Into the Deep: From Real Estate Agent to Wet-Suit Designer

Debbie Davis was bored in her real estate job. Then she fell madly in love — with the ocean. At 55, she has an Internet business selling women-friendly wet suits, and a whole new view of life.

Interview by Janet Ungless
Photograph: Photo: Shay Peretz

Afraid of the Water

The biggest transformation in my life started as a fluke. I was on vacation in Puerto Vallarta with three friends. I’m not a good swimmer, and even though I love the ocean, I had a fear of the water. But my friends really wanted to go snorkeling, so I said, "Okay, fine, I’ll go along." We were taken out in a boat and dumped into deep water — no life preservers. I was pretty scared. I was holding on tight to a rock, but finally, after about an hour, I relaxed. There were crabs crawling around on the rocks, and seabirds, and I began to enjoy the wind, the waves — the whole thing. I wanted to be in the water like that again, so the next year, on a trip to Hawaii, I found a dive company that agreed to take me out as a snorkeler. I had absolutely no intention of diving. But for whatever reason, when I got on the boat, I let this guy put a tank on me. I’d had no lessons, which I would definitely not recommend. I was terrified, and it took me a long time to jump in with all that gear on my back, but I finally did. As soon as I descended, a huge sea turtle went by — and in that moment, I was hooked. It didn’t matter that my ears hurt or that my mask was fogging up because I didn’t know how to equalize the pressure.

After another dive, this time in Belize, I signed up for a certification course. The one thing that bothered me was that the wet suits were so ugly. Somebody would always take my picture on the boat, and I’d be horrified. Whoever manufactured wet suits designed them to make men look good — and then just cranked out smaller versions for women. I kept thinking, "I could design a better suit than this." But I was a new diver. I didn’t know the first thing about the scuba industry or the clothing industry, or retail, or design — nothing. I worked in real estate, selling houses and condos, managing property. I was 44 years old.

Following a Dream

Back home in Corona del Mar, California, I kept having vivid dreams about the ocean. Morning after morning, I’d wake up, draw my dreams, and pin the pictures to my bathroom walls. I did not understand what they meant. Then one day I was in a sporting goods store because I needed a new mask. I found myself staring at the wet suits and feeling annoyed by them, and then all of a sudden I realized what my dreams were telling me to do. I went home and started a file called Sea Dreams.

Next, I drew a classic design with princess seams, which flatter a woman’s bustline. I was taking sewing classes at the time, so my teacher and I made a pattern. Then I looked in the phone book and found a surf-clothes manufacturer and asked him to make four prototypes. He thought I was crazy when I said I wanted embroidery (and I’ve since stopped using it), but he manufactures my suits to this day.

After about nine months, I had my company, Seadreamswetsuits.com, up and running. This was 1998 — still the earlyish days of selling on the Internet — and you could start a Web site cheaply. In the beginning, sales were slow, but each year gets better as more and more people feel comfortable buying clothing online. At first, I stopped at size 14. Now I’ve added plus sizes because there was nothing out there for larger women — and those suits are really selling.

Not every day is a good day. I may get a lot of returns, or PayPal goes down. I’ve had my ups and downs. But if I hadn’t started Sea Dreams, I’d still be drowning in my real estate job, doing the same thing day in, day out: clean the apartment, call the window guys, hire the painters. I made good money — and I still support myself with real estate investments — but I always felt like something was missing. Life is supposed to be an adventure, and we forget that sometimes.

Share Your Thoughts!

Comments

Post new comment

Click to add a comment