U &I is a story about women and empowerment. Movement is freedom, and designers Jodie Hayes and Emma Bäcklund have created a designer surfwear label that aids and abets active women in reclaiming female physical autonomy, one multifunctional swimwear piece at a time.
The sleepy surfer town of Torquay is home to a community that’s active outdoors, creative indoors, and extraordinarily proactive within both realms. It’s fertile ground for creative, sustainability-focused entrepreneurs supporting one another, and hence the birthplace and incubator of U&I.
When we get to Emma’s house, we’re greeted by Jodie’s rambunctious 9-month-old Australian Shepherd, Scout, and a breakfast of croissants and freshly brewed coffee – aside from being inspiring and driven, Jodie and Emma are extraordinarily hospitable. Later on, Emma even lends me a near-indestructible wetsuit and gives us a free surfing lesson. I also got to trial the Juc top, which I can attest is ridiculously comfortable and well-designed.
(To give you an idea of how strongly U&I prioritises functionality, the Bells one-piece I have my eye on specifies the height of the waves it’s appropriate for. I’m also planning on wearing it as a ballet leotard, and you can style it under jeans or shorts too. Versatility ahoy!)
But before us magpies hit the beach, we chatted with Jodie and Emma in amongst some rare winter sunshine, verdant raised garden beds, and a menagerie of sheep, chickens, horses and a duck. We talked to these two innovative women about their label’s strong stance against impractical, sexually objectifying swimwear, their inspiration (which includes “awesome chicks” and “angry, powerful bitches”), and how U&I began.
How did U&I come about?
J: It started when I was at uni. Em did some photography for me for one of my ranges; that particular range was swimwear, and she saw something in it.
E: We entered into a competition – not exactly a Kickstarter, but something like that. We didn’t win but it helped us get started. How the whole brand came about was us saying: we’re not beach babes, we’re not sunbakers. We wanted to represent actual women, not what big corporate brands are doing. We thought it was missing from the market.
J: If you go on the Instagram accounts of other swimwear labels, it’s all girls trotting around on the beach and being pretty and girly, but that’s not at all what we or our friends are. There’s no brand out there that really represents our lifestyle and what we do with swimwear. So there was a nice little gap for us.
What do you think differentiates U&I from other existing surfwear labels for women?
E: We’re individual. It’s just the two of us; we’re really creating stuff that we love to wear. It’s niche.
J: It’s about an active lifestyle; our label is about active girls, girls who surf, girls who are out there, girls who do sports, and that’s what we want to portray in our brand story.
E: Yeah. It’s all about empowering women, with our products and stories we can tell through women who inspire us.
J: In terms of design, I’m personally bored by most swimwear. There’s no design element, there’s no thought, there’s no design inspiration. It’s just triangle bikinis: triangle after triangle after triangle. So it’s really fun for me to try and open up the swimwear market. It doesn’t have to be boring. You can use different fabrics, different pattern-making techniques. That’s what I hope differentiates us too.
In terms of the functionality of your product, what elements did you identify as missing from existing swimwear? What wasn’t working for you?
J: I found the design of swimwear was almost for guys. The look of it was to be sexy; it was to impress someone else. You know, g-string bottoms, or whatever – it’s a lot about onlookers.
E: Instead of you being empowered, instead of you feeling gorgeous in something that’s comfortable.
J: Exactly. The tops are functional so you can run, surf, or swim. It’s more about designing for your inner sex rather than designing for guys to appreciate what that is. When you drive down Torquay, the big banners of all the big surf brands are all girls with their arses out or whatever, and it’s just not what it’s about.
What’s the story behind the name “U&I”?
J: I was living in Bondi when my friend had just broken up with her boyfriend, and she put her Facebook status as “U&I”. It just looked aesthetically perfect. It was balanced – the ‘U’, the ampersand, and the ‘I’. It’s the start of every great story, and the end of every great story.
At the time I was thinking about names for labels, and I knew that I didn’t want something that was just a word – I wanted something that told a story. There’s a lot of really great names out there, like Romance Was Born or Vanishing Elephant, and they’ve got a kind of mysterious romance behind them. That’s what I was after. It could be anything: a romance, a friendship, an adventure. Anyone can connect with it. It’s your own; it’s intimate.
When Em came on board she really connected with it too. There were a lot of people telling us to change it, because it didn’t have any surf connection or water meaning. We toyed with the idea of changing it, but ultimately we came back to U&I.
E: Instead of putting the surf connection in our brand name, we do it in our collection. Our first range is a celebration of the surf coast – we name all the different pieces after different places along it.
J: In our upcoming season we’ve named the garments after female cyclones. We wanted something powerful. The new range we’ve done in a dark tone, because Bells Beach can be really scary, dark and stormy, and so the next range is called ‘Storm’. We thought: why not name them after real, angry bitches! Angry, powerful bitches. We’ve got Yasi in there, Katrina, the most dangerous girl storms.
Can you tell us a bit about your favourite part of the design process?
J: The processes are completely different for Em and I – we control different parts of it.
E: Jodie does all the fashion design, and I do the marketing and photography.
J: My favourite part of the process I do would be questioning the design. I don’t think there’s a lot of swimwear labels out there that spend time on product development – they just take a garment or brand that they like and reproduce it. Everything’s the same. So I like to think about what’s missing. Why are they designing it that way, why aren’t they doing it another way? Why aren’t they using this fabric or another? It’s the experimentation, the research.
E: For me, I like when we get to the stage where we can go out and do photo shoots. It’s really fun. You find awesome chicks that you really look up to in the surf or they’re doing something quite unique, and you get to work with them. Then putting it all together, and presenting a lookbook or catalogue, uploading new photos to the website – the part where we get to show the world what we’ve done.
It’s frustrating that the dominating image of women in surfing is still one of sexual objectification. But it’s so heartening to see people like you turning that notion on its head. Do you think this image is changing?
J: I think it’s changing. Social media has helped so much. It’s given small businesses a voice. There’s always going to be that sort of sexism, because sex sells, so brands are going to use that to sell a product. But at the same time, there’s also the other little guys like us. It’s changing, and there’s a market out there for it. People like us don’t want to just dance along the beach in our little Brazilian cut.
That’s the advantage of social media – you can choose who you follow. So instead of only having billboards to guide you through the market, you can sit in your bed and go through your Instagram and choose your own path.
And because you’re also posting, you’re taking back control.
J: Yeah for sure. And the public don’t lie. If you put something up that they don’t like –
E: – they let you know.
J: People want something more empowering. I think it’s seeping into younger girls too, which is good. Around here anyway. There’s so many young active girls down here.
E: That’s the power for us with other indie brands. Everyone’s really keen to help each other out, and to collaborate. So together we become much stronger, and on social media as well. We’re all kind of sticking it to the man! [laughs]
What’s one of the biggest challenges you’ve come up against?
E: Cash flow is always a challenge, and getting picked up by new stores. It’s hard unless you have a good reputation, unless you’ve been in the game for a while.
J: Selling itself is hard, having people trust you as a brand. Now we’re stocked in Torquay, Melbourne, Byron and Bali.
E: We’d love to open up our own shop [in Torquay]. But as for other challenges – well, people are so awesome. We’ve been getting so much help from local people. The heart of the industry is here, people here have so much knowledge, and we can reach out to them.
J: It’s so surprising in this small, quiet little surf town how many talented, creative people there are here. It’s shocking. So many brands have started here, so many entrepreneurs started here. And everybody’s willing to share their knowledge.
Everything is a learning process for us. We make a lot of mistakes. You have to tell that story Em, about when you broke the bottle. I wasn’t there and I wish I was.
E: [laughs] Okay. We were going around to a lot of different boutiques last year – because calling someone doesn’t really work, you have to go to them. So we have these little glass bottles instead of a hanging tag, a kind of message in a bottle with our brand story and some sea salt. And I walked in, and I just dropped it on the floor. Like, smashed it.
J: It’s already so awkward, going to a store. You don’t know them, you’re shy, you tell your story, and you run out.
E: So I just walk in, drop it, and walk straight back out. I didn’t even say anything!
Did they call you?
E: [laughing] No!
What’s your favourite surfing spot?
E: There’s so many. If you want to just go for a longboard, something a bit more cruisy, then there’s Point Impossible. Then obviously Bells Beach, and Point Addis.
J: You guys should go to Red Rock Beach, it’s just off Addis on the other side. It’s so pretty, even just to go and walk.
E: That’s what’s so special here, the red rocks, when the sun is rising or setting –
J: It’s kind of like Uluru, at different times of the day the rock changes colour.
What’s next for U&I?
J: We have big ideas for our brand. We have no aspirations to be some big corporation and make squillions of dollars, but we want to build a brand story and be a company that can highlight really great creative women in the industry and create a platform where we can all help each other out. We do that now behind the scenes, but we want to do more –
E: – collaborations, help get all these amazing creative people together. We want to get an actual space where we can have people working together, a kind of hub. There’s not anything like that here. Because when people get together, that’s when things really happen.
J: In the near future we want to get a store in Torquay and be more recognised as designers, not just another surfwear label.
E: And keep empowering women. Hopefully in future we can hire and maybe even sponsor awesome women too.
Jodie and Emma are very generously offering a 20% discount to Red Magpie readers (valid for 6 months) – use the code “Because I’m a magpie”. Swoop in, magpies!
And keep an eye out over the next few months, as we just got word that they’ll be opening up a shopfront in Torquay soon.
Photography by Elly Freer, videography by Tye Dunn.