Tarra Warnes: Lookabout Swimwear

Tarra Warnes: Lookabout Swimwear

Questions & Answers with community faces

Tarra (Dalley) Warnes (39) was born and raised in Traverse City, and she remembers fondly spending her summers at beaches all along our Lake Michigan coastline. Warnes graduated from Traverse City Central in 2002 and then attended Northwestern Michigan College, where she graduated with an Associate’s degree of Applied Science in visual communications. In 2005, she transferred to Coastal Carolina University, where she received her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree in graphic design in 2007. 

After leaving South Carolina that year, Warnes made her way back to Michigan—first landing in Portage, outside of Kalamazoo, before making the commitment to come back home to Northern Michigan.

In 2008, she applied for a graphic design job at Hagerty in Traverse City, where she still works today. Over the years, her role at the company has evolved from graphic designer to operations manager to creative director to vice president of creative strategy. During that time, she met her husband, Justin Warnes (39); they married in Glen Arbor  in 2010 and now have four children. 

Along the way, Tarra Warnes has maintained an active freelance design and illustration client list, because no matter how demanding her day job is, she always has an overflow of creative energy.

In 2021, that overflow began to manifest in the development of a swimwear line, now known as Lookabout Swimwear. The name comes from our state motto: “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” Every print is conceived and illustrated by Warnes, and the subject matter is drawn from the Great Lakes region. Her prints have names like Clinch Park (named for the Traverse City marina), Deadstream Stripe (named after Benzie County’s own Deadstream Road), and Bad Harbor (what her husband has nicknamed Bohemian Road Beach), and they depict the experience of summer in Northern Michigan. All of Lookabout Swimwear is crafted sustainably, and Warnes donates 1 percent of her profits to the Women’s Resource Center in Traverse City. 

Justin is her partner in life and in Lookabout, and he uses his background and skillset to provide website tech support, shoot photography and video, buy and manage advertising, and operate fulfillment. Between the two of them, they handle every aspect of the business—outside of the actual fabrication of the suits—by themselves, in-house.

Continuing with our interview series on impactful Northern Michigan characters, The Betsie Current caught up with Warnes as she was out soaking up summertime inspiration to translate into next season’s designs.

The Betsie Current: What made you want to design and illustration as a career? What do you enjoy about this line of work? What do you think is different about the art that you are creating from what is already out there?

Tarra Warnes: As a kid, I was obsessed with drawing, lettering, and creating art in a conceptual form. It’s always been a passion and an outlet for me, and something where I feel compelled to create visual art as part of a larger, interconnected story. I never put much thought into art as a career, or considered where professional graphics actually came from, until I randomly took an elective in high school called “commercial art” and learned how to use Photoshop on an ancient computer. I realized there was a career path called graphic design, and it seemed legit. In college and my career, I’ve leaned into my interests in illustration and hand-lettering, but my portfolio of work experience has spanned identity design to advertising and creative direction to brand strategy and development. What I enjoy about my line of work is that it fills an insatiable need I have to create things. I think the art I’m creating with my swimwear line is different, because it is the visual expression of my life in Northern Michigan, rooted in my own memories, experiences, and point of view, but in a way that I hope resonates with anyone who knows the magic of this place, the magic of the water, and is drawn to experiences of a liminal nature. My prints are designed not only to look adorable as swimwear, but to capture something I’ve experienced here. For example, as beautiful and serene as the waters of our lakes are, there is something mysterious and almost unsettling in their depth. I have a weird fear of fish, snakes, seaweed, mussels, so I use those elements in my prints, and then introduce a mythical creature, the Nixe—which is a mermaid-ish sprite in human form—to swim among the fishes and the ferns and be unafraid. My summer sunset print is the color of lilac that a summer beach bonfire will cast on the sand at sunset, and the moths shown are Michigan-native. My fireworks print is based on the reflection of Fourth of July fireworks on the dark water at night.

lookout swimwear Northern Michigan tarra Warnes hagerty designer sustainable swim bathing suits sunset print fireworks Fourth of July the betsie current newspaper
LEFT TO RIGHT: The Sunset print is the color of lilac that a summer beach bonfire will cast on the sand at sunset, and the moths are Michigan-native; the Fireworks print is based on the reflection of Fourth of July fireworks on the dark water at night. Images courtesy of Lookabout Swimwear.

Current: What made you want to design your own line of swimwear? 

Warnes: In creating Lookabout, I saw an opportunity to create something that I find meaningful and went for it. I grew up spending every summer in a swimsuit on the beach. So many of life’s best memories are made in swimwear. It’s a summertime essential. As an adult, I would spend countless hours shopping for swimsuits every year and never really find exactly what I was looking for. A suit that you love has an impact on your mood, your day, and your summer. I stumbled across the idea of designing my own prints and fabricating a line of swimwear by accident, but once the idea came to me, I had to create it. I did some research on production options, began the sampling process, and that was it! I chose a production partner in Brazil—because who knows swimwear better than Brazil?—which aligned with my values: sustainable, ethical production, and a PETA-certified vegan business that donates the remnants of the Brazilian Lycra that the suits are made from to become dog-bed filler for dogs in shelters. I also have a relationship with a made-to-order vendor to test design ideas, without committing to creating more inventory, so my opportunities to experiment are endless.

Current: Can you tell us what sizes and cuts you offer now, generally? For instance, you introduced some men’s swimwear this year, yes?

Warnes: I have suits in sizes small to 3XL, depending on the piece, and when I’m choosing silhouettes to offer, I consider what is trending in the market and add an element of fun. For example, my favorite one-piece has a classic shape with a dramatically low-cut side detail, and my bikini sets offer a play on visual balance— a full-coverage, high-neck halter top can be paired with a retro lowrider bottom. My newest items this year are trunks, as well as swim shorties, which both coordinate with a few different tops. 

Current: Where can our readers find your products? Is there more than just swimwear?

Warnes: My entire collection is available from my online storefront. In addition to suits, I have just a few other fun items—a beach towel, a beach bag, and a suncatcher. I also have a selection of suits at the M22 store in Glen Arbor, at Field Trip in Empire, and at Wild Lettie in Suttons Bay.

Current: What are your top three sellers right now? What are your personal three favorite items that you sell? 

Warnes: My top three sellers currently are the sport bikini set in my Summer Sunset print, the strappy one-piece in Fisher Lake, and the triangle top with the classic high-waist bottoms in Nixe Dots. It’s super hard for me to pick favorites from my line; it’s like asking me to pick a favorite child. But the Deadstream Stripe is sentimental for me, because it’s inspired by a suit my mom wore in 1984, and I love looking at  old photos of her in it. She’s a big inspiration for everything I do. My other favorites to wear right now are the scoop-neck top and ruched bottoms in Summer Night—so flattering and comfortable, and the print feels really chic to me—and the asymmetrical one-piece in Port Oneida, because I love how it wears like a bikini but fits your body like a one-piece, and the print is deep and bold.

Current: What does a typical day of work look like for you? 

Warnes: I work remotely as vice president of creative strategy at Hagerty in Traverse City, I have four kids, my swimwear business, and my husband I have some shared consulting clients, as well, so my days are full. I’ll get orders packed up before I get to work, so my husband can act as courier, and I’ll compose and schedule the day’s social media post for Lookabout. I keep a spreadsheet with four quadrants and my daily priorities for each: Family, Hagerty, Lookabout, and Consulting. I work for Hagerty Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. leading a team of amazingly talented creative directors and strategists, alongside my colleagues in the brand department. From 8:30 to 11, I have quiet working hours—developing creative work and mapping out strategies; from 11 to 3 is Zoom meetings, and 3 to 4:30, I have correspondence and planning time. And on my lunch break, I go to the pool to swim laps and get some sun, AKA “product testing.” On my days off, I focus on Lookabout—filming and editing reels and social media posts, planning photo shoots, crafting and designing marketing campaigns, consuming fashion inspiration, and sketching out design ideas for the next launch. When design ideas come to me, they come in like an explosion that burns until I let it become what it will. It’s all super fun, a way that I can use what I’ve learned to do in my corporate career and apply it to my own passion project.

Current: How have you seen your work grow and change? How do you hope that it will continue to grow? What is next?

Warnes: I’m learning which of my prints are most popular with my audience and developing those attributes. I love bold, weird, interesting, and unexpected prints that are somehow edgy and youthful and sophisticated and elegant all at the same time, but sometimes I might want to make a simple striped suit—so I make one. But you can theoretically find a striped suit anywhere. My most unique designs are what I find speak to people. So I’m always analyzing the balance between what I personally want to wear, which is everything I make, and what is most profitable, which enables me to keep doing this. In the future, I plan to continue to expand my offering of styles, sizes, and cuts, as well.

Current: What role do you think art, illustration, and design play in the world? Why is this so important to you?

Warnes: Art is everything to me. It’s how we express our humanity and connect with others at a level that’s otherwise impossible. Artists are people who have grown to adulthood with a high level of emotionality who are also permeable enough to intake everything around us, feel it deeply, and then output what we’ve felt/learned/seen/desired/lost in a form that others can experience and respond to. So I think we are responsible for articulating that which others can’t, but want to experience. In a society in which we exist within the boundaries of politeness and social preservation, creating art is the socially acceptable way of showing your secrets to the world. And I believe we exist to show each other who we are and acknowledge that in others. Art is a vehicle to get us there.

lookabout swimwear Northern Michigan tarra Warnes hagerty designer sustainable swim bathing suits nixe mermaid sprite fisher lake print clinch park zoo marina the betsie current newspaper
LEFT TO RIGHT: The Clinch Park print is named after the Traverse City marina; the mythical Nixe, which is a mermaid-ish sprite in human form, is featured on the Fisher Lake print. Images courtesy of Lookabout Swimwear.

Current: What kinds of things do you do for fun, when you are not working? What other things are you involved with? How did you get involved with them, and why are you passionate about these causes?
Warnes: I love to be on the boat, at the beach, or in the pool with friends and family. Anywhere that it’s appropriate to wear a swimsuit! I enjoy taking the kids to see art shows, plays, and performances. We love playing card games and skiing in the winter. And of course, spending time with my dogs. One cause I’ve been involved with is the Women’s Resource Center. I had the opportunity to work with some colleagues pro bono and redesign WRC’s identity for their most recent brand refresh, to help position them for the future. Now with Lookabout, I will donate a percentage of my profits every year to that nonprofit. It’s important to me, because I’ve been a survivor. I also support Up North Pride as a sponsor and an LGBTQ-plus-safe and -affirming business. As an individual and a business owner in our community, I want to do my small part to combat hate and promote acceptance.

Current: How have you seen Northern Michigan change since you grew up here? What are your hopes for the area in the future?

Warnes: Growing up, I didn’t realize just how different this place was until I lived in other places and came back. I had a working-class childhood, so we truly didn’t have money to do a lot of things. But going to the beach with nothing more than a bedsheet to lay in the sand, bath towels, and a cooler of white bread sandwiches cost nothing, so we did that a lot. My parents are antique dealers, so we also spent a lot of time taking day trips to various estates across the region, and I remember rustic places, free-spirited people, and spending lots of time outdoors. Now the area feels a lot more curated. I hope in the future we find a good balance between tourism and community, that young people continue to come back here to have families, that working-class people can afford to live here like my parents did, and that our area grows more diverse.

Current: What are the biggest challenges and rewards of living/working in Northern Michigan? What is the best or most rewarding part of your job?

Warnes: The biggest challenges of living in Northern Michigan are lack of specialized healthcare resources, lack of diversity, and lack of cultural experiences that you can find in bigger cities. The rewards are the natural beauty of the area, the undeniably Midwestern vibe of the people, and my connection to the place. The most rewarding part of designing swimwear is when someone says to me: “You really captured the feeling of summer in Michigan.” Also, getting to design and shop my own collection, so I have my own customized summer beach wardrobe!

Current: What could Northern Michigan do to attract more talented people to this area? What else does Northern Michigan need?

Warnes: Affordable places to live. Creative and cultural experiences—more art, live music. Support for young families. The ability to live here and work remotely anywhere is huge. 

Current: What are your favorite local events and activities? Any favorite dining, recreation, hiking spots?

Warnes: I love tent-camping at D.H. Day, skiing at Crystal Mountain, boating to the sandbar at Elk Lake, a sandwich from Cheese Shanty in Leland, pie at the Cherry Hut, a day on Lake Michigan, hiking South Manitou. 

Current: What does your perfect summer day look like in Benzie County? How would you spend it?

Warnes: Definitely a day at the beach in Honor with a packed lunch and nothing on the agenda.

Learn more and peruse the swimwear at LookAboutSwimwear.com online; check out @LookAboutSwimwear on Instagram. Find the swimwear in-person at the M22 store in Glen Arbor, at Field Trip in Empire, and at Wild Lettie in Suttons Bay. Email Tarra@TarraWarnes.com with questions.

Featured Photo Caption: Tarra Warnes created Lookabout Swimwear as an ode to Northern Michigan. Photo courtesy of Tarra Warnes.

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Aubrey Parker

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