It all started with $12,000. That, and a little jolt into the spotlight via reality TV.
In 2011, former model Draya Michele was cast for the debut season of Basketball Wives LA, Shaunie O'Neal’s Los Angeles off-shoot of the Miami series that followed a group of women whose claim to fame were their relationships with famous athletes. The only catch? She wasn't romantically linked to anyone in the NBA. (At that point, Michele was best known for her relationship with Chris Brown). But after moving to LA from Pennsylvania and earning some cash, she launched her first of now three clothing brands: Mint Swim, a swimwear line designed with “all shapes and sizes in mind.” Now, she's a self-made millionaire.
“I saved up $12,000 and I invested it completely into my company," Michele tells Refinery29, noting that her brand is for the woman who “wants to feel sexy and enhance all the right curves while staying fashionable. I started with four styles of swimsuits and from there, things just grew via social media;" for context, Michele's personal Instagram boasts 6.2 million followers; Mint Swim's has just over 200K.
She credits her surge in popularity to, of course, her time on Basketball Wives LA: “I can actually remember my last episode on TV," she says. "On Instagram, I had 2 million followers total. I’ve been off of TV for three-and-a-half years now, and I am at 6 million.” So, no, being on reality TV didn't hurt her career. If anything, it helped immensely.
But, she also attributes her popularity to how real she is; she's no longer interested in being sexy and says that her fans have watched her grow up through social media. “It's important to show people that I am versatile,” she says. “I can still have the same sex appeal in clothing. I’m not afraid to cover it up. I used to think that I were fully-clothed that I wouldn’t get likes, or people weren’t going to pay attention to me, but that’s not the case.”
The pieces, however, speak for themselves, whether millions of followers are involved or not. Michele has factory in LA — “We support the American economy,” she says — but she doesn’t consider herself a traditional designer. “I’m constantly designing and producing stuff, so when comes out, I’ll put it out. If Selena Gomez feels like wearing [our swimsuit], which has happened before, it's going to sell out in probably 14 seconds. But I have the ability to make 3,000 more.”
Right now, though, Michele is gearing up for Mint Swim’s big Labor Day sale, where she’s hoping everything will sell out so she can “get back to the drawing board and start creating again.” She's also working on the brand's plans for 2018, when she says she's taking Mint Swim to the next-level with what she calls a “hangout” — a space that’s open daily for events, creative meetings, and the occasional pop-up, obviously. Oh, and she has a major fashion show in the works, too. No rest for the weary, as they say, but if it amounts to things like a Vogue Brasil feature, which Michele calls "a career highlight," well, then it's all worth it.