Small Business: Burkini designer revels in fashion industry

By Aimee Shaw

Swimwear label designer Carena West.
Swimwear label designer Carena West.

As the designer of a New Zealand 'burkini', Carena West explains what led her to create the piece of beach wear for her fashion label Carena West Swimwear.

A brief description of your business?

Carena West Swimwear is a New Zealand designed and made swimwear label focusing on unique design and perfect fit through bespoke production.

What gave you the idea for the business?

I had studied design and business at university and had always wanted to create a swimwear label. I guess it goes all the way back to growing up at the beach and loving seeing people express their individuality through what in reality is such a small piece of clothing.

After designing and making a small collection for a friend's charity fashion show - I had to teach myself a few techniques along the way - it gave me the confidence to get started on my own label.

It has been a learning process and that of trial and error but I'm proud of where the label is so far.

How big is your team?

Just me at the moment, but every now and then I call upon my very understanding sister to help me out with bits and pieces.

You unveiled a burkini in your latest collection, why did you design that piece?

I included it in the collection because I believe that women should be free to make the choice of what they wear to the beach, whether it be a religious choice or otherwise. The response to the Amal Suit has been overwhelmingly positive, I even had people on Facebook commenting on a runway photo speculating that it had been photoshopped on to the model.

I actually have a few ladies on the waiting list who want to purchase pieces of the Amal suit to keep sun safe in the surf, which shows that it can be a practical piece for women from all ages and backgrounds.

Model Brittane wears the Amal Suit. Photo / Jono Parker
Model Brittane wears the Amal Suit. Photo / Jono Parker

Have you been involved in New Zealand Fashion Week and does it generate revenue?

Yes. This year I chose to show "In Season" at New Zealand Fashion Week, meaning that my collection was available to purchase online from the day of the show.

Showing this way is more successful for me as NZFW generally shows collections available for the next winter, which is a bit difficult to do with swimwear.

NZFW for me is both a marketing and sales exercise, where for other labels it may be more directed towards wholesaling to buyers.

I find it is really beneficial to get my brand out there in front of as many people as I can at once. I also like to get involved in charity initiatives, and have sponsored a number of charity fashion shows and events.

What is the biggest challenge you've faced?

My two biggest challenges would be time and money.

I have been really lucky this year as I was the winner of the Microsoft Bring Your Dream to the Surface competition which has allowed me to dedicate more of both to my business and help it grow.

You previously lived in the Middle East, how has the country inspired you?

My family have been expats in the Kingdom of Bahrain for close to 11 years, and I was lucky enough to spend some time over there working on a marketing internship. The experience taught me about various aspects of Islam, and the choices women make regarding their clothing and fashion.

Swimwear label designer Carena West.
Swimwear label designer Carena West.

Without that experience, I don't think that I would have been able to understand the culture enough to release the Amal swimsuit.

What are the long-term plans for the business?

I would like Carena West Swim to be an international label, but with the original New Zealand values. Being socially responsible is very important to me and my brand so as I expand I need to make sure I am still holding true to this.

How long have you been in business?

I launched my first full collection at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Australia in 2013 in a group swimwear show. Since then Carena West Swimwear is quite a different beast to what it was when I started.

I am lucky that I have had some amazing support from my family and friends along the way - I wouldn't have been able to do it without them.

You're the winner of Microsoft's Bring Your Dream to the Surface competition, how has that benefited your business?

Winning the competition has been such a massive help and has eased some of the pressures that being a small business can create.

Model Brittane takes the runaway at NZFW, modelling the 'Amal Suit'.
Model Brittane takes the runaway at NZFW, modelling the 'Amal Suit'.

It has given me the confidence to dream bigger than I had originally planned for the year which means that I have some very exciting months ahead.

I actually saw the competition advertised in a stick up poster in Ponsonby, and entered as soon as I got home - who wouldn't want the opportunity to get the funding and support to pursue your dreams?

What has been the best thing to come out of your business?

The feeling of creating something and seeing it out in the world is one of the best feelings ever - seeing others wear and enjoy my swimwear is such a rush.

What advice would you give to other small business owners?

It is going to be harder work than you can ever expect, but it is totally worth it to see your own creation come to life.

- NZ Herald

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