Kim Van Loo, West Indies Wear

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Living the dream of sailing the Caribbean with your partner is something we all fantasise about. Kim Van Loo did just that and to top it off, created an amazing clothing line that was inspired by the adventure. Focus put on the flip flops and took a stroll along the beach to find out more.

What is your connection to the Coffs Coast?

My parents moved to Urunga from QLD when I was studying fashion in Brisbane. I visited weekends and holidays and always loved it. After university, I worked a few years in the fashion industry in Brisbane, but was focused on going travelling. I lived overseas for 16 years, and I worked for some big clothing companies in London, Egypt and South Africa, before buying a small boat and setting sail to the Caribbean from Cape Town. Years later, my husband and I visited Australia from the Caribbean and decided we wanted to live somewhere between Coffs and the QLD border. We took a road trip into every little town up the coast, and decided Coffs was the ONE.

When did you start your business, West Indies Wear?

I started West Indies Wear when I was living in the Caribbean. I’d had my daughter, Maya, by that stage and we were sailing around the islands and I couldn’t go out and get a job with a baby in my arms, so I started making jewellery and selling to the resort boutiques in the Caribbean islands. Eventually, my good friend and colleague from my days at Billabong South Africa said to me, “When are you going to stop fiddling around with these little things and start your own line?” That was it; it was like an “aha” moment.

What was the inspiration behind it?

I was inspired to create a brand of clothing that the Caribbean resorts would want to carry in their boutiques and that the visitors to the islands would love to wear. Living on the boat in the Caribbean is very hot and you are in the sun a lot, so making 100% cotton tunics that were cool to wear but provided sun protection was a priority for me, and I hoped other women would want to wear that too.

How did you manage to get it up and running whilst living on a yacht?

I had worked as Head Designer for Billabong South Africa for five years, and it was at a time where sourcing product in China and India was just getting going in South Africa. I did a lot of travelling to factories in those years and worked on development and quality, so once I started to work for myself, I already had very good factory contacts in the East. I did one trip to India right at the very beginning of West Indies Wear and found the most amazing fabrics in pure cottons that were so perfect for the heat of the islands, and I designed the first collection on a dodgy overnight train in Northern India back to Delhi. I couldn’t sleep – I was just buzzing with the excitement of the potential.

By the time we got to Delhi, I had everything drawn up, I handed it over to the production guys, and flew back to the Caribbean to wait for the samples. Once we got the samples, my husband and I would take the boat to the most stunning Caribbean beaches we could find, to have photo shoots. He would take the photos of the samples on me, while we plied Maya with mangoes to keep her out of trouble.

I had to teach myself how to make websites, because it was impossible to get around to all of the islands with the samples, then I did a few tradeshows to promote the line. This was in the days before social media, but there was usually email in each port, so often we would motor around the anchorage with the laptop in the cockpit looking for wifi hotspots, in the hope that I could communicate with factories and customers right from the boat.

Can you tell us a bit about your amazing journey sailing around the Caribbean?

For us, the most amazing part of our journey was actually getting to the Caribbean. We were in our late 20s when we decided to buy a boat and go sailing. Neither of us knew anything about it at all, so we rushed down to the newsagency to buy a boating magazine, to find out how much boats cost. Two years after that day, we had bought a boat, learned to sail and navigate, got our skippers’ licenses, provisioned, prepared everything, and we were halfway across the Atlantic Ocean. When we first left South Africa, we were in touch with Cape Town Radio every day, and they offered to patch me through on a reverse charge call to my father in Urunga. It was a stuttered conversation from mid-ocean patched through on our old SSB radio, and my dad was relieved to know we were still alive, but “how much is this costing me, OVER”.

It took 16 days to get to St. Helena, seven days to Ascension Island, 10 days to Fernando De Noronha and then 12 days to Tobago, the most southern island in the Caribbean. Once we got there, we dropped anchor for about four months in paradise. We were exhausted.

We spent 10 years in the Caribbean, we bought a bigger boat, and we sailed up and down the island chain exploring. We got jobs and lived in St. Maarten for several years. I managed a chain of gift shops there – 16 stores and 53 Caribbean employees were under my management, and I loved it. It was amazing for me to learn the retail side of the business, as I had always been involved in design and manufacturing. I did all the buying, travelling to all the big trade shows in the USA to choose the new season collections each year, then back to the island to figure out distribution and display.

Do you miss living on a yacht? 

I do miss the freedom of boating life, but it’s not an easy life, fetching your own water in jerry cans, and hand washing all of our clothes. For now, I appreciate having my own home on dry land, and even with some of the big storms Coffs gets, I have never had any flying fish land on my bed in the middle of the night!

Where do you find inspiration for new designs?

I have a bit of an obsession for the colour blue and all things “island”. I have some favourite blogs and Instagram feeds that I follow and I have a USA magazine app, so I try to find the time to flick through USA fashion magazines to keep in touch with what is going on in the USA fashion world, and then I put my own little “island blue” spin on things. West Indies Wear is not really a high fashion line; we are all about providing cool, comfortable, practical clothing for women of all ages to wear on their holidays or in the heat of summer. I do find inspiration in the weirdest places though, and I have been known to do a u-turn at the plaza to follow complete strangers to check out what they are wearing, or ask friends if they would mind if I felt the fabric of whatever they are wearing.

What are your plans for the future?

Bring up my kids, and keep building my little clothing line; who knows … perhaps it is even time I brought the line to Australia properly, or perhaps I should go sailing island to island in the Pacific?

Where can people find out more?

Our complete collection can be found on our USA website www.shopwestindieswear.com and we are running a special giving FREE shipping for Australian customers up until 15th September. We also have an Australian website: www.islandsmiles.com.au with some of our collection on it.

Thanks Kim.

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