For keen surfers and co-founders of Lisbon-based slow fashion swimwear brand Wondaswim Kim Flint and Teresa Brouwers, "sustainability isn't a choice but a necessity” that provided the motivation for starting their eco-friendly company.
Founded in August 2018, Wondaswim offers long-lasting, comfortable swimwear for all body sizes made from Econyl, a material manufactured from nylon waste products such as fishing nets, carpets and fabric remnants. The company was born from the German co-founders' shared concerns about ocean pollution, the impact of fast fashion on the environment and the need for a comfortable bikini.
“Did you know that 50% of the plastic waste in our oceans comprises fishing nets?” Brouwers told CompassList at the recent Lisbon Investment Summit (LIS). "For this reason, but also for its incredible flexibility and comfort, we chose Econyl, which is made from recycled nylon as the fabric, for our bikinis.”
"It may not seem like a disruptive innovation as there are so many bikini brands out there," added Flint, "but we aimed to combine sustainability with providing a solution to the problem of not having the right fit, and that's how the business started.
“Another issue that really united us was our awareness of the contamination from fast fashion, which is the norm in swimwear these days. The world can’t continue to make clothes that don’t consider our environment.”
Without greenhouse-gas emissions
Flint and Brouwers moved to Lisbon to study Management at the Portuguese Catholic University in 2017. Whilst studying for their Master's degree, they embarked on a side project in their free time to come up with a sustainable alternative to high street fashion bikinis. Wondaswim bikinis are specifically designed not to be discarded after one season.
Econyl is produced and commercialized by Italian company Aquafil, which takes nylon waste and breaks it down into a pure and reusable form via a process called depolymerization. The resulting material is then transformed into textile yarn in a process that does not release greenhouse gas emissions. Econyl is also both lightweight and strong, making it longer-lasting than traditional swimwear fabrics and ideal for hot climates.
“We were convinced of the fabric before we even started thinking of the business. We knew it before from an Australian brand and know its quality as a fabric as my Econyl bikini has lasted three years with no problem," Flint said. "However, until now garments had to be imported [to Europe] from Australia, entailing large import taxes, plus this brand had the same problem of fit.”
Flint and Brouwers began working with an experienced local swimwear designer to create a range of range of styles of bikini tops and bottoms, which are sold as pairs or individual pieces that women can mix and match for a personalized fit. A pair retails for €80, while individual pieces cost €45 to €50. As yet, the range only includes bikinis, but there are plans to add new styles and design elements to it.
“All our products are built on the premise that every female body will have an opportunity to have a bikini that really fits them, this was the strongest customer need that we identified and because the fabric is stronger it also helps to produce a better fit,” said Brouwers. “But, of course, it has to look good.”
Testing the business model
After finding a local manufacturer to hand-make the garments and deliver orders within two weeks, Flint and Brouwers were ready to test their first batch of designs on the market.
Flint and Brouwers have bootstrapped their business. They also raised €10,000 via Kickstarter while attending the LIS, which will be used to pre-finance stock production. Currently, the company isn't seeking outside investment and is comfortable bootstrapping itself until 2020.
Since November 2018, Flint has been running Wondaswim full time while Brouwers continues to work in user engagement for Siemens. Although not yet formally launched, the company has been taking orders through its website for several months. For now, Wondaswim products are available direct-to-consumer online, but the founders are open to other business models if they receive interest from distributors or retailers.
“We found the online model works for swimwear from our research and would rather concentrate on this and get it right rather than to split efforts on different approaches,” Brouwers said, adding that she and her co-founder want to receive product feedback and test the business model before looking ahead to scaling the business.
Fast fashion alternative
Interestingly, neither Flint nor Brouwers has experience in the fashion industry. They were convinced of their ability to produce a bikini line by their personal pain point, backed by their research into sustainability during their studies.
“We don't consider ourselves to be that much of a fashion brand. All our products are completely based on data and on the research we did for our master's analyzing the female body, the market and potential customers,” said Flint.
Flint and Brouwers were also motivated by the heavy environmental impact of the fashion industry, which is responsible for producing 10% of global carbon emissions, more than that produced by all international flights and maritime shipping combined, according to the United Nations. Modern fast fashion trends push consumers, especially Wondaswim's target group of young women, to continually update their wardrobes.
“It was vital for us to be timeless,” said Brouwers. “We don't want everyone to buy a new bikini every season. We want ours to last for several seasons.”
Circular economy model
Although Wondaswim ships to customers Europe-wide, it has tailored its products for Germany and Portugal as its core markets. Flint said German customers tend to be more price-sensitive than the Portuguese. In Germany, Wondaswim is considered a mid-priced brand, said Flint.
On the other hand, Germany represents a "sufficiently large market that, unlike Portugal, does not have a high market saturation,” noted Flint.
Continuing its circular economy model, Wondaswim uses recycled paper for its packaging and organic cotton for garment stitching. The company also plans to offer its customers a recycling service for Wondaswim bikinis; unlike other materials, Econyl can be reused without any degradation.
Like many independent B2C brands, Wondaswim is turning to digital platforms for sales and marketing. The company's website includes an interactive fitting tool and fast online feedback. The company is also active on social media such as Instagram, where it has accumulated 1,600 followers since launch.
On lessons learned, Brouwers added: “People sometimes focus too much on the product and what it should look like in the end before asking themselves what the customer needs. Including [the customers] in all your processes, even after launch, helps so much.”