All mothers know how problem-solving products make their lives easier – but not many know how to create one themselves.
Alexis Castellano and Jill Slater, co-owners of FASTEN in Marlboro, certainly do.
A few years ago, Slater, then a pregnant nurse practitioner, and Castellano, then a freelance writer and party planner, took Castellano’s two-year old and nine-month old daughters to the pool.
It wasn’t long, Castellano said, before she heard a familiar phrase from her daughter: “I need to go to the bathroom.”
“What a pain it is to remove a wet one-piece bathing suit in a hurry,” Castellano said. “It was even harder to get the suit back on!”
When she returned to her friend about 20 minutes later, Castellano said to Slater, “I can’t believe there isn’t a better one-piece bathing suit out there.”
As their conversation continued, Slater said she realized something else.
“The more we started thinking about it, the more we realized just how dirty these bathing suits must become, with girls often leaving them on the bathroom floors,” she said. “We finally said that we should do something about it.”
The two 30-something mothers said that after searching for a product that did not exist, they decided to create a one-piece bathing suit that would open and close with ease.
Castellano turned to her mother, a retired fashion designer, to create a prototype.
Alexis Castellano and Jill Slater, co-owners of FASTEN in Marlboro, designed their own innovative product to help other parents and worked with local consultants and manufacturers to make it happen.
Still, Slater said, people underestimate them.
“One of the things that Alexis and I have prided ourselves on is just how much we learned and taught ourselves about business,” she said.
The most important thing they learned, she added, is to always check your work.
“One time, when we went into double check our final markers, the measurements were all off by a quarter of an inch – an entire size in children’s clothing,” Slater said. “The printer needed to be recalibrated.
“The manufacturer said, ‘At first it seemed annoying to us that you would ask to double-check the measurements, because we’ve done this for 25 years, but right there, you probably saved us another five or six projects for companies that we also printed markers for this week.”
Slater said there is no shame in being thorough, despite the stigma it may create.
“Are we being nags or are we people who strongly believe in sticking up for ourselves?” she said. “In the end, no one is going to care about the end product as much as we do – and no one else will be responsible.”
They began cutting up all their daughters’ bathing suits to find the best place for the suit to open and to figure out how it would attach. “We tried zippers, buttons, loops, hoops – we just wanted it to be easier than pulling off a wet one-piece,” Slater said.
“That was the question we asked ourselves, with every fastener we tried: Will this be easier than the struggle?” Castellano said.
Ultimately, the duo decided on magnets hidden at the waist.
“They can be sewn and hiding within a product, they keep the fabric closed, and they are easy for little kids to use,” Slater said. “So we literally used industrial magnetic tape in our first prototype to show manufacturers the effect we were going for.
“We were met with a lot of weird looks and a lot of, ‘This is crazy’,” she said.
Still, Slater and Castellano believed in the need for their product, and hired a consultant who not only connected them with an intellectual property lawyer, but also a manufacturer.
Even then, they were dismissed.
“Our manufacturer in West New York [at first] told us it was too difficult to make,” Castellano said. “So we revised the pattern, brought it back to him, and said, please, just make this sample for us.”
He did – and he continued to manufacture the second and third productions of FASTEN swimsuits for girls when sales started rolling in October 2015.
“Now, he jokes and says, ‘I can’t believe this happened so fast,’ ” Castellano said.
Unfortunately, she added, the high cost of manufacturing in New Jersey has forced the co-owners to look elsewhere.
“We are working with a company in New York City to connect with manufacturers overseas right now,” Castellano said. “Our manufacturer in West New York is amazing for security, stability, and quality, for sure, and we always will use him for smaller orders that we need fast, but costs are high and there is no way around it. “
She predicted that with overseas manufacturing and increased volume, “our costs will come down and our margins will improve.”
FASTEN swimsuits, on average, cost $36 and can be purchased online via the company website. The company employs four, including Slater and Castellano, who are trying to balance their full-time jobs with motherhood.
“As both a mother and a business owner, it’s all about working within the flow of that day,” Slater said.
“Both Jill and I typically work during school hours, with the occasional meeting in New York city [causing] us to make necessary arrangements to get our kids to dance or on the bus, but for the most part, we are moms when the kids get home, and as soon as they are put to bed, we are back working,” Castellano said.
The women have since doubled the company’s revenue from last year while earning reviews from more than two dozen popular “mommy bloggers” and a televised interview on theSkimm’s web series “Get Off the Couch.”
“What we want to do over the next year is build the brand,” Castellano said. “Our products have less than a 1 percent return rate – maybe not enough people know about them, but those who do certainly love them.”
In an added effort to counteract seasonality, and competition, FASTEN has been doubling down on its marketing and diversification efforts.
“Because we are primarily in swimwear, we will be advertising in Australia during its summer, and have also sold to Singapore, Japan, Canada and Mexico,” Castellano said. “We also both have daughters who dance, so we quickly realized we could apply the same technology … to a line of leotards, which we just recently launched.”
“When it comes to competitors, the children’s bathing suit market is quite large, and there are a few other brands that make swimsuits for babies with snaps,” Slater said. “But there are no other swimsuit manufacturers out there like that which will go above a size 3T and nobody else willing to make suits that open across the waist.”
Slater and Castellano’s ultimate goal, they said, is to change that.
“We would like to license our technology so that other manufacturers could use our design in their swimwear and dancewear,” Slater said. “We’ve even had people ask for women’s sizes in shapewear, which is an area we would like to expand into as well.”
Slater and Castellano said they are confident with where they are – and good riddance to the three years they’ve spent making this idea a reality.
“I think there were so many points where we could have easily just said, this isn’t worth it, why are we doing this, let’s stop,” Castellano said. “But when we got discouraged, sometimes we just had to take a step back and look at everything we’ve accomplished so far. That fueled us to keep going, and look at how it has all turned out. Maybe you take two steps back just to get one step ahead, but you are still moving forward.”
Slater said she hopes their story will inspire more companies to work with whomever has the best ideas, regardless of what they may or may not know already about the industry.
“We needed someone who would help us learn how to take a prototype and make it into something that would work for larger production,” Slater said. “And it just took somebody willing to work and communicate with us – two young moms with zero background in manufacturing – to create this unique product.”