Heather Kaye, textile sourcing and production specialist, and Itee Soni, fashion and print designer met in Shanghai in 2008. With a passion to eliminate supply chain waste generated by the fashion industry they decided to set up their own company. Loop Swim was born in 2010 as FINCH Designs, focusing on swimwear products for divers, surfers, swimmers, snorkelers and paddle boarders.
Loop Swim today is fully committed to a zero waste, circular economy model. The fabrics they use are made from post-consumer plastic bottles that otherwise would end up in the landfill, but what sets them apart from the competition is that they will recycle your swimsuit at the end of its lifecycle.
Trendeavour talks to Heather Kaye, co-founder of Loop Swim about sustainability, and the hardships of setting up a business in China.
It is always interesting for me to hear the stories of how people end up in China. What brought you there and what made you decide to stay for such a long time?
It seems my story rings true of almost every expat in Shanghai – a one-year opportunity that turned into more than a decade! Very few expect to stay here when we arrive, and yet Shanghai offers such an exceptional quality of life and opportunities that the challenge ends up being how to ever leave.
In 2005, I was working in NYC for Liz Claiborne (Kate Spade Inc.) as a women’s apparel designer. I had the opportunity to come to China because all pattern making had just moved from downstairs to our overseas factories. My one-year assignment was to be the bridge between our NYC design team and the production teams in China and Indonesia.
Being based in Shanghai meant I could approve protos faster, help with sourcing novel fabrics and visit the factories often. The big surprise was how much I ended up loving the manufacturing process more than designing clothes. Once I had the full backstage tour of our garment factories, mills and dye-houses, a whole new perspective opened up. I began to understand how the decisions designers and sourcing teams make determine the whole carbon footprint of a product, from inception to your closet.
My husband and I’ve now lived here for 14 years, and both of our daughters were born here. Staying has been a combination of career, community and at some point, just crossing that line as a family of “this is our home.”
How did you meet your co-founder, Itee Soni?
During my maternity leave with our first daughter, I was head-hunted to be the design director of a new office for a Canadian fashion company. On my first day, Itee, who had been with the company for a year already, took me to lunch. It was the first of hundreds, and we discovered a mutual interest in reforming the fashion industry and Sichuan cuisine!
Even though Itee is nine years younger, grew up in India, and is much braver than me, we have an almost identical design and humour aesthetic. There’s no question that if we hadn’t met, I might never have gone out on a limb and become an entrepreneur. Her enthusiasm for starting FINCH originally, now Loop Swim, was and remains completely infectious. She is not only totally amazing but insanely talented!
What inspired Loop Swim and what were the early challenges?
Three things: we love beach holidays, fantastically bold prints, and being able to use entirely recycled materials.
We’re ardent travellers and ocean lovers ourselves, and with 57% of travellers choosing beach destinations, we realised there is a huge demand for high-quality swimwear.
We love designing bold, unusual prints but also get the reality that most people prefer to wear solid neutrals in their day to day lives. We started thinking about when we most like to wear colour and fabulous prints – definitely when we’re on holiday!
Typical swimwear is made from poly or nylon anyway, so why not use recycled poly from used plastic bottles? We loved that by using fabric made from recycled PET, our swimwear could actually help keep plastic bottles out of our oceans and landfill.
There are the challenges that come along with any start-up business, from growing your team with talented, passionate people who share your vision, to learning how to pitch investors and scale your company. But there are also challenges unique to being a sustainable business – every step of your process has to be reimagined, from designing the product to how it’s made and shipped to how it’s recycled at the end of its useful life.
Our early challenges were less on the production side – we have decades of design, sourcing and manufacturing experience – and more on finding our ‘public’ voice. Itee and I, like most designers, are actually backstage people. We’re not in fashion for the smoke and mirrors, the fashion shows and all that, but because we are very precise designers (control freaks!) who constantly want to improve everything.
Lately, it’s feeling more like a hat trick to straddle the line of being foreigners with a China-based company. How do we appeal to a global, sustainably-minded customer? What’s unique about our China audience? Are we more eastern or western? At the end of the day, you just have to stay true to your design principals and your audience will find you (with a lot of help from amazing social media professionals!).
What’s proven to be the biggest obstacles of launching a business in China? What are the advantages/disadvantages of having a business there?
The only challenging thing about opening a WFOE in China was adjusting to operating in a ‘grey zone’ of not being able to thoroughly understand the sheer amount of paperwork in Chinese – or why my signature counted for nothing, our company chop everything. Starting a company involves a steep learning curve, and more so when there are different cultural requirements. But we were open-minded, advised by very good consultants, and it was the best move we could have made.
The main advantages in opening a registered business in China is that you can work with Chinese retailers (for us boutiques and hotels) and your products are not considered imports. This gives us access to the local market, since we’re able to issue fapiaos. Also, having a company comes with work permits and residence visas so your legal status is clear, and you have a legitimate taxpayer profile.
With the trade war between the US and China this year, I think all business owners are concerned. Operating in an unpredictable trade environment is not ideal for anyone. Whether there’s a disadvantage to being an American LLC-owned WFOE in this climate is not clear, but hopefully our governments will resolve their issues by Q4.
How did you get involved with sustainability? How do you think people’s perceptions have changed over the years about sustainable fashion?
I have always loved the way design helps us tell our story, personally and a reflection of our time and place. I studied fashion at Parsons in NYC and designed women’s apparel up until the time I transferred to Shanghai in 2006. “Sustainable fashion” in those days was focused on organic fabrics and Fair Trade, whereas now you are tackling the entire supply chain and have access to major innovations.
I remember asking the then Chairman of the $5B company I worked for if ‘sustainable fashion’ was the way of the future – and he laughed. He literally said, “Americans will never pay a dime extra for anything that is so-called eco-friendly. I still have the scars from the last time we tried that.” His words really lit a fire under me – I thought, “He is so wrong!” From that point onward, sustainability came into focus for me as what all excellent, enduring companies do. It’s not a trend or phase; it’s critical to managing our global resources. I feel most people are coming around to this perception, though unfortunately most companies remain on the short-term shareholder returns treadmill.
On top of that, disposable has become the new black in the mind of the consumer. As designers, we are often too far from the production process and the ramifications of our designs. Now, the question is not just how and where and with what was this garment made, but what can be done with it at the end of its useful life?
Whether it’s producing product just-in-time or made to order so there’s no inventory waste (H&M had $4.3 billion dollars-worth of unsold product last year!), or getting people closer to the truth that the average urban adult is throwing away 36 kg of unwanted clothing every year – we need to re-evaluate our supply and demand.
Throwing things away is the least sustainable mindset. We know now the only things that go ‘away’ and don’t come back are our natural resources. Imagine inventors, designers, creators all considering what will happen to their products after people are done using them – we have tremendous power to advocate for sustainability from our producers, not just in fashion. Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle. That’s the order we all need to relearn.
What is special about the fabrics you use and how did you develop them?
The symbol PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) bottles you buy at convenience stores are essentially the same material as polyester. After used plastic bottles reach a recycling centre, they are washed, chopped up into flakes, and melted down into pellets (also called nurdles). These pellets can be made into all kinds of new products – furniture, roads, clothing, car upholstery – even bikinis.
We developed our bespoke fabrics made exclusively from REPREVE® recycled PET yarn with US company, Unifi. REPREVE® has recycled over 17 billion plastic bottles into fabric, which makes this collaboration especially exciting! We’re not only making long-lasting, phenomenal swimwear but recycling post-consumer plastic bottles and keeping them out of our oceans and landfill.
The hand-feel of our swimwear is exceptionally soft – people are always surprised something made from plastic bottles can feel so luxurious! While you wouldn’t ever think our swimwear is made from bottles, you would definitely notice the high quality of our fabric – it has excellent recovery (doesn’t stretch out of shape) and the colours don’t fade even after many swims in salty ocean water or chlorine pools. Not only that, but our fabric naturally blocks out 98% of damaging UVA and UVB rays, which qualifies it for the highest sun protection rating possible: UPF50+. All steps of our manufacturing process occur here in China.
Where do you see sustainable fashion developing in the near future?
I always start presentations by stating that in the 20 years I’ve been a fashion designer, over 250 million tons of unwanted clothing has been thrown away. As I mentioned, that’s about 36 kg per urban adult each year. Nuts!
I would like to see apparel producers being financially responsible for their products at end-of-life. One company I’m super excited about is Connect Fashion. They are aiming to give garments a ‘digital passport’ that not only identifies where, by who, and how your garment was made, and with what resources, but could also advise you how to dispose of your garment so that it does not enter landfill or our oceans. Imagine if waste being dumped into landfill was billed to the myriad producers? As soon as there is a financial incentive to recycle or design longer-lasting, sustainable products, we will all be able to enjoy what really makes fashion inspirational: great design.
“The Greatest Threat to Our Planet Is the Belief That Someone Else Will Save It” – Robert Swan OBE
Everyone leads such busy lives that it’s easy to lose track of what really matters. Of all the plastic produced since the 1950s, less than 10% has been recycled. Plastic is an amazing material, but the downside is that it does not go away. Every piece of plastic we’ve ever produced is still in our environment.
Our motto – #ProtectWhatYouLove – is a reminder to all of us to not take what we love for granted. We’re talking about our health and our bodies (especially our skin) and the health of our environment. With one million plastic bottles being consumed around the globe EVERY MINUTE now, we’ve all got to be part of the solution by demanding better design and changing our consumption habits.
Where is your main market/who is your ideal customer?
Quite frankly, our ideal customers give a damn. They are educated, mindful people – often women – who vote for their values with their wallet and want to support brands with an authentic mission. They are very supportive of women founders, and excited that we offer unique designs that make them feel cherished.
It’s fun to get a cheap swimsuit or outfit on Taobao until you consider the true cost. Our model is the complete opposite: we don’t follow trends and create timeless styles that tell the world you value design, quality and the planet.
Swimwear in general continues to be a growing market, led by China and the Middle East. With 800M global travellers choosing a beach destination holiday, many of whom are Chinese, we are thrilled to be based here in Asia, though we do ship all over the world.
In terms of product, we offer a full spectrum of women’s styles – from sporty to sexy bikinis, to one-pieces, sun protective rash guards and even yoga-approved tankinis so your Loop swimsuit can multi-task on holiday.
Our men’s shorts are made from 100% recycled plastic bottles and have a flattering, tailored fit. They are quick dry and have an internally adjustable waistband. Our kids swimwear coordinates back to the adult prints, often with a twist, and kids LOVE that their suit is made from recycled bottles!
How did you start promoting your label and did you have a specific marketing strategy that you used?
When we made our first collection of just 300 swimsuits in 2014, all sales were word of mouth until a friend introduced us to the spa director at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Shanghai. It was sort of a fluke, but we quickly saw that hotels are an excellent gateway not only to poolside guests, but to retail partners that are dedicated to giving guests an exceptional – and sustainable – experience. Working with hotels and resorts also increases the longevity of our products, and gets us off a production treadmill of needing to produce new swimwear constantly. In fact, we repeat close to 85% of our signature prints each season to emphasise our commitment to timeless designs.
When we changed our name from FINCH to Loop Swim last spring, we launched our first bilingual e-commerce platform on WeChat and at loopswim.com. Now we have a marketing team especially focused on our Chinese vacationer, and a separate English-only team in the US on platforms like Instagram and Facebook. Interestingly, our Chinese customers seem to crave much more information than our western audience. No amount of detail is too much – they are genuinely interested and take the time to really research their purchases so we keep that in mind when we design campaigns.
What advice would you give to designers thinking about setting up their own label?
You’ve got to be in it for the long haul! Starting out, someone told me it takes at least 5 years to build a brand and that was probably on the conservative side. Entrepreneurship is an imperfect process – we really do work as if in a lab, repeatedly testing and learning. But what shouldn’t be an experiment is your passion – you should be completely devoted to your WHY, your reason for doing what you do, because nothing else will get you over all of the inevitable bumps with grace. And trust me, there can be a lot of bumps in setting up your own label!
What are your top 3 lessons learnt throughout your career?
- Grace will take you places hustling can’t. – Elizabeth Gilbert
- Choose your partners wisely. Our partnership is the cornerstone of this operation, and it comes down to very personal character traits like honesty, trust, respect, and empathy. You have to be able to communicate through it all, and genuinely pursue aligned goals. My husband (the best choice I ever made!) has been equally vital, supporting and believing in us all of these years. Your team is everything!
- Just start. Don’t wait until it’s perfect, just get your idea out there.
3B. Take an accounting class!
What is your favourite place in Shanghai?
Besides my home, Itee and I absolutely love taking our dogs, Ruthie and Robyn, to the West Bund dog park! When we first came to Shanghai, there was a regulation about walking dogs before 7am or after 7pm. To think that so many Chinese people have now become dog lovers, and we have a great dog run right downtown – it’s so cool!
I’m also happy in just about any Sichuan or Hunan cuisine restaurant. ☺