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Minding Her Own Business: Designing Swimwear with Purpose

Ashley Chase is merging the resources and styles of two islands – Martha’s Vineyard and Bali – to create her new bathing suit line. That makes Ulu Swimwear, launched on Martha’s Vineyard last summer, as much a local business as an international one.

The swimwear is produced on the Indonesian island of Bali and sold in the United States, and it’s inspired by the surf lifestyle that both islands share. Designed with this functionality in mind, the brand is recognizable by its durable beadwork and styles that are made to hold up and stay in place in the ocean. Even in waves.

“I’m not into the idea of owning a bathing suit that you could only wear to a pool,” says twenty-five-year-old Ashley, whose family home is in Vineyard Haven, “which is kind of how I feel like fashion on the Vineyard is in general. Everyone tries to be hip, but you also have in the back of your head that you might end up on a beach or in a barn by the end of the night, so the line is a mix of fashion and practicality.”

Ashley’s petite, athletic figure makes her an ideal model for the suits (even though she laughs at having to use her-self to model as a pitfall of running a one-woman business), but the brand is representative of its owner in other ways. Ashley herself is a product of two islands, having grown up on both Conanicut Island in Rhode Island and Martha’s Vineyard, where she graduated high school. The international status of the brand matches her wanderlust and interest in helping others; she spent much time during college and afterward backpacking through different parts of Central America, Asia, and Europe, doing social work along her way.

The first stitches that would become Ulu Swimwear were sewn on such a trip, during Ashley’s second winter in Bali, where she was both a visitor and a volunteer English teacher to Balinese children. She lived in the beach town of Uluwatu, the inspiration for her brand’s name.

“I went to Bali, and because it’s one of the biggest surf destinations in the world, I figured I would be able to find a bathing suit there,” Ashley explains. “When I got there, I walked around like the entire city....We went into every store and I tried on eight hundred different bathing suits and none of them fit me. Everything was too big or just badly shaped or [had] loose spots, and it was either Roxy, Reef, or a knockoff of some brand like that, so you had all these options but they were all basically the same bathing suit, which didn’t fit me. And so after a week of looking, I was like...I’m going to go make one.”

Ashley found a seamstress in the city of Kuta and worked with her for several days, shaping fabrics she bought there into the design she wanted to wear. The first one worked, and so Ashley went back several times, leaving Bali with eight bathing suits she had made for herself.

Encouraged by her boyfriend, Whitney Brush, who owns the furniture business Vineyard Teak (which also has roots in Bali), Ashley returned to Indonesia the following year with a suitcase full of material and the capital to make one hundred suits. “It was very hands-on,” Ashley says with a laugh, recalling how she lugged her suitcase through the airport.

And while creating a wearable swimsuit is a founding principle of the business, Ashley wants to use Ulu Swimwear for loftier purposes, hoping to combine business with her passion for social work. This is probably why, when asked where she wants to see her business go, Ashley gives a rather atypical answer for an upstart entrepreneur.

“I always had this idea that I would make all this money and give it away,” she says, acknowledging that philanthropy requires financing. “So I started this business, and I might end up doing it as a not-for-profit.”

Ashley is still in the process of deciding the best way to position Ulu to make positive change – deciding between linking the business to an environmental and wildlife conservation project or to the fundraising work she has already done in Bali for orphans and children. “It would be great to give a certain percentage of profit to the Balinese,” she says, adding that she also hopes to begin using fabrics made of eco-friendly materials such as bamboo or Tencel, a wood-pulp fiber.

But for now, Ashley’s social awareness starts from the ground up. In looking for manufacturers in Bali last winter, this businesswoman held the factories to high standards – the same she would use for herself in choosing a place of work.

“For me, distinguishing sweatshop versus artisan work was about the work environment. If I walked into some place and was like, ‘I would work here,’ then I’ll do business with these guys,” Ashley says. “I’d walk into some places and there’d be a dozen rows of sewers and there’d be screen-printing going on, so there’d be chemicals in the air and they’d have one little window and no fan, and that’s not cool.”

The manufacturer with whom she’s worked during these first two years of Ulu Swimwear is a California-born woman who was recommended to Ashley by a Balinese-American friend who is also involved in fashion design. This factory, in the city of Denpasar, is run out of the owner’s home in a beautiful area surrounded by rice paddies; it has five sewing machines, six sewers, a translator, and three dogs running around – much more Ashley’s style.

“Having a familiar relationship with all of [the sewers] and knowing that they’re content with their work made me accept it and be like, ‘Okay, this is a place I want to do business with,’” she says. At the factory she works with, Ashley describes, “They all leave for lunch. Sometimes they’ll bring [their daughter or son], if they don’t have someone to watch the kid. The kid will come and hang out, and they also have the option of taking pieces home if they want to work from home. I know all of them, sit next to them working. Working with them was fun – quirky and fun.”

It is this level of involvement in the production process that defines Ashley’s relationship with her business. From start to finish, she buys the materials, designs the suits, works on creating and shaping the samples with the seamstress, goes over them with the manufacturer and her sewers, monitors the quality of the handwork, and does sewing and beading herself, all before returning to the United States.

“And there’s so many details,” Ashley says. “Like everything from the stitch on the seams, to the embroidery, to the font size I want the logo on the tag to be. So many things I didn’t expect. And that’s the thing, I do everything myself. I did the photos all myself, I did all the marketing myself, the web design, obviously all the accounting, and everything. It’s a one-man show.”

Back in this country, Ashley has another whole side of the process to manage: selling her product to retailers. Last year for her first summer, she recalls, “I came home with several suitcases full of bikinis with the assumption that stores or boutiques that belonged to friends of mine, or friends of friends, would be willing to take them. I had no idea who would carry my suits or how many each store would take, so it definitely was a gamble. I got back and started calling everyone I knew or everyone who I thought would know someone helpful, and I was able to get pretty much all of my suits into stores.”

Here on the Vineyard, Ulu’s 2010 line was sold at the Green Room in Vineyard Haven, where owner Elaine Barse made the first order Ashley ever took. Connections in Oregon and California set Ulu up with stores in those states, and Ashley also put the suits for sale online through the website Etsy. For her second year, several things have changed. Ashley returned to the country with twice as many swimsuits. UluSwimwear.com is now equipped for direct-to-consumer sales, along with the online retailer Karmaloop. She’s still selling suits in California, and on-Island Ulu is no longer only at the Green Room. Two new stores, GettiGear in downtown Edgartown and Kokonuts in Vineyard Haven, are now carrying Ashley’s designs.

“I try to be really aware of competition between businesses on the Vineyard – a couple of places in Edgartown wanted to take them, but I only let one store do it,” Ashley says.

Looking back on her first year, Ashley recalls how her suits were sold on consignment, which meant any unsold stock would be returned to her instead of being the property of the retailer. This year she had connections in stores and returned to the Island early enough to sell inventory, but she has already found something she will need to change for next season.

“Because I only make a limited supply, I kind of had to decide between whether to take the risk of refusing sales and putting a maximum cap on orders, or what I did do was let people order whatever they wanted, but now...two stores on the Island are carrying [the amount that] could have probably been pushed to four stores,” she says. “It’s like I have to call off meetings really because I don’t have enough. But you learn, so next year I’ll know better or just make more suits.”

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