Meet Courtney Chew, the founder of OCIN, a Swimwear Label with a Cause

We know it's not exactly warm right now, but... Hailed as one of the best new fashion brands of the year by Glamour magazine, OCIN is already making major waves.
Photo by Thompson Chan

With a background in brand and marketing, 29-year-old Vancouverite, Courtney Chew decided to put her skills to good use and make it in the fashion world on her own. Armed with over a decade of experience in retail, she decided to go down the conscious clothing route by creating a swimwear line made up of recycled materials that help conserve the planet and ocean.

Get ready to fantasize about warm weather and pristine beaches as you dive into our conversation about being a self-starter, prioritizing environmental innovation every step of the way and how to stand out from the crowd in an oversaturated market.

Hey Courtney! How did the idea of OCIN come about?

I’ve been in the retail space working for smaller startups to growing companies for the past twelve years now, and I knew that I eventually wanted to create something of my own. I wanted to design swimwear with an aesthetic that resonated with me. As a consumer, I don’t necessarily connect with the overtly sexy, extremely colourful and patterned styles that dominated the market (and still do). So I saw OCIN as an opportunity to create beautiful and minimal, yet functional pieces for men and women. I set out to position swimwear in a way that shows it can be a quality lifestyle staple, rather than a seasonal or disposable trend.

But ultimately, the purpose for OCIN really stemmed from my connection with the ocean. I’ve grown up in and around water, and I feel totally at home when I am surrounded by it.

Was it your intention to create an environmentally conscious brand from the get-go?

Over the past few years, I’ve been learning a lot more about my own personal impact and how my decisions as a consumer affect our environment, and more specifically our oceans.

It was important to me that if I were to create something, that I did so acknowledging the responsibility that comes with it. I recognize that fashion is one of the most wasteful industries in the world, but I also know the power that a brand can have in sharing a deep message and spreading it across a greater reach. So I want to motivate a shift in how we interact with each other as well as our earth and oceans in order to inspire positive actions that will benefit our collective future.

Photo by Alan Chan

What does being an ecological brand entail?

Well, we try to be very thoughtful about all elements of our brand. We choose to use recycled polyesters and nylon yarns in our fabrics, regenerated from discarded waste. We also use plant-based, post-consumer recycled or reusable materials in our packaging to prevent more plastics from being produced, and we’ve created a recycling program to help our consumers dispose of their old suits.

Are there any setbacks because of this?

I wouldn’t call them setbacks, but it does take more time and research overall. We’re not perfect, but we are 100% committed to figuring out how to develop and evolve our processes for the better as we grow.

In a city like Vancouver, where there are more than a few swimwear labels who use an ethical approach, how do you ensure that yours stands out?

I started OCIN not with the intention of being just a swimwear label, but a platform and lifestyle that connects us with the belief that our individual impact is powerful, and that together, we’re truly limitless. I hope that message shines through everything we do as a brand, and that this sets us apart not only brand-wise, but as a community.

Photo by Alan Chan

What’s the toughest part about opening a startup?

It can be pretty lonely sometimes. I’ve always been surrounded by teams and definitely thrive off the energy of others. But being a startup, the day to day operations are all run on my own, by myself.

It’s also hard to stay patient. When you’re building something, you want things to happen as soon as possible. I have ideas that I want to bring to life, but everything is limited to my physical capacity. I still believe patience will pay off though and I’m driven by the fact that as we grow, we can start to build a team and tackle these ideas one by one.

How do you plan to spread the word and grow the business, having launched last summer without a brick-and-mortar store as of yet?

First and foremost through our content, brand partnerships and the events and experiences we host.

So OCIN is a collective as well as a retail outlet selling ‘woke’ swimwear. The site features an online magazine with a ‘Thoughts’ section. What’s the story behind this?

Our ‘Thoughts’ are quotes that inspire us, or little notes that we’re thinking about and want to share with our community. It’s something we want to leave you with, to get you thinking, start a conversation or take action.

A percentage of the sales are donated to an organization of your choice each year. How does this work, especially when the company is still so young?

We’ve committed to donating a percentage of our proceeds to an organization that inspires us with their involvement in protecting our earth and oceans. It’s a way of supporting these other teams that do so much, and even though it may not amount to a large sum in our first few years, it drives us to continue to work hard, so we can grow our contributions slowly but gradually.

Photo by Alan Chan

Who do you picture the typical OCIN consumer to be?

I see our collective growing to be a worldwide network of individuals that are globally and culturally-inspired. They are creative in their professions and in their way of thinking. They lead their everyday with kindness, compassion, respect for each other, our planet, and all beings on this beautiful land. They are thoughtful and conscious about what they associate with, including the brands they consume and lifestyle habits. They are driven by curiosity, a humility, and a drive to constantly learn and evolve as a fellow human being.

What do you hope customers take away from making a purchase?

Whether or not those that engage with us actually purchase a piece, I’d like to think that whatever interaction they have with us is meaningful.

I hope OCIN challenges them to think about their lifestyle and consumption habits, gives them the insight that their impact actually matters and the actions they take make a difference. And if they do end up making a purchase, I want to ensure that OCIN makes them feel comfortable and confident – their best self.

Anything on the upcoming agenda that you’re particularly excited about?

I’m really excited to grow the brand outside of Vancouver. I get so excited about connecting with our community around the world, and am stoked for more opportunities to do that. We’re planning a few collaborations and special events for 2019, so be sure to stay connected with us on Instagram, and sign up to our newsletter for updates on all of this!

Photo by Alan Chan

Lastly, what would be your advice to anyone wanting to start their own venture?

Do your research and really spend time on a brand plan. Make sure you’re confident in your numbers, brand strategy and purpose, as it’ll help you stay focused on this ever-changing journey. Throughout it all, stay curious and humble enough to lean on people around you, so they can help when needed, because you can’t do it all on your own.

It’s a difficult road ahead and you’re in for the long haul, so give it the right foundation and opportunity to succeed. Put in the work, be hands-on with everything (even if you don’t know everything), and be confident that you can figure things out. And then take the leap with no fear. Because the one thing most people fear that stops them from starting, is failure. But once you realize failure isn’t necessarily the worst thing, there’s really nothing that can stop you.

Lastly, it’s different for everyone, but in my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with taking your time and building slowly. Enjoy what you’re creating and have fun, it’s amazing and brave to start your own venture, so take the time to experience every moment of it.

Thanks, Courtney!