Hands Not Thumbs /// 003 /// Ellen Caldwell - Figure Wetsuits

Posted by Tom Dear on

So Ellen, you're a graphic designer, turned wetsuit designer!

In a world of fast fashion and mega production factories, you go against the grain, what inspired you to compete in what appears to be a highly competitive market?

The original aim for me was to create performance sportswear. I wanted it to feel that while you’re wearing a piece of clothing whilst being active you don't feel like there's any restriction.

So when designing wetsuits, it was combining that aspect of the feeling of no restriction with the natural world, to make you feel fully immersed into that environment.

Almost like a connection between the surfing and what you're wearing?

Yeah, exactly, and also, being your typical blonde, female surfer, I felt like the wetsuits that are “for girls”, are usually: tropical vibes, pink, striped etc. I felt like it already isolated me in the water. If I was to go out in a pink wetsuit with blonde hair, I feel people would be judging me, thinking “who does she think she is? California barbie?!” haha.  I wanted to really deconstruct that. When I design a wetsuit for someone, they can have it exactly their way, so they feel like they are not going to get stereotyped No one's assuming they are something, which I think takes the pressure off and allows you to just enjoy the moment.

So how do you even start a wetsuit brand? Like, where do you even begin with this? How do you get into the fits, the sizing, shapes etc. It just seems like such a big task for someone to do solo?

For me, I've always been very sporty. Traditionally I think a lot of people commit to one sport and think that's it, they're just going to dive fully into that one outlet. Whereas for me, I like to take elements from different sports and see how that could improve another.

I used to be a national level gymnast, and what I found from wearing bikinis or surf suits, is that they'd be ill fitting, they’d ride up your bum, they'd make you feel a bit uncomfortable, you'd always be pulling them down or adjusting them.

So from gymnastics, I know that leotards stay in place and stick. They're not going to ride up, because in competition, that's not allowed, you'd get deducted points. So relating that back to surfing, I thought, if you’re hit by a wave, and you get ‘tumble dried’ in the water, you're still not going to be putting yourself in all these weird and wonderful positions as you would if you were tumbling in gymnastics.

So I took the idea of a layered gymnastic leotard and thought how can I put that, specifically for girls to start with, into surf suits and make them more performance based so that you wouldn't be messing with them in the water, instead you can just enjoy yourself. So that's how it started.

So did you literally cut apart a leotard and use that as your template for a wetsuit?

Yeah, exactly! So, I used to do acrobatic gymnastics, so for those competitions, you'd have to get an individual garment every time and it would could cost you up to £200 a leotard!
So I decided that I'd made my own. For me and my partners when we were competing, I'd make our leotards, I’d paint them all, add all the diamante’s on etc.

I literally took the patterns that I had from the leotards and then adapted them slightly to make surfwear.

So what would you say was the biggest challenge you had in that process?

It was interesting to work out how your body moves in the water. The main differences would be putting the seams in the right place, so you don’t get any restriction and rub. As you are typically in the water for a long time, these things matter massively. So it was more like eradicating those sort of things. 

Another real struggle was when I started moving on from Lycra and started working with neoprene. It's such a different structure and is so robust, it is really challenging for sewing. Also apart from mass manufactured factories, you don't have many people in the UK that really work with it, so it is hard to seek out advice or help from others.

I guess that's why when I came across your work, I was blown away that you made it yourself, for that exact reason. No one seems to work with neoprene by themselves. It's just something that you associate with wetsuits, and wetsuits are made in a factory somewhere and you don’t really think about it.

I'm quite lucky. I found a mentor that does work with neoprene in the UK and he's been good enough to teach me how to work with it!

Okay, so the wetsuit industry has always been environmentally hard on the planet, which is a sad irony given them most surfers are incredibly environmentally conscious. How does Figure challenge that?

I called the brand ‘Figure’ because I think we all need to try somewhat to figure out for ourselves what we need to do. We are the ‘figures’ of the future. How can we make something that's so detrimental to the environment as neoprene is, is there a way we can be more eco conscious without greenwashing?

I think as surfers, the majority strive to sort of be better for the environment, so why is it that we buy a new wetsuit every year and put that into landfill? I try to eradicate this by using a circular economy business model.

Everything I use, with the exception of the neoprene, is UK based. My neoprene comes from one factory, and it has one destination, there's no middlemen. Everything else is UK supplied, and the suppliers I use produce their goods using green energy. 

By doing that, you’re already taking all the CO2 emissions from travel, you don't have any greenhouse gases that are going into the atmosphere from it being bounced around the planet. The wetsuit is also designed to fit you and is designed to last for years.

So I think the issue with most mass manufactures of wetsuits is, if they last a long time, we're not going to buy another one, so then they don't make their money, which makes sense. Like why would a wetsuit last more than a season when they want you to keep buying more?

Whereas mine are meant to last a lifetime, you've got me, your personal tailor that's on the end of the phone, so if you ever damage or ruin your suit, then you can give it back to me and I’ll replace a panel, therefore, avoiding unnecessary waste going to landfill.

So what is biggest lesson you've learned so far on this journey? And what are you hoping to achieve?

I guess is how to be a one-woman army!

But also, when you’re trying to compete with mass manufactured wetsuits, I suppose the biggest lesson I've learned is how to get a consistent clientele that will trust you enough to let you make them a wetsuit.

Getting people to believe that your wetsuit is good enough, even though you know it's potentially more superior than other wetsuits. Can I say that?!

So what are you hoping to achieve? Is there and end goal?

I want to achieve a brand that's a complete ‘green-house’ I want to be able to let people in, to see exactly how it's made and why it's flourishing. Not necessarily because I'm a good businesswoman, but because the products themselves are better than anything you'd get that is mass manufactured.

Okay, so last question. What do you want to be known for as a brand?

In a subversive way I don't, I want to be known as a people's brand.

I don't really want it to be known as anything apart from the fact I make hardcore wetsuits!

Photography by @travelandthegirls
Check out Figure's website here

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  • Wow that was one impressive interview, well done EC. Xx

    Celia Hore on

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