As a young fashion designer, I never started out to create my own island-style label. To be honest, I worked for big fashion brands for so long- that my own label seemed like a (very) distant dream.
It all started after sailing across the Atlantic Ocean and ended up settling in the Caribbean. We had been living and working for a couple of years in the Dutch/French island of St.Maarten and saving as much money as possible to sail again but after finding out we were pregnant with Maya, we headed home to South Africa to get married and onwards to Australia for her delivery. Of course, a new baby changed everything but we still had our hearts set on returning to the Caribbean and our sailing life! With our original boat S/Y Miroba (34ft) feeling very small all of a sudden, we decided we needed a bigger home so in 2005, when Maya was 1 we purchased a very cheap yacht at a boatyard auction. S/Y Sahara had all the right features for what we were looking for but had actually been seized by the coastguard and the interior torn apart during their search for contraband. She was in quite a state of disarray but we knew she was ours! After months of hard work, Sahara was ready to put back in the water and we were most definitely ready to go sailing again!!
While we were sailing around the incredible West Indies islands, I was creating beaded jewelry in all the colors of the Caribbean Sea. I used crystals, glass beads, and Larimar, the gemstone of the Caribbean, and only found in the Dominican Republic. I had all the beads stored underneath the big navigation table, so when we weren’t reading paper charts to figure out which direction to head, I would lift the lid of the table, and all the beads were laid out in organized compartments.
Time went by and my close friend and Production Manager from Billabong South Africa said to me: “when are you going to stop fiddling around with these little things, and start your own clothing line?”… It honestly was like an “aha moment”, as Oprah would say. I had seriously never thought about it, even after 12 years of experience in the fashion industry by then! So, I bought an old hand-operated sewing machine from another yachtie we had met, and started sewing clothing samples… Right there, in the hull of our 43ft sailing boat when the seas (and the toddler) were calm enough.
I took a trip to India with this same friend who was visiting her factories for Billabong, back in 2005 and it was during that trip that I found the most incredible fine cotton fabrics that I quickly became obsessed with as I knew they would be perfect for wearing in the Caribbean heat. I was so excited that I remember immediately designing my first ever collection on the overnight train from Jaipur. By the time the trained rolled into New Delhi in the morning, I had drawn up all the sketches, selected colors, designed the prints, beads, trims, labels and even the hangtags! I had been to India before back when I was designing for Billabong but this was all new and exciting. It truly felt like a whole new journey… And it was 😍
Back to the Caribbean, I went to anxiously await the first shipment of West Indies Wear, which took about 4-5 months from order to delivery across the globe… But since I had all of my samples already, we spent a lot of time doing photoshoots and sales visits to potential buyers. As we were sailing, we were always scouting around the islands, in our dinghy looking for cool places to take some photos. On one particularly beautiful Caribbean day, I spotted this colorful Caribbean cottage and got a "bee in my bonnet" about taking photos of my sarongs on their clothesline. I asked around the local village for permission, and was told "Sure..... no problem Mon, but just beware the goat” *ahem goat??* So Justin took me over there in the dinghy but there was nowhere to actually land the dinghy on the shore as it was very rocky and reefy in front. I had my reef shoes on, so I got out of the dinghy in knee-deep water and Justin hung out in the bay waiting for me. I was on my own and a little scared… of the umm… goat 😅 I couldn’t see it anywhere and no one answered my calls so I walked up to the clothesline and began hanging my sarong samples when I hear something THUNDERING towards me through the bushes. I turned and saw the goat running with horns pointed straight at me! I started to run but there was nowhere to hide and then next thing: the goat came to the end of its tether and a wave of relief washed over me PHEW! I look towards the ocean and there is Justin crying with laughter! Hahaha
During another photo shoot, we found this rock stage in between 2 perfect palm trees to take photos of me in various sarongs and name-dropped tees. It was always a bit difficult to toddler Maya out of the shot, so most of my first photos had a 2-year-old photo bomber. Although frustrating at the time, it’s funny to look back all these years later and realize, she really was the special part of all those photos!
Social media was definitely not a thing back then, and even the internet was tough to find. So, I would have to search the islands by foot (or dinghy) for cute boutiques to sell my new clothing line. I would get out of the dinghy and come up the beach with my sandy feet, windswept hair and a bag full of samples. Not exactly a conventional way to show a clothing line! Well, we stopped in at some of the most amazing Caribbean resorts during our travels, showing samples and trying to get orders for the upcoming season. Some of the buyers already knew me from having bought my handmade jewelry and most of them loved getting a visit from the “Sailing Designer”. I was fortunate enough to find a few stores that I still work with to this day, 18 years later! Sun Solutions in St. Thomas and True Blue Bay in Grenada are two of these incredible boutiques.
My first collection was filled with strappy dresses and was designed for a younger woman as I was in my mid-30s at this time. Although I was loving wearing the beautifully cool and comfortable fabrics I found in India, I was finding that wearing strappy dresses and tops all the time I was always getting sunburnt. I quickly realized that I needed more coverage and switched to tunics by my second collection in 2007. As I spent a lot of time visiting boutiques throughout the islands, I also learned more about the customer base that was visiting the islands and what they felt comfortable wearing. The first tunic I ever designed was my original Palm Leaf print. I so clearly remember cutting a perfect palm leaf off a tree, photographing it against the sun to make a silhouette, and then scanning that photo into Photoshop to design my first tunic.
Year by year West Indies Wear started to outgrow my old school systems and processes. I did my first ever Surf Expo in 2008, which is a yearly convention in Orlando, FL where boutique and surf shop buyers come to select their upcoming ranges. That is when I started to reach USA buyers and expanded from just a handful of Caribbean island resorts, to many retail stores across the mainland USA, Hawaii, and even as far as Mexico, Canada & the Cook Islands in the south pacific.
After 16 years living abroad, we decided to move home to Australia when Maya was 7, and we had 2 more babies as I turned 39 and 41. Despite all the life changes, I continued to travel to Surf Expo to show my not-so-little-anymore collection. Here I am at Surf in 2013 showing the line with tiny baby Jordy (#3!) in my pouch.
Of course, COVID put a hold on my travels for several years but I was SO excited to get back to Florida in 2022. Although the journey all-of-a-sudden seemed a little more stressful, it was all worth it once I was able to see my amazing USA sales reps and so many of our buyers in real life. To hug, to laugh and to have yummy dinner & drinks together again, was truly the BEST!
I always have so much fun walking down memory lane with you ladies. Thanks to all of you for “tuning in” and I hope you can join me this week for our LIVE catch-up on our island, with a special release of 3 new tunics that are… well… 18 years in the making 😍