Kelley's Journey into the Realm of Sustainable Swimwear
I want to take a moment and tell a small part of my story.
People often ask me if I have always been interested in sustainability and natural environments? My answer to that is always yes. However, the realm of fashion didn’t present itself to me until I was 31 years old.
As a child I spent my summers exploring the natural world. The Appalachian mountains range was my playground. The idea of “Leave no Trace” was embedded into my being early on. I backpacked, rock climbed, kayaked sections of North Carolina's French Broad and Nantahala Rivers and took 2-week treks through trails around the Blue Ridge Parkway on horseback. Those adventures were a blast! But more importantly I learned valuable skills and also discovered how joyful and satisfied I am when fully immersed nature’s grand abundance.
Fast forward several years and I found myself graduating with a bachelors degree in science with a focus on sustainable tourism and outdoor experiential education. After graduation I lived off the grid for two years in Costa Rica as well as in New Mexico.
Costa Rica opened my eyes to the majestic sea. I was 23 years old the first time I put on a mask and witnessed a coral reef and all its inhabitants. As I emerged from the water I sat on the rocky shore with tears in my eyes. I clearly received a message with clear instructions that I must live near the ocean. Never in a million years did I imagine finding my place on earth, my home, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Serendipitously, one year later Maui presented itself to me. While driving around my hometown of Atlanta I was stuck in grid lock. I happened to be behind a car that had "MAUI" stickers plastered all over it. My destination was a friend’s home. She was having a clothing swap. Upon arriving I glanced at the TV. There, on the screen, were breathtaking scenes of this island called "Maui". I was captivated! After a few moments I turned off the TV and joined the clothing swap. Can you guess what the first piece of clothing I randomly selected from the pile was? In my hands was a "Hula MAUI" tee shirt! I laughed out loud. The very next day I purchased a one-way ticket to Maui. That was 2007.
The moment I landed on Maui I knew I was finally home. My only interest was to dive into the vastness of the ocean environment and learn as much as possible about Hawaii's rich and beautiful culture. Today when someone asks me about sustainability I have learned to not only look to earth’s natural resources but also its inhabitants. It's the most valuable lesson I've learned from my studies in sustainable tourism.
When I tap into the mana, the power, of both the natural environment and the culture of different locations around the globe I gain true reverence. With that reverence comes an inner drive to protect it. My intention is to inspire others to do the same.
How did I get into designing swimwear?
After many years of working on the water my skin doctor told me I would become his poster child if I did not find a new profession. My days on the water and my life perpetually in a bikini would come to a halt. Shortly thereafter I was hired to take on a management position for a local Maui swimwear company. Working in this new industry and in that small company gave me the ins and outs of building and running a small business. It was all self-taught. I pretty much had freedom to grow that business... and I loved that challenge! I took interest in pattern making, building solid relationships with other vendors, traveling over seas to set up production and designing and building out new store fronts. At the same time I began studying the process of making new fabrics. One question kept coming up in my mind: how important is the idea of "sustainability" within this industry? I found it interesting that the birth of synthetic textiles was, in large part, due to a commercial push for easy production of artificial silk. Needless to say, when I immerse myself in a project I study and learn as much as I can about it. And, as I immersed myself deeper in this industry and spent more time with that company I learned that there were more sustainable and ethical ways to run a swimwear business.
After several years of successfully building and growing that business I was laid off. An investor showed up on my last day. Upon leaving he shook my hand with painful aggression. I gripped back through the pain and looked him directly in the eyes. I smiled and said, “Thank You.”
I was well aware of the term "silver lining" and I knew exactly what I would do next. I was given the green light. As I walked down the stairs leaving a place I put so much of my energy into, I said out loud: “Today is the day I trust in my full potential and capabilities. Today is the day I become a entrepreneur. Today is the day!”
Six months later I made a public announcement about Manakai Swimwear, Hawaii’s first sustainable and ethically produced (in the U.S.A.) swimwear company. Since then Manakai has been in many publications like British VOGUE and has been nominated in several honorable categories as an outstanding business here on Maui. And in July of 2018 I opened my first Eco-Boutique which is located right in the heart of Lahaina Town: 888 Front Street!
I am honored you have chosen to join the Manakai family. In a world of brands focusing on fast fashion, high turn around and even higher profit margins, I am dedicated to avoiding mainstream practices. I operate my small business with a high level of integrity. Manakai’s goal is to provide a growing conscience community with one-of-a-kind, well made, sustainable and ethical swimwear while supporting both women empowerment and ocean conservation.
A Hui Ho (until next time).
So much love,