Strong women inspire sustainable surf brand
Celebrating an active lifestyle alongside a mission to create an empowering women’s surf culture is at the heart of Torquay fashion label U&I.
The sustainable swimwear brand launched onto the market seven years ago and has won over a legion of fans thanks to its thoughtful designs which combine functionality and wearability.
Now, U&I Label is entering an exciting new chapter, with its owners Emma Bäcklund and Jen Sharpe working on an apparel range, Bed to Beach, that is due to launch in spring.
Emma, a graphic designer and photographer from Sweden, is an original founder of the business and Noosa-based Jen came on board last year.
“Our mission is quite strong, we really want to create women’s surf culture,” Emma enthuses.”There is surf culture out there but really, being big business, it has been run by men and women have been a bit of an afterthought.
“Women have ocean-based activities we enjoy in common but it can also be about supporting each other in business, getting together watching movies or enjoying art and music – we want to encourage getting the girls to meet-up.”
Emma originally established U&I with fashion designer friend Jodie Hayes and the label was aptly dreamed up in-between sets while surfing at Bells Beach.
Their vision was for a timeless swimwear collection to suit female surfers, free divers and swimmers – everyday women with a strong connection to the sea.
“We didn’t design it for girls, there are lots of local brands who already do that really well, we wanted to keep it for women,” Emma says.
“We felt there were some things missing in that space so we were really designing for ourselves and our friends and it seems to have worked.”
You won’t find teeny weeny triangle bikinis in this range but you will discover a colour palette heavily influenced by the unique Surf Coast landscape.
“The inspiration really came from living in a more rugged and cold way, rather than the tropical inspiration that is more common for swimwear,” she says.
“I really love this coastline and how the colours are darker … we wanted the coastline here to mix with the Melbourne fashion vibe which is more grown up.”
Bronze tones, merlot hues and classic blacks dominate the 2021 collection.
U&I is also committed to using 100 per cent regenerated nylon fibre made from consumer waste such as fishing nets and other end-of-life nylon materials.
Quality materials imported from Italy and the US are used, with all garments designed in Torquay and made in the Victorian High Country with a 50+ SPF rating and vegan-friendly straps.
In true U&I style, the upcoming apparel line will have a sustainable focus, with the clothing to be made from deadstock fabric – offcuts which would otherwise end up in landfill or be burned. The range will be made to order to avoid stock going unsold.
“It will be quite a different business model, we will be using fabric that has already been produced by bigger labels and they don’t end up using all the fabric and there is tonnes of it,” Emma says.
“We were looking at using organic cotton but we thought ‘this is already produced’.”
The apparel collection will launch at events in key surf locations in Victoria and New South Wales.
“It will be really interesting to see if that works and if our customers are prepared to put their order in and wait for it to be produced,” she says.
“I hope so because I think it is the right way and that’s what Jen and I have said, if we can’t do it the right way for the environment, then we’d rather not be in business. It’s the proper way or not at all.”
Emma is an avid photographer and takes many of the stunning snaps you will see on U&I’s social media feed.
“That is probably one of the most fun parts of the ‘job’,” she says, smiling.
“The best part is capturing the local girls – I don’t know how but I seem to manage to trick them into putting swimmers on when it’s ridiculously cold.
“Sasha and Ange are among the girls who appear regularly on our social media and they just don’t get cold. Everyone else is in wetsuits and they get out there in our swimwear and do what they do so well.”
Emma herself took up surfing at the age of 19 and hasn’t looked back.
“I just happened to try surfing when I was living in Norway and working in a fish factory with a bunch of other Swedes to make money to go travelling,” she says.
“There is no surf really in Sweden and definitely not where I am from in the north but in Norway it’s really good. I moved to Australia 10 years ago and really got into it.”
The mum to 18-month-old Felix says there are many things to love about surfing.
“It cleanses your mind – it’s the closest thing to meditation while still being active,” she says.
“You are in nature dealing with the elements and it’s so bloody difficult.It takes a long time to get a hold of it – it’s like a hate-love sport for a lot of years before you finally kind of manage it. It’s also pretty social when you want it to be.”
It was while studying with a friend in a university library in Norway that Emma first heard about Torquay.
“My friend said ‘oh listen to this, Torquay is where the surf industry was formed and there are world-class waves’ and I was like ‘I’m going to live there’,” she says.
It hasn’t disappointed and, alongside some strong female brand ambassadors, the coastline continues to be a source of endless inspiration for the U&I Label aesthetic, with one collection even bearing the names of local surf breaks.
“It’s been a really good journey and I love working with women and surfing,” Emma says.
“I need to be an entrepreneur; I love running with my own ideas and I would love to have a bigger team to work with us one day. That is the dream.”