My Shanghai is an Urban Family series where we ask a Shanghai-based somebody to tell us about their life.
Making a positive impact on the environment one plastic bottle at a time is Heather Kaye, co-founder of FINCH Designs. After moving to Shanghai from the US, she took the opportunity to merge her love of design with her passion for sustainability. This is how she and her co-founder, Itee Soni, came to produce eco-friendly swimwear from recycled PET fabric. They are incredibly focused on reducing fast fashion and making us more conscious about our purchasing habits. And, they do this while creating fun, bright designs that not only look great but also protect us from the sun's harsh rays.
How did you come to live in Shanghai and what is your background?
In 2005, it appeared that China was taking over production for the entire apparel industry. Quotas were ending, and no other country had mastered the vertical manufacturing of garments like China. As a designer of women’s clothes for Liz Claiborne Inc. in New York, I watched our patternmaking and sample room teams dwindle, and everything quickly shift overseas. This is where I saw an opportunity to be a bridge between the designers in New York and the new factory teams. So, I convinced my boss (and new husband) to transfer me to Shanghai for one year. That was 13 years ago!
Image via FINCH Designs
Can you tell me how your partnership with Itee came about, and what role you each play in the business?
Itee and I met in 2008 while working for the same design label in Shanghai, right after I'd given birth to my eldest daughter, Charlotte. On my first day in the office, I pumped breast milk under my desk as there was nowhere else to go. I think that's when Itee decided she wanted to be my friend. But you'd have to ask her!
After a lot of lunches and business trips together, we launched FINCH in June 2010. We started as an organic apparel brand, hoping to prove fashion could be both sustainable and profitable. At first, we were neither. We had made our first collection a mirror of our corporate experience in terms of offering a vast number of styles, and we quickly learned the lesson of the 80/20 principle: 20 percent of your stock will yield 80 percent of your revenue. We course-corrected based on what our customers were telling us, and we've been listening ever since.
Throughout our nearly 10 years working together and our evolution as a brand, our deep friendship has been the bedrock of everything. I knew Itee would be a great long-term partner because, on top of being extremely talented, she isn't afraid to speak her mind and stand up for what she believes in. These qualities, along with her genuine integrity, heart and humor, are so important – your business relationship is like a marriage. Choose wisely!
What was the inspiration for the brand and where does the name FINCH come from?
Honestly, for us, it's really about creating a continuum between our personal values and our work. We don’t want to check what we care about at our office door. First and foremost, we want to protect and work for what we believe in. We both love fashion, but we cannot tolerate the accepted level of waste generated by our industry. Quite frankly, it's irresponsible, even negligent, to create fast fashion when the average urban adult throws away 32 kilograms of textiles every year. There is also the social and environmental impact of producing low-cost garments. No amount of profit is worth being a part of that cycle.
The name FINCH came from our Shanghai origins: when we first arrived here, we loved the sight of the old men carrying their finch birds in bamboo cages to the park each morning. It just seemed to capture a feeling of what we wanted to protect and celebrate – our shared humanity.
Image via FINCH Designs
Your products are made using Repreve® recycled PET fabric. Can you tell me about the process of using this material?
At FINCH, everything we make is from an existing resource: discarded plastic bottles. PET bottles with the symbol, are polyester. All swimwear is made using poly or nylon, so we saw an opportunity back when this was a new concept to create a fabric with recycled PET (rPET).
When PET bottles are melted down, they can be made into new yarn, fabrics, car upholstery and even insulation – all kinds of new products, using a fraction of the energy and water needed to extract virgin poly from gas or oil. We found an amazing partner in Unifi, an American company that recycles PET bottles under the brand name 'Repreve.' They ensure the resources behind each of those post-consumer use bottles don't go to waste in a landfill, or worse, poison our oceans.
At the end of your FINCH swimsuit's life, you can return it to us, or another textile recycling company, to make new swimwear. We run our company as a circular economy, where our waste becomes our raw input.
What products are currently included in your range to cater to all members of the family?
We create UPF 50+ sun protective swimwear for women, men and kids starting at 12 months old. We specialize in rash guard shirts paired with bikinis for women, swim trunks for boys and men, and several styles for girls. We love to create fun, bold prints and embrace color.
Image via FINCH Designs
Looking forward to 2019, what can your customers anticipate from FINCH?
Big, exciting things are planned for 2019! We have an upcoming collaboration with the world's foremost brand in diving and ocean conservation and will have a new collection coming in spring 2019. We partner with incredible, luxury hotels here in Asia to deliver the best quality eco-swimwear available to their guests. This includes The Middle House, W Hotels and Mandarin Oriental, and we look forward to expanding to more beaches over the next year.
We are partners with Green Initiatives and co-founders of the 'Plastics are Forever' impact project. Through this, we will continue to host workshops and screen A Plastic Ocean at schools and companies around China that are wanting to reduce single-use plastic and spread awareness about ocean pollution.
What activities do you and your family enjoy in Shanghai?
This year, our family took in a puppy (or more accurately, she was left on our doorstep at eight weeks old), so now, most outings revolve around her. We love going for long walks on the West Bund Riverside by the Adidas Runbase, and to the new dog park at 3399 Longteng Lu. We are major patrons of dog-friendly spots like RAC Bar on Anfu Lu, Brut Eatery and Tacolicious. Our daughters are 10 and 8, so family-friendly community events like the Eco Design Fair and Hand In Hand International Children's Music Festivals are always priorities.
Where can our Urban Family community find your products?
Visit our website: finchdesigns.com or in Shanghai, The Middle House Spa, the W Shanghai – The Bund and Madame Mao's Dowry (207 Fumin Lu) stock our products. At Studio 5 (169 Jiashan Lu), we have an open house most Tuesdays 10.30am-1.30pm, or by appointment.
Follow FINCH Designs via their QR Code.
[Cover image via FINCH Designs]
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