Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Manakai Swimwear owners Kelley Chapman (left) and Anna Lieding dared to dream big. Today, their hard work is paying off — in the most fashionable way possible.

There’s a story behind every successful partnership. This one began with a well-timed phone call.

Two years ago, Anna Lieding and Kelley Chapman were at a career crossroads. “We were both ready for a change,” Lieding said. “Neither of us knew that the other was in the same boat.”

But it wasn’t the first time they’d been in the same boat. The two women met for the first time in 2007 while working as marine naturalists on a whale-watching cruise boat in Lahaina. They quickly realized they had plenty in common: Lieding and Chapman had each earned bachelor’s degrees in science-related fields and both had a passion for sustainability.

By 2015, both women had moved on to different jobs. That summer, a friend of Chapman’s told her about a Bali-based swimwear company that was for sale. Chapman, who had worked in the swimwear industry for several years, was instantly intrigued. “It was my dream to have my own company,” she said. “So yes, this was the right opportunity at the right time.”

As Chapman made preparations to buy the company, Lieding was sitting on a rocky beach 3,000 miles away in Port Townsend, Wash., where she’d landed a summer job. That day, Lieding says a friend suggested she look into an opportunity she’d spotted online: a swimwear company was for sale. The prospect of owning a business piqued her interest. “I’d made hand-sewn suits in the past, but I didn’t have any real experience in the industry, so I wanted to get some information,” she said.

Manakai Swimwear is making a splash with its high-end, low-impact swimsuits.

So, she picked up her phone and dialed Chapman’s number. “When I called, I had no idea she was looking at the same company,” Lieding laughed. In fact, Chapman was in the process of finalizing the paperwork when her phone rang. Chapman says Lieding took the news exceptionally well. “When I told her I was buying the company, Anna was genuinely happy for me and very supportive,” she said.

And that’s when the idea of a partnership began to take shape. “I asked Anna, ‘What can you bring to the table?'” Chapman said. Lieding didn’t waste any time drafting a business partnership proposal, and in September 2015, she and Chapman became the co-owners of Manakai Swimwear. “It was divine timing that brought us together,” Lieding said. “Everything fell into place.”

In the months that followed, the pair pooled their resources and worked day and night to breathe life into their vision: an ecofriendly, socially conscious, American-made swim-wear line that would honor the ocean and empower women to embrace their beauty. It may sound like a tall order, but Lieding and Chapman were determined to make it happen.

The first order of business was finding the right materials for the job. Both women are acutely aware that “fast fashion” (low-cost, runway-to-retail apparel) is one of the main culprits behind industrial pollution; therefore, sustainability was, and still is, a non-negotiable imperative.

“The fashion industry generates over 15 million tons of waste every year and is the third greatest pollutant in the world,” Chapman explained. “Anna and I agreed that if we were going to do this, we were going to do it right.”

After a great deal of research, Lieding and Chapman settled on an Italian company that collects and converts discarded polyethylene terephthalate materials — including fishing nets, factory scraps and other industrial waste containing a high percentage of Nylon 6 — into recycled nylon textile filament yarn, which is then woven into swimwear fabric. It’s a win-win for everyone: This planet-friendly, consciously made fabric is durable, lightweight, breathable and silky soft (and it looks great, too).

The next step was finding a U.S.-based factory to manufacture the swimsuits; Lieding and Chapman ultimately chose one on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Then, last April, they launched an online Kickstarter campaign and raised $15,000 in three weeks. “That’s what allowed us to go into full production mode,” Lieding said. Not long after, the pair was logging 80-hour workweeks and routinely flying to Southern California to meet with pattern makers, visit the factory and direct photo shoots. “It didn’t fall into our laps; it was a lot of hard work,” Lieding said. “But we’re not scared of hard work.”

In late October, Chapman flew to California and stayed there for two months to oversee the final push. She says she was overcome with emotion when the first sample bikini came off the line — and she promptly tried it on to see how it fit (it was a great fit). “I cried tears of joy,” she said. “I was 100 percent proud of myself.” Several weeks later, on Christmas Eve, Chapman boarded a Kahului-bound flight with five large suitcases stuffed with swimsuits. “It was a surreal moment,” she said. “That’s when I knew all of our hard work was starting to pay off.”

Earlier this month, Manakai Swimwear debuted its first collection, aptly named the “Eco-Conscious Collection,” which includes 11 different styles and six color options. The one- and two-piece swimsuits are made of UV-protected, sustainable techno-fabric; Chapman describes the designs as “strappy, exotic and functional.”

Clearly, Lieding and Chapman have come a long way in a short period of time and they don’t plan to slow down anytime soon. “It’s still a work in progress,” Chapman said. “We are learning and growing day by day.” And as their business continues to grow, the partners hope other companies will follow their lead and embrace sustainable practices. “We want to show other companies how easy it is to go in this direction,” Chapman said. Lieding agrees wholeheartedly. “It’s not just our idea . . . and it’s not just a fad,” she said. “This is going to be the future.”

Lieding and Chapman also hope to deliver a message of empowerment to other young women who want to start their own businesses. “You can do it,” Chapman said. “If you believe in yourself and work hard, anything is possible.”

To learn more about Manakai Swimwear, visit www.manakaiswimwear.com.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer and instructor at the University of Hawaii Maui College. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.


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