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How one LDS entrepreneur went from high fashion for runway models to modest swimsuits for little girls

In the heart of Manhattan on the 15th floor of Parsons School of Design, Whitney Cheney gazed out the window at a giant gold hand perched atop a wax museum. The perfectly manicured fingernails and lined knuckles were simultaneously grotesque and fascinating amidst the hodgepodge of historic and modern architecture in New York City, and her own fingers itched to capture the feeling of it.

“I always have a little notebook and a pen with me because I’m always sketching something and jotting down an idea or a concept,” said Cheney.

Initially, Cheney’s clothing designs were primarily of the high fashion variety — items that were worn by runway models. But today, those sketches mainly involve swimsuits for young girls. Cheney is the business guru behind LaLa Swimwear, a startup company selling modest two-piece swimsuits for girls ages 2-13.

The change of direction was significant for Cheney, who left her fashion program early to serve a mission in Busan, Korea, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Post-mission, Cheney graduated in entrepreneurship from Utah Valley University instead of returning to fashion school — a choice she ultimately attributes to her faith in God.

Whitney Cheney left design school to serve an LDS mission. She has now created a modest swimwear line for young girls. | Courtesy of Whitney Cheney

“I know that the decision I made to start this company was right, and I need to just hold strong to that and not let my faith waver … have the confidence in my Heavenly Father … and the reassurance that he’s given me so far,” said Cheney, who has invested the majority of her life’s savings into the company.

It’s a risky venture for a recent college graduate, but Cheney’s drive comes from the hope that her company will give young girls a sense of empowerment.

“I wanted to be able to … give little girls the opportunity to pick out a swimsuit that they enjoy, and that they feel confident and have fun in, as well as a suit that their parents can feel confident in them wearing,” Cheney said.

Two-piece suits for girls are typically sold together — a problem, said Cheney, considering girls the same age are often drastically different in size from each other.

“I have four nieces, and they range in ages and sizes,” said Cheney, who used the initials of her nieces’ names in her company title. “Some of them wear the same size according to the industry, but their body types are very diverse, so the clothing fits them very differently.”

“It drove me crazy when I tried to find a tankini that was long enough (for my daughter) because I couldn’t,” said Cheney’s sister Stephani Dillier.

When Dillier and Cheney's sister-in-law suggested Cheney solve the issue, she didn’t think much of it at first.

“It was kind of the family joke,” said Cheney. “If anything is ever wrong with fashion, or if someone doesn’t like something in clothing they’ll say, ‘Whitney, one day you need to fix this,’” she said.

But when one of Cheney’s classes at Utah Valley University required its students to start a business, she decided to dive in head-first.

“I wanted to do something where I could really progress, something I love and I was passionate about,” she said. “I felt like there was really a need out there,” she continued.

Modesty has always been a high priority for Cheney, who took classes at Salt Lake Community College before she was accepted into Parsons the New School of Design.

“I always strive to make everything as modest as possible because I think you can be modest and still look great and still feel comfortable,” she said. “It’s the easier route to just … create and do what everyone else is doing, but part of the fun in life is the challenge.”

Selling swimwear tops and bottoms separately also brings the added bonus of a mix-and-match option for young girls who have just discovered the thrill of picking out their own outfits. Cheney hopes it will allow girls to express their different styles and personalities from a young age.

“Women’s swimwear has a lot more options,” said Cheney. “They can mix and match styles and sizes to create a suit that’s right for them. You have very few people and companies that are doing that for little girls currently.”

In addition to her two-piece designs, Cheney also sells one-piece suits, which are also often inspired by her family.

“One of my nieces is particularly very skinny and tall, and it’s always been a struggle for my sister trying to find something for her to wear,” said Cheney.

To remedy the problem, Cheney designed a suit that laces up in the back so that parents can order a larger size if their daughters need extra length, while the lacing ensures a proper fit. Buying up a size is also a good option for those who may want a suit to last for more than one season.

Still, there were times when Cheney missed learning about subjects like color theory and graphic design in New York and wondered if she had made the right choice.

“It definitely took me awhile to get here,” said Cheney, who felt prompted to stay in Utah following her mission in Korea. “Even once I had decided on a business and I was heavy into the program, I still had those ‘what if’ moments … thinking about what my life would be like had I still been in New York,” she admitted.

Whitney Cheney tested her suits on young girls to make sure they were both functional and stylish. | Courtesy of Whitney Cheney

But even stronger than those doubts were affirmations that she had chosen the right course.

“There have been a number of moments that have clicked in, and those blessings have come where it’s really showed me that I’ve made the right decision,” Cheney said. “I’ve seen my faith strengthened so much through this process.”

Studying business was a natural step for Cheney, who is as much a designer as she is an entrepreneur. “I always had the vision and the goal of starting my own clothing company. But then studying business gave me the actual know-how,” she said.

Cheney uses her business foundation on a daily basis by finalizing logos, talking to manufacturers, working on website design and managing her social media accounts to get her company up and running.

“It adds to the work, but it also adds to the reward of getting it all done,” she said. “When you’re starting out a company, you’ve got to cut your costs where you can.”

Cheney spent months testing the fiber contents of her fabrics. She also caused extra aggression to her suits by trying them against the sun, chlorine and stretching. At times, she even let young girls “jump around in the pool and the grass, and … rub dirt in the swimsuit,” said Cheney.

Plus, there was the challenge of balancing practicality and style in her designs.

“She worked tirelessly to make sure the cuts and fits of the suits were fun but also functional, giving girls the freedom to be themselves and moms the freedom of choice,” said Cheney’s sister-in-law Shauntel Christensen. “I have two very active girls, so even when they’re in suits, I want them in functional pieces that won’t slip or slide off.”

Down the road, Cheney would love to be selling in larger retail stores and eventually expand her swimwear company to include women, men and boys. But in the meantime, she’s focused on what she considers to be her most important goal of all: building confidence in little girls.

“Little girls are our future … and we need to empower them now and instill them with confidence in who they are and what they can do and let them know that it’s limitless. The opportunities are there,” she said.

“You shouldn’t have to worry about your swimsuit fitting and being OK,” Cheney said. “You should just worry about being you and not your swimwear.”