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Wellington-based Okewa fends off the rain and faces up to sustainability in its new clothing line

Wellington based fashion brand, Okewa, is set to unveil its new capsule of mens and womens coats made from 100 percent recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. The new range will be released next Thursday and will be available for pre-order on the Okewa website and via Kickstarter as part of Plastic-Free July. It presents a new direction for Okewa, who is moving down the sustainability route for its high-quality rainwear range. Founders and loving partners Nevada and Nick Leckie share insights into its new clothing line as well as musings of the brand's origins founded in the windiest city in the world.

The brand's name Okewa aligns to the brand’s identity and is derived from te reo  Māori, meaning, ‘a thick grey rain cloud’. Further, Okewa shares quintessential elements to its home in Wellington, a meeting place of culture, sustainability, and style.

Nevada Leckie says, “The brand launched in 2014, and came as a result of living in Wellington where we didn’t have a car, and had to commute to work without a suitable raincoat. It happened to be that friends, and friends of friends had the same problem.”

Leckie studied fashion at Massey University in Wellington, and used her skills to design a raincoat that would solve the issue, while holding onto high quality style, without looking too ‘outdoorsy’.  

Okewa's distribution model is predominantly online, but is complimented by its pop-up programme, which has turned into a retail strategy for the company. The pair have held six different pop up stores, located in Wellington Quay, Wellington Central, as well as the Wellington Airport.

Nick Leckie says, “It’s important for customers to be able to come into a store, feel the fabric, and to understand the store a lot more.”

“We like the idea of a touring pop-up scheme, I think it aligns with the modern day retail space, it keeps things fresh, people don’t get bored, and it’s perfect for an early stage business like ours”.

Fittingly, the progressive pairing have harnessed the upcycling movement, and its new initiative of turning recycled post-consumer plastic bottles into fashionable rainwear, hopes to help mend an industry infested with waste and plastic. This is backed by The Guardian, who claim the fashion space is one of the world’s most polluting, only topped by oil.

Nick Leckie says that the inspiration came from a sustainability and fashion talk, headed by Ellen McCarthur - the voice of The Ellen McCarthur Foundation which is spearheading movements such as the circular economy and other environmentally responsive business models - who shared shocking statistics such as ‘our oceans will hold more plastic than fish (by weight) in 2050’.

From there, the pair sought to discover how wasted plastic could turn into a material source, and led to a journey into its fabric supplies in Taiwan. The final process sees Japanese used bottles, flaked up, melted into pallets, and then extruded into a yearn. The fabric is then woven up for Okewa in Taiwan and takes about a two month process, or eight weeks before the final product is reached.

Nick Leckie discloses, “It took a while for Nevada to be happy with a fabric that was made from recycle bottles that she was happy to design with.”

It’s shift into sustainability hasn’t come at a cost for the rest of the brands criteria either, which Leckie reassures is still a ‘beautiful soft fabric with a really nice hand feel’.

Additionally, the brand has achieved the same waterproof rating of 10,000 mm, which is the same performance to its previous fabrics. Leckie says, it’s a two-layered fabric, where the recycle bottles fabric is the outer layer, with a membrane layer underneath. 

Nevada Leckie says the design process often stems from what she would like in her wardrobe, where they are often designing for themselves and her generation. And stylistically she describes the clothing as having a ‘graphic’ and ‘clean’ feel.

She says while they’d be interested in exploring into new colours and styles, it’s important they hold onto the value of its classic range, where she references the black trench coat as a standout success.

The target consumer is vast, spanning from sophisticated and style savvy elderly, to the young professional, and is centered on lifestyle rather than a particular age group.

“It connects with anyone living inner city, who walks and cycles a lot, it could be thirty year olds like us, or fifty year olds living in London. It’s nicely widespread, but there is a common thread of needing a great raincoat and respecting performance.”

Asked about the benefits and challenges of building a brand based on a few clothing pieces and holding a place in the niche rainwear clothing market, Leckie says they really enjoy focusing on the rainwear space, and while some people question whether there is enough fodder for the brand, it is surprising how much there is to do.

Nick Leckie says, “Between jackets and coats, and analysing the different weights of products as well as accessories such as luggage and bags, there is a lot to work with.”

Nevada shares her thoughts from a design perspective, stating that it provides a good boundary to work within, and holds challenges from form to function while working in the parameters of rainwear.  

“It’s worked in our favour having one little niche, people identify with us as the raincoat people, and I feel like our brand could be weakened by doing to much other stuff.”

Alongside the new launch, Okewa has also penned a partnership with a new manufacturing partner, moving from a New Zealand based manufacturer to a firm based in Thailand.

It follows the common trajectory for New Zealand fashion labels, struggling to hold manufacturing here in New Zealand, but Leckie assures the offshore manufacturer is at the forefront of sustainability, and it's work with environmentally facing brands such as Patagonia are examples of its strong reputation.

While Okewa holds distinct features of its home in the windy city, the rainwear company is designed for every wet, sophisticated city in the world. And the pair are working towards branching into London and Melbourne in coming time.

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