Every week on The Primer we ask a local business or product to introduce themselves in eight simple takes. This week we talk to Nick Leckie, co-founder of rainwear company Okewa which is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for its newest product line – raincoats made from recycled plastic bottles.
ONE: How did Okewa start and what was the inspiration behind it?
Okewa, meaning ‘large grey raincloud’ in te reo, started as a seed of an idea for co-founder Nevada Leckie while studying fashion design. We’ve always lived here in Wellington without a car which, given the sometimes horizontal rain, necessitates a great raincoat or two. We’d never been able to find waterproof raincoats we could get excited about – you either opted for an outdoor adventure option to keep dry, or had to sacrifice performance. Nevada picking up garment construction and pattern making skills at fashion school basically got her started on the idea of a more well-designed product that also prioritised performance.
TWO: Did you have any interest/experience in business or entrepreneurship prior to starting Okewa?
No prior experience in business, but lots of interest! We’ve been learning on the job really. I studied and worked in architecture prior to Okewa. I later joined Nevada to work on business development while she leads on all the creative aspects. I’ve always been really interested in entrepreneurship in a devourer-of-podcasts (ie: How I Built This with Guy Raz) kind of way. There’s something about the tale of creating something meaningful from nothing, like how a British couple turned their backpacking travels together into Lonely Planet, or how Yvon Chounaird turned a need for quality climbing gear into what is now Patagonia.
THREE: What was your inspiration for launching your new line of coats made from recycled plastic waste?
Learning more about the colossal plastic waste issue we’re all facing got us started working on our Recycled Line. For example, on our current trajectory, there could be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050, and we need to do a better job of expanding the useful life of material already in circulation. There’s certainly a desperate need for our fashion industry to move to a much higher level of consciousness around environmental issues.
FOUR: How is this new recycled material made?
The first step is bottles get separated into clear and non-clear (our fabric uses clear bottles). These bottles are broken up into a flake, which then gets melted down and extruded into a polyester yarn (think squeezing a thick liquid through a very fine spaghetti maker!). This is then spun into a thread and woven into a fabric which gets a breathable membrane applied. The end result is a beautiful soft fabric, with a waterproof rating of 10,000mm.
FIVE: Where and how do you source your raw materials and labour for Okewa’s Recycled line, as well as Okewa’s products in general?
For our 100% recycled fabric, we’re working with our Bluesign-certified Taiwanese fabric supplier. Bluesign is a Swiss-based environmental accreditation programme ensuring high environmental performance standards are maintained at partner facilities. Our fabric recycles plastic bottles from Japan, which makes sense to keep the shipping footprint of the material to a minimum given the fabric gets woven up at a Taiwanese mill.
On the garment making side, our Recycled Line is an exciting opportunity for us as we’re working with a new high-quality partner in Thailand. This partner makes for some of the world’s best luxury brands and is at the forefront of sustainable and innovative manufacturing, so it’s great to be working with them as an emerging brand. It took a 7-month long search from New Zealand to Portugal and a lot of places in between to settle on this team. This was after, unfortunately, the last possible New Zealand maker who could work with us on our niche product was no longer able to accept orders from us late last year.
SIX: How many recycled plastic bottles do you need to make one coat from your new line?
Our long coats (like the blue Column Coat) reuses 31 plastic bottles. Our shorter jackets reuse 22.
SEVEN: What plans do you have to scale/grow further?
Physical retail is important for growth for us, and we’re looking forward to expanding our Pop-Up programme which has so far been Wellington-focused. The short-term retail/pop-up model works really well for us.
On the product side, our current offering is mid-weight (perfect for temperate rainy climates like New Zealand), and we have plans to expand this to light and heavy weights too which will open up new opportunities. Rethinking what a raincoat can be keeps us busy!
EIGHT: Lastly, tell us about a New Zealand start-up or business that you really admire right now.
We just discovered R3pack and love what they’re doing supplying plant-based compostable and 100% recycled packaging. We’re hoping to send out our Recycled Line Kickstarter orders out in their bags (if we meet our funding goal!). We also love the restless energy of people like Jonny McKenzie who started posBoss to help hospitality businesses run smoothly. He’s also put his bartending skills to work with his co-Founder Amy to launch pre-bottled quality cocktail brand J.M.R & Co.
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