By L'Oreal Thompson
The Baltimore Sun
7:44 AM EDT, May 23, 2013
You may not recognize Debbie Kowalski Wilson's name, but if you've opened a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in the past six years, chances are you've seen her work. Wilson, who is from Edgewood and now lives in Hawaii, has had her Maui Girl swimsuits featured in the popular edition of the magazine 48 times — and more than 200 times in the online version.
This year, Wilson's swimsuits were featured 14 times, including a centerfold with cover model Kate Upton in Antarctica. And with Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer here on the mainland, quickly approaching, Wilson is preparing for a busy season.
"This issue is the biggest issue on the planet," says Wilson, 61. "It stays on the magazine racks for eight months. There are videos, mobile apps, calendars, coffee table books, iPads, you name it. It is seen by 66 million viewers."
Her big break came in 2008, when Maui Girl was featured in two three-page spreads. One of the centerfolds featured Marisa Miller, who was the cover girl that year. The other three-page spread featured Bar Refaeli, who was dating Leonardo DiCaprio at the time.
Wilson says she was excited when she got word that Sports Illustrated was interested in her suits. "I got a phone call from their headquarters in New York," she says. "We're six hours behind here in Hawaii, so it was an early-morning call.
"At the time, I was excited, yes, but I didn't realize how important it would be for my business," Wilson says. "Believe me, all the swimwear designers and swimwear companies around the world check out this issue heavily, because this issue sets the trends for the following summer."
MJ Day, editor of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, describes Wilson's bathing suits as "works of art."
"Her suits fit great, which is first and foremost in importance," says Day. "They're well constructed and the fabric choices are very good ones. It enhances what's already good on our models, and she does a lot of custom pieces for us, which makes a huge difference."
For example, Wilson designed a custom bolero to go with her swimsuit, the Matador, which model Irina Shayk wore in Osuna, Spain, for this year's issue. The triangle-top bikini, which is sold for $220 on Wilson's website, is black and gold and features ruching on the bottom.
"For me, that really works," says Day. "When you have a zillion swimsuits, this is something different. It's still sexy, and it works."
The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, which began in 1964, is published in February and features supermodels in international locales. Former cover girls have included Tyra Banks, Christie Brinkley and Heidi Klum. Wilson initially submitted her swimsuits to Sports Illustrated for consideration in 2005, but they were not selected. She tried again in 2006 with no success, but was eventually chosen for the website in 2007.
"I finally got my swimsuit on Petra Nemcova on the Sports Illustrated website," she remembers. "That gave me inspiration to keep trying."
Wilson was a junior at Edgewood High School who found inspiration in "The Endless Summer," a surfing documentary by Bruce Brown. She fell in love with Hawaii and, as fate would have it, later fell in love with a lifeguard (who just happened to be from Hawaii) while working three part-time jobs in Ocean City. The couple dated, Wilson saved her money and then in September 1969, she drove a VW Beetle with a friend to Las Vegas before flying to Hawaii.
"Life in Hawaii is awesome. Getting here at 17 years of age was like a dream," says Wilson. "There was surf, sun and rainbows. It's so multicultural, it definitely is the 'melting pot' of the Pacific."
Once there, she attended Leeward Community College, a branch of the University of Hawaii, and received an associate's degree in recreation. She taught herself how to sew and opened the Clothes Addict, a French-style vintage clothing boutique, in 1978 in the town of Paia in Maui's North Shore. The store quickly developed a celebrity following, including Ringo Starr, Stevie Nicks and Cyndi Lauper. When windsurfing became popular in the 1980s, she made the transition from handmade clothing to swimsuits and renamed the store Maui Girl & Co.
"I got the idea for the name from the '50s tune 'Maui Girl,' " she says. "It's a great song. The inspiration for the line was to create a suit that was functional and fashionable."
Many of Wilson's designs are practical for the island's water sports, such as windsurfing, surfing and diving. Prices for these swimsuits begin at about $42 per piece, while the more risque swimsuits featured in Sports Illustrated range in cost between $100 and $300.
"As you look across all of the beaches in Maui, you'll see countless Maui Girl suits on the beach," she says. "We have our really cute Maui Girl label on the outside of our suits, which is a great marketing tool."
The Maui Girl spring/summer 2013 collection features neon color blocking, fringe and braiding, as well as suits featuring lace and laser cuts. Her favorite is the top-selling "Cupcake" bikini, which is made of lace. This year, Maui Girl was featured as the lead swimsuit designer in Sports Illustrated's 50th anniversary edition.
"We have gone all over the world and had our suits shot in exotic places on the most beautiful women on the planet," Wilson says. "When women wear Maui Girl, I want them to feel confident and beautiful in a suit that fits their body type."
While Wilson used to return to Maryland frequently to visit family in her younger years, her mother and brothers have since relocated to Hawaii. Even with her successful island lifestyle, there are still some local favorites Wilson misses.
"What I miss about Maryland are the steamed crabs, the Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore Orioles and my childhood friends," she says. As it turns out, you can take the girl out of Maryland, but you can't take the Maryland out of the girl ... even if she's in Maui.
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