Most fashion designers aren’t struck with inspiration while wading through trash-strewn waters in Bali, but that’s exactly what happened to Vivian Le.
The co-founder of Salt & Coco, along with pal-turned-partner Pauline Le, was enjoying what she thought was a leisurely vacation in Indonesia in 2016. But as the two spent more time at the country’s beaches and waterfalls, they were disheartened to see garbage littering the landscape.
“We were swimming in plastic bags,” she said, describing the waste as a permanent fixture of the coastline.
Beginning her career as a designer at Los Angeles’ Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM), Le worked in both product and web design. Her trip to Bali with Pauline ignited her drive to put her design skills to use on her own swimwear brand—and to do it sustainably.
“Going to fashion school, everyone wants to have their own voice through fashion, but we have created the most polluting industry,” she said. “How do you express yourself in a way that’s mindful?”
The question dogged Le as she and her co-founder, a marketing guru who previously worked at FIDM, sought out the right partners for their venture.
Le knew that she wanted the brand to be part of a solution, even in a small way, for the issue of plastic waste in the world’s oceans. After attending Informa’s Magic apparel trade show in Las Vegas, she decided that Italian mill Econyl’s regenerated nylon—made from ocean plastic and discarded fishing nets—was the perfect canvas for her creations.
“Fishing nets cause a lot of pollution because they’re thrown back into the ocean when they’re broken,” she said, especially in countries like Bali, where they disrupt the natural ecology.
But as a tiny startup, Salt & Coco had to get creative to make the economic side of launching a business feasible.
“It’s a challenge for small brands” that want to work with sustainable inputs, Le said. “We’ve actually had to piggy-back off of orders that are already being shipped because it’s so expensive to use the product. I’m personally ordering from stock that’s brought into a warehouse for other brands.”
While the two co-founders run their design and marketing operations from their hometown of Los Angeles, Salt & Coco’s manufacturing happens in the country where the idea for the brand first took shape.
“Bali has a lot of swimwear factories, and it’s a strong focus of production for the country,” Le said. The brand works with a third-party operator that acts as a go-between for Bali’s smaller swimwear factories, many of which have between five and 10 workers. Le uses WhatsApp to communicate with her partner, who helps her navigate the language barrier with the factories.
Having worked as a designer for other lifestyle brands in the past—some distributed at big-box retailers like Target—Le said the experience of working with factories in Bali has been a 180-degree shift. Instead of cranking out product at a breakneck pace, operations feel comparatively plodding and deliberate—and, as she was hoping, “more mindful.”
And while Le’s previous experience taught her about managing wholesale relationships, she said Salt & Coco will remain direct-to-consumer for the foreseeable future.
Stressful deadlines, the heavy investment of capital for product orders, and the unpredictable nature of the traditional retail model have deterred the co-founders from pursuing relationships with popular swimwear vendors and department stores. Managing the brand on their own also leads to less waste, Le said, as she only orders small volumes when supply is running low.
As the brand’s creative director, she also works to the beat of her own design schedule, adding in new silhouettes whenever she sees a gap in the label’s range. Being based in Southern California, where swimsuit season is year-round, means that Salt & Coco’s offerings are always relevant to its local consumer base.
“Our goal is to be the opposite of fast fashion, where we have to come out with new products all the time that are going to go out of style,” she said. “We want to design things that will last for the next 10 years.”
Le described her designs as “classic and essential,” and she was inspired greatly by the intimates market, where neutral shades of beige and grey reign supreme.
She also tries to integrate pops of color into new releases. This spring-summer season, sunset orange, cerulean blue and millennial pink punctuate the line. Bikinis are the bestsellers, she said, though the range includes a handful of practical, one-piece suits.
The label’s slowed-down approach to design, production and overall growth has been underscored by the events of recent months. As the coronavirus continues to spread, Le is cognizant of the fact that the world doesn’t need another brand pushing products for travel and leisure when neither of those things is happening for most shoppers.
“We’re trying to be sensitive to the time we’re living in,” she said, adding that the brand has pulled back on much of its marketing while waiting for cues from consumers about what they’d like to see. Opportunities to generate brand awareness through events, like pool parties and social gatherings, have also been put on hold indefinitely.
But even amid a global pandemic that has ground sales to a near halt, Le is optimistic that interest in sustainable swimwear—and apparel more broadly—will return. Her goal is to make the transition to smarter, more Earth-friendly products easy when consumer appetites for new clothes ramp up again.
“Our goal is to get people to think about the small steps they can take to address the issue of waste,” she said. “We just want them to be aware, be more conscious, and not buy cheap products that are going to fall apart after a few wears.”