

Carter—born Daniel William Red Carter but called Red even as a kid—began manufacturing his swimwear designs in Miami in 2003. The bikinis started out covering very little, as Carter set out to create wearable souvenirs for out-of-towners reflective of South Beach’s sexy beach style. But the bikinis’ racy glamour quickly earned the brand widespread attention, attracting top retailers, celebrities, and international glossy magazines.

With his new corporate backing, Carter is about to make his boldest move yet—introducing two different lines: a Black Label offering the same high-glam/low-coverage fits his fans have always clamored for, and the new Red Label, which will include one-pieces and tankinis, designed to accommodate the figure flaws most shoppers are familiar with. The company will also continue to manufacture suits for a line by Jessica Simpson.

“I had to put my head down and create a new fit,” says Carter about his Red Label designs. “I’ve grown up with my customer. It’s great to work with these hot supermodels—my dad is so proud—but at the same time, you have people tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘Can you please make something for me?’ So now we’re addressing the customer who’s still fit and sexy, but needs a one-piece.” The Red Label line will debut with about 30 designs featuring the Red Carter signature: deep necklines, ruffles, and color-blocking. The suits, available at Macy’s and Lord & Taylor, will range from $140 to $160. The Black Label pieces will continue to sell at retailers such as Lincoln Road’s Journelle boutique for 
$160 to $200.

The only thing perhaps more dramatic than the cut of his bikinis is the story of how his business began. After design jobs at Esprit, Guess, and Authentic Fitness, where he created the first line of suits for mall retailer Rampage, the designer was recruited by Marc Ecko, a position that brought him to Miami Beach. Then, only three months later, the company laid him off.

“I was angry,” he says. “I had paid my dues and felt like this was going to be my big break. But I realized my break wasn’t something someone was going to give me. I had to create it on my own. Getting fired was actually a cathartic experience, but I had to fight through my own insecurities to stand out. That’s when I found my voice.”

And find it he did. Carter used his credit card to fund production of his initial collection of bikinis. His first opportunity to showcase them was at a Swimwear Association of Florida event, where he played Bettie Page movies in his booth. “People were like, ‘Oh my God, he’s playing porn,’” Carter recalls. “But the exciting thing was that the first customer who came by was from Henri Bendel, which bought 15 pieces over the course of the season.”

From there, retail stores followed, as did magazines. It wasn’t long before Heidi Klum was photographed for Sports Illustrated in one of his pieces. “Red Carter is a designer who really understands the importance of perfect fit,” says Diane Smith, senior editor for SI’s Swimsuit Edition. “There is nothing more important when we are photographing our gorgeous girls than having a suit that fits perfectly. His designs always have a touch of glamour without sacrificing sexiness.” Yes, like most companies, he has a size 8 fit model critique each design, and yes, each suit goes on a body before it goes into production. But somehow—like all great artists—Carter manages to achieve what most of his competitors cannot. “When you make a swimsuit, it has to fit like a glove, and I’m just good at making gloves,” he says wryly.

It wasn’t long before the first Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Swim brought international exposure to both Miami Beach and local designers such as Carter. Later, his pieces were worn by Gisele Bündchen in the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, while other celebrities, including Rihanna and Katy Perry, were randomly photographed in the suits. “It happened very organically,” says Carter. “It’s not like we reached out to anyone.”

But stylists certainly came to him. Danny Santiago, co-costume designer for the Sex and the City movies as well as costume designer for Miami-filmed Burn Notice, is constantly dressing characters in Red Carter. “He makes the girls more glamorous on-screen,” says Santiago. “His colors are great, the patterns are great, and it’s a glam South Beach style that’s a bit more polished than a regular swimsuit.” As the Red Carter brand expands, the designer is also returning to his artistic roots. Once a student at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, where he studied with such mentors as Bob Mackie and Todd Oldham, Carter is now helping students there turn ideas into sketches and three-dimensional designs. “To give back and be a mentor, and to have your teachers who taught you still work there, to turn that corner of your life—it’s the biggest reward. I took a picture with each of them.”

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