Emma Backlund and Jodie Hayes met at university, when Hayes was completing a project for her fashion studies program and Backlund stepped in to help with photography. The thesis: swimwear that complemented an active lifestyle—something both women could relate to having grown up surfing in their hometown of Torquay, Australia.
The team had stumbled upon an idea with merit and one that they quickly realized represented a hole in the market: the need for stylish yet functional swimwear in the surf market.
“Emma and I are not the type of girls who enjoy sun baking on the beach; we enjoy active lifestyles in and around the ocean, so we needed the designs to reflect that,” Hayes says. “We weren’t able to find anything in the market that was practical yet feminine and sexy.”
Renting an old, beat up surf shack, Backlund and Hayes dug into one experiment after the other, tinkering with different dye processes on the kitchen stove: “Our poor housemates couldn’t event cook their dinner!” Hayes recalls.
Friends built a shaping bay in their garage, and the shack became an ever-circulating hang out for some of the most interesting people and surrounding culture in the area. “Our label took shape from this culture, curiosity, and need for individual design. After a lot of late nights (and red wine), together we created the brand U&I Label,” Hayes shares.
Their skills sets—with Backlund focused on marketing and branding and Hayes on apparel design and production—fit together seamlessly, and united their vision for a cohesive brand story to take to the market. Still young, the brand is looking to expand into retailers in North America, which is where we noticed them at the last few trade shows we were exploring. They also just opened a flagship location in Torquay.
The following is a look into the making of U&I and where they are headed.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
What was the hole in the women’s swim market that inspired you to start the brand, and how did you identify it?
Mostly, the brands that were out at the time we found uninspiring. Nothing seemed original anymore and we felt like the swimwear market had lost its creativity. Every brand looked the same. This is what inspired our design because we knew we could improve and break this trend.
What sets the line apart from others in the market?
Rather than being inspired by “island coconuts” or “sunny pineapple beach vibes,” our new Storm range is influenced from the winters we see on Victoria’s surf coast. Our coastline can be dark, cold, and at times, dangerous— this environment stirs so much more power and unexpected impulse.
Each garment within this range is named after famous female storms from around the world, such as Katrina, Sandy, and Yasi for example. Nothing has more power than angry women of the ocean.
From a design perspective, we always try to question the need of the garment. What do we and our fellow sisters of the ocean want from this garment? We have designed a new type of “little black bikini top” with the U&I twist, paired it with the new Shield for a sexier, more individual look— and it gives great support in the waves, too.
Tell me more about putting together the Women of Bells series. How did you align with the women involved and what did it take to bring this series to life?
The Women Of Bells is an initiative and opportunity to feature some very special ladies that represent the strong and ambitious chicks we look up to. These are women both living locally on the Surf Coast here in Australia and also friends in our extended global network. We are fascinated by these strong, ambitious women, and we draw a direct link between their energy and the power of the sea scape of our home break Bells Beach.
We already have a long list of women that we’d like to get to know better and learn more about what keeps them going and inspires them. You can expect to read some great stories about them on our blog. The video content for the series was a collaboration and created together with a local production team, Nalu Production.
When these girls are not too busy creating and building their dreams, they keep our lineups balanced with much needed great attitude & feminine style.
How does your work on this carry over to future plans with women ambassadors, events, projects, etc.? What’s in store next?
The women who represent our label and vision are women in the field. They have succeeded to create a living from their passion, and are great advocates for both the environment of our playground—the ocean. They are also great “raw models” for young women. As a swimwear label, we take our responsibility seriously, and know the importance of how we portray women.
We are in the works of finding ambassadors globally, so to any reader that would like to put someone (or themselves) forward, we are eager to hear more.
When it comes to what´s next, Coexist is our new debut apparel range made for street smart mermaids. To start with, it’s a T-shirt collection for water women who protect the place she plays.
In collaboration with strong and forward-thinking ambassadors, the Coexist concept and campaign aims to raise awareness and needed funds to help protect our Australian reefs and sea animals.
For every piece purchased in the Coexist range, we will donate 5% to non-profit organizations. We will be releasing more apparel designs for the northern hemisphere this summer. More swimwear is coming to, but can’t reveal too much on this yet…
Tell us about the product offering at the shop. What can a visitor expect to find if they decide to pop in? Do you have any upcoming events we should put on our calendars?
We opened our studio, The U&I Lab, in Torquay a little over a year ago. It’s a space where the public can come and experience the work in progress on current and upcoming designs and also try on and purchase current season designs.
The space also offers a great collection of hand-picked surfboards for any keen lady slider, contemporary art by various Australian artists, great smaller gifts, and all things complimenting the same style and attitude that the U&I Label woman has.
The space is also a platform for musicians and fellow local creatives to showcase their skills through public events, workshops, and gallery nights. We have hosted a women’s surf day, a couple gallery nights, and music events aligned with new collections and they have all been positively received.
Torquay has a great creative community, but has few places to get together and showcase work, so we love to play a part in this! More events are coming, so make sure to stay tuned through social medial and our newsletter sign up!
Find us (the wildcard of the industry) in the heart of the Surf City: 3/57 Geelong Road, 3228 Torquay, VIC Australia
So much more than swimwear.. Design and art by our local community @reginamiddleton @markdekoning @scentofbyron @teakcandleco @caitmiersphotography @Okesurfboards @surfsistas @saltgypsy @eleanorlk_art @bohie & giftcards! Open all weekend and next week 10-3pm + late night Wednesday 21st Dec 5:30-7:30 Hope to see you 💜
Outside of the U&I store, what other retailers are carrying the product, and where else can it be found for those who aren’t in Australia? Will you be expanding your distribution in the near future?
Besides our Torquay location, ladies can find us in:
Victoria: Lorne ‘Deluxe',
Victoria: Daylesford 'Grzyb’
NSW: Avalon ‘Surf Collective at The Sneaky Grind Cafe'
NSW: Newrybar & Byron Bay ‘Driftlab’
We also have a stockist for the Bali travelers in Seminyak’s & Uluwatu’s ‘Drifter Surf Shop & Cafe’
For anyone else we ship world wide directly from our online store.
We do plan to expand in the future for world domination…jokes. We hope to nail our local market so our focus right now is on supplying the best quality fabrics and fit, and most original designs. Having said that, we have been to a couple trade shows in both NYC and LA and are hoping to attract our first retail partners for summer 2017 as we like to believe our products are perfect for all the active beach goers.
Please feel free to inquire!