For This Hard-of-Hearing Swimwear Designer, the Ocean Has Always Been a ‘Place of Peace’

Courtesy of Gigi Caruso; W+G Creative
Imagining the sense of calm you might feel in the presence of water is bound to evoke certain sounds, like the rush of a stream or the crash of waves at the beach or even the pitter-patter of rain, falling and pooling. But for 21-year-old Gigi Caruso, founder of swimwear and activewear line Gigi C, water’s relaxing effect comes from just the opposite: its utter silence. Because she has to remove her hearing aids to take a dip, being in the water brings a kind of blissful yet safe escape from the static that’s long made up her world.

Born with bilateral moderate to moderately severe sensorineural hearing loss (a type of permanent hearing loss caused by damage to the inner ear that affects about 1 in 1,000 infants), Caruso was fitted with her first pair of hearing aids at just six months old. From then on, she developed her understanding of most sounds through what she describes as the in-and-out of a microphone on the fritz. “As a kid, the hearing aids I wore went over my ears and would only pick up sounds from behind,” she says. “So, anytime I wore my hair down or there was wind or background noise, that would essentially scratch the microphone, and it was really hard to understand people.”

Despite the fact that Caruso’s parents paid her condition no shortage of concern—or use of their financial resources and connections, for that matter—there would remain no cure, and throughout her grade-school years, no solution for the constant feedback of her hearing aids (though improved tech would arrive just before she entered high school). In the meantime, her parents poured their efforts into speech therapy and audiologist consults, while Caruso learned to lip-read like a pro and battled the stigma of wearing a visible device that, again, was far from a perfect solution anyway.

“In the water, I was able to shut out the world and not worry about missing anything.” —Gigi Caruso, founder of Gigi C and hearing-loss advocate

Made to feel like an outcast at school by kids who would poke, prod, or question her hearing aids, Caruso was practically relieved when she learned that she’d have to remove them to go swimming. As the southern California native began spending more time at the beach, she soon found the water to be a personal haven: It was the only place where she didn’t need to hear the sounds of her surroundings clearly to feel safe. “In the water, I was able to shut out the world and not worry about missing anything,” she says. “It became such a place of peace for me.”

How Gigi Caruso's love of the water inspired her swimwear line

In the summer of 2014, right before Caruso entered high school, her parents’ continued push for a better hearing solution paid off: She had the unique opportunity to get fitted for the cutting-edge Phonak Lyric Hearing Aid. Now in its fourth iteration, the Lyric is mostly targeted toward older hard-of-hearing adults and is typically not covered by insurance, with a yearly subscription price similar to that of a traditional premium hearing aid—anywhere from $3,000 to $6,000.

Different from the over-ear hearing aids Caruso had worn her whole life, the Lyric is a tiny device that’s placed inside the ear canal, near the eardrum, making it invisible from the outside. “Right after I got it, the doctor asked me to count to 10 and say the alphabet, and immediately, I broke down in tears,” says Caruso. “It was the first time I really heard myself clearly.” Then, she walked outside and began to hear sounds that “I didn’t even know were sounds,” she says, like the birds chirping, the rain falling, and, soon after, the waves of the ocean crashing.

Even so, she still couldn’t—and to this day, can’t—wear these new hearing aids in the water. Though they're water-resistant enough for her to shower in them, they're not waterproof; she has to use a special device to remove them whenever she wants to swim or wakeboard (and then visit her doctor the next morning to get them replaced). And yet, that reality has only served to deepen her love of the ocean: “The reason why I’ve always found peace in the water and why I still do, to this day, is because I know I don’t have to hear,” she says. “I can take a mental break and just be myself.”

As Caruso grew more attached to the water throughout high school and took on water sports like wakeboarding, she found herself in search of functional swimwear that could keep up, without sacrificing her sense of style. “I started pulling out my Victoria’s Secret and Triangl swimsuits, and cutting them up, and piecing them together to make them more full-coverage or more supportive,” she says. When her mom—who is, aptly, a former swimsuit model and designer of a children's clothing line—caught drift of the project, she lent a crucial hand to turning it into the full-fledged swimwear brand that is Gigi C, which launched in 2017.

At the brand's heart is a silky scuba fabric (a spring-y double-knit of spandex and polyester) that’s as aesthetic as it is built for serious water athletics. Though it has a stylish sheen, it’s also thick enough to be extra-supportive and to hold up to Caruso’s signature laser cutouts, which eliminate the need for scratchy stitching. In 2019, she expanded the line to include activewear in a bonded jersey fabric that’s just as supportive, and in 2021, she added loungewear, too, this time using a recycled cashmere blend. In both the new categories, Caruso's signature cutouts remain central to the designs, which marry fashion and function seamlessly.

How Gigi Caruso is now advocating for the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities

Though Caruso is quick to acknowledge her privilege in having had caring, well-resourced parents and doctors to help her navigate childhood with hearing loss, she says that she always felt isolated among her peers. “Being able to share what I was feeling with someone my age who could understand is what I was missing,” she says. Now, she’s working to create that community for kids born with her condition through both one-on-one mentoring and group programming.

In honor of World Hearing Day this week, Caruso is hosting a program for deaf and hard-of-hearing children at a shopping center in Los Angeles on March 6, which will include a scavenger hunt hosted by audiologists, a read-along, and a panel for parents. And once she graduates from the University of Southern California this spring, she plans to launch an organization with monthly or bimonthly get-togethers of this kind.

In the meantime, Caruso is also focused on sharing her story more often and more publicly. She’s hopeful that by using her platform, she can not only inspire people who may feel discouraged by hearing loss or by another disability, but also work to destigmatize it for everyone else “because hearing loss isn’t something to be ashamed of,” she says. “It’s something that’s made me as resilient as I am.” And that’s a message she’s now ready to champion—loud and clear.

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