Leila Shams Is Changing The Way Women Feel About Swimsuits
The fashion designer and founder of TA3 is doing it one snatched waist at a time.
For as long as she can remember, Leila Shams wanted to be a fashion designer. The Founder and CEO of TA3 – yes, that swimsuit line – expressed an early fascination with clothes as a form of expression. “My mom’s very creative and glamorous, and I always loved art,” she explains over Zoom from her office in LA. “So maybe, in the very beginning, I wanted to be more of an artist – because it was my forte. But as I got older, I started to move towards fashion.”


That’s not to say the move from art-obsessed schoolkid in Maryland to successful fashion designer in New York was seamless, particularly when it came to studying for it. “Oh, I was a tragic student, just terrible,” Shams reveals. “I really struggled with school – well, at least that’s what I told myself relentlessly. You know, the more I’ve learned about mindset, the more I’ve realised I had a very ‘fixed’ mindset back then. I really thought I was born with certain skills and I could only use those. I told myself I couldn’t do math, so I actually couldn’t do math. The second you believe you’re born without a certain skill, you convince yourself you’re never going to magically learn it, so why bother trying.”


It was this self-proclaimed ‘fixed mindset’ that led to Shams leaving Parsons School of Design early, and then dropping out of University of Maryland. “With Parsons, I convinced myself I couldn’t do patternmaking, so I ended up failing out of fashion school. I then went to University of Maryland to study painting but, of course, you can’t just paint all day, so I didn’t quite graduate from there either. I really struggled after that. I was actually so heartbroken, and I was so, so unhappy. All I wanted was to be a fashion designer and, after that, I thought it would never happen.”


But things did start to happen. Thanks to Shams’ charm, her plucky, DIY attitude, a dash of good fortune and no shortage of drive and determination, she soon found herself a job in New York. “At the time, it was very hard to get hired, but I started working for this woman in this tiny studio where I basically did everything,” Shams says. “What I quickly realised was that I was really good at working. I sucked at school, but I didn’t have a problem at work – I could always ‘outwork’ others.”


It was this extraordinary work ethic that proved to be a huge asset at Shams’ next role at DKNY Jeans. Here, she caught the eye of Donna Karan and fell in love with the corporate side of fashion. “I love the accountability of the corporate world. I love that if your stuff sells, you know it’s good. At DKNY, I was the one designer who knew my figures – better than the merchandisers. I always attended the sales meetings, even though none of the other designers would. I loved the creative side – I’d stay up all night hand-painting jeans – but I loved the business side as well.”


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Shams spent seven years at DKNY, rising through the ranks quickly, before she made the move to apparel brand Express. “This was around 2006. There weren’t any online stores at the time, so this was as close as you could get to ‘fast fashion’. The numbers they were doing were huge – around US$2 billion – and it was so fun. I also remember becoming obsessed with sizing at the time. It was one of the first times I really opened my eyes to fit issues – we weren’t fitting people correctly. I became very aware of the fact that we weren’t serving women’s bodies like we should be.”


Fast forward to a six-month severance package (“one of the best days of my life”), her own fashion brand (worn by the likes of Kim Kardashian and Katy Perry), some consultancy work, and two stints on reality TV, and Shams started thinking about her next venture…


“You know, I was always really unhappy putting on a swimsuit,” says Shams. “The second someone would say ‘let’s go on vacation’ my mind would think ‘Ugh. Swimsuit equals bikini equals diet equals exercise. What am I going to do to make myself look good in this stupid garment?!’ It actually ruined the experience for me. Going on vacation should be the best time of the year, and yet you’re stressing about your body. It was something that had bothered me for a really long time.”


Shams then started to ask why shapewear was only relegated to beneath clothing… “If you’re going to an event you almost always wear some form of shapewear. But here we are on vacation, basically naked in public, in these flimsy garments! It didn’t make sense.”


“I’m a very prove-them-wrong kind of person. Everyone that fired me or laid me off, I think about them on a daily basis; that motivates me.”


So, Shams decided to build shapewear into a swimsuit, but she wanted it to be sexy, sculpted and supporting. “I didn’t want ruching or to feel like a grandma,” she explains. “Most importantly, I wanted to go on vacation without thinking that I would need to go on a diet beforehand. That’s why I called it TA3 – it’s EAT backwards.”


It took three years to get the product right before Shams launched in 2020. It was an instant hit. “Almost immediately people were like ‘where has this been all my life?’ I could tell it was going to be good right away,” she says.


Before she knew it, Shams was realising another dream – an appearance on Shark Tank. “I mean, talk about a vision board… I had always imagined myself on that show. I love reality TV and I just presumed I would do amazing. But it was my first time ever pitching my business and I absolutely blew it – I watch it and cringe. They didn’t like the idea, I didn’t stand up for myself like I should have, I forgot my lines, and I was just heartbroken after that.”


But, in true Shams style, it gave her the boost she needed to prove them wrong. “I’m a very prove-them-wrong kind of person. Everyone that fired me or laid me off, I think about them on a daily basis; that motivates me,” she says laughing. “Oh, and I guarantee you, we have more revenue than anyone who was on that season of Shark Tank, the season before, or the season after!”


What’s more, Shams admits her appearance didn’t really move the needle for TA3 at all. When she filmed the show, the company was doing $1 million in revenue, and when it aired it was at $3.5 million. Now, TA3 is turning over $20 million in revenue.


“We were already going viral on TikTok before Shark Tank,” says Shams. “Five million people watch the show – that’s equivalent to one viral video; and not even a great performing viral video. Shark Tank was great as it gave us a lot of credibility, but thankfully I didn’t do a good job on it. I was asking for $500,000 for 20%, and I would be so unhappy now if I gave away that big a portion of my business! I learned a lot and it was super fun, but it certainly did not make or break us.”


“Shark Tank was great as it gave us a lot of credibility, but thankfully I didn’t do a good job on it. I was asking for $500,000 for 20%, and I would be so unhappy now if I gave away that big a portion of my business!”


What did make them? An obsession with fit and exceptional customer service. “In the beginning, I would talk to all of our customers,” says Shams. “I was the one who would write a note on every item. I would text them (which I think is illegal actually) and would follow up and ask for feedback. Now I have the most amazing customer service team and we are constantly checking in with customers. We really, really listen and we’re obsessed with fit and fitting the customers well.”


This obsession with fit includes using models of all shapes and sizes to fit their swimsuits – not the standard 5’7” model like so many fashion brands do. Also, underwire suits go up to an H-I cup, and the brand is adding a J-K cup. Suits are available in sizes XS to 3X with two torso length options – regular/long and short. And in addition, TA3 has customisable features for a bespoke fit: straps are fully adjustable (as are the laces on the back), and a built-in shelf bra has removable pads.


It’s this next-level detailing that has seen TA3 enjoy an almost instant (and Insta) success. Is Shams surprised it all? “You know, I asked my girlfriend the other day, ‘Did I just get lucky?’, and she was astonished. Her response was, ‘What are you talking about?! You’ve been trying so hard for so long. If you think about it, you’re probably not lucky!’


“And when I thought about it, it’s kind of true… I’m 48 years old, I’ve been a fashion designer for 25 years, I had a previous business, I was on three different reality shows. I’ve been trying to ‘make it’ for a really long time. Having said that, I still am super surprised – I never thought anything would work out this well.


“Every day I just pinch myself, and it’s scary,” Shams continues. “I’m not the most confident person, so I’m always worrying about when it will end! I feel like doom is just around every corner – I’m very paranoid like that. I’m just waiting for it to all crumble, but that’s because I love it so much. It’s so fun working with people whom I really love and creating a product I’m so passionate about. I mean, it all started with an idea in my head – that we should be creating clothes that fit. It was a concept that has actually come to life.”


As for Shams’ next dream, it’s a world where clothes fit all body types. “Can you imagine shopping and knowing that the clothes you tried on were actually going to fit you. Not only that, but they would make your body look better?!,” she asks. “I would love to do that for every product. I’m a 5’1” rectangle – that’s my body shape – with a short torso and double D boobs. That’s my size. My size is not ‘small’. To be able to create clothes that fit every body, that is just so exciting. And to make women feel more confident? That can be life-changing.”


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