Solar Bare, Vivien Mitchell

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Vivien Mitchell is a self-trained textile and fashion designer, who designs from the heart. A mum of five, Vivien also blogs on matters-of-the-heart and start up challenges … She may just have a few answers for the future swimwear needs of you and your children! Being sun smart doesn’t mean you have to look “uncool” … Check out Vivien’s latest designs, which have been inspired by the Great Barrier Reef …

Hi Vivien. What prompted you to make the “sea change” to Port Macquarie this year?

We’d been angling towards a sea change for a few years, but with our youngest finishing primary school, there was a window open to move for him to start high school here. Also, the whole family loves the beach.

For my creative start-up, Solar Bare, it was important to move to the coast to be more in tune with seasonal trends and for beach inspiration. It takes courage to move, but change adds more than it takes away. We knew Port Macquarie was a vibrant town with lots of opportunity and change happening and wanted to be part of it.

What are the origins of your business, Solar Bare? How long has it been in operation – and what led you to start the label in the first place?

Solar Bare launched on the catwalk at Canberra’s Fashfest – a red carpet fashion event – in 2015. After dreaming of following this creative path for a long while, a runway show provided a tangible deadline to design my first collection. I call it the “concept to catwalk” stage. I’d had a moment of inspiration on the beach a few years earlier and realised there was a gap in the market for stylish sun protection or rashies. But the bigger picture is about driving cultural change – making sun smart cool and central to our Aussie beach lifestyle.

Swimwear with sleeves is such a great idea, considering our hot summer sun and the damage it can cause. Tell us a bit about the “fashvest” – what fabrics do you use, and how sun safe are these items?

I thought up the word “fashvest” while sitting on Bondi Beach. It’s simple, a “marriage of fashion and rash vest”. Fashvest is a registered trademark of Solar Bare. The fabric for the entire range is UPF50+, either Italian Carvico Lycra (women’s) or elastane for Solar Bare mini (kids). I wanted to design a versatile, beautiful garment that could be worn from sand to street, beach to beach bar or even the supermarket. A fashvest or rashie is simply one of the most effective ways to minimise sunburn; they’ve got you covered. I like to think of it as a T-shirt with benefits. Fashvests are easy to dress up with a pair of white jeans or sparkly sandals.

The prints used on your fabric are gorgeous. What was the inspiration behind them?

Thank you so much. Solar Bare prints have a very distinct look; they’re bold and bright. There’s actually a lot of maths involved in textile design, even when your inspiration is tropical fish from the Great Barrier Reef. It sounds like a cliché, but I did have an epiphany on the beach one summer – the idea washed up on the sand as I was gazing at the ocean. The “aha” moment to innovate and reimagine the rash vest to a fashvest arrived in tandem with the creative inspiration to apply macro prints from reef fish to my designs. It was a true moment of creative sympatico.

Apart from your swimwear with sleeves, what are some of the other items you produce?

Sun wear is the focus – sun fun fashion. A secondary line is limited edition bikinis, featuring original reef-inspired prints. The long-sleeved one piece, as pictured in this article, will be released this year. Sampling is a key part of the design process, to ensure the garment has a great fit for all body types and sizes.

I believe you’ve just launched a new kids’ range too. What was the impetus behind this decision?

Yes, Solar Bare mini has just been launched for summer. So many customers kept asking, particularly at markets, when a kids’ line would be available. Also, my own children and my friends’ kids were excited to wear fish prints. It’s a bit of a fishy notion! But more seriously, for sun protection to become something we don’t think twice about, it’s important to build sun smart awareness in young children. It becomes second nature if mums and dads role-model good sun protection behaviour by wearing rashies, hats and sunglasses etc. for a day on the beach. It’s all about making sun protection fun for kids – sun fun fashion.

What is your size range for both kiddies and grown up fashionistas?

Solar Bare mini is size 1 – 8 and women’s is size 8 – 16.

Your role with Solar Bare is a little mind boggling. You’re involved with fashion design, admin duties, marketing, photo shoots … How do you manage to balance this with family life/free time?

The reality for any aspiring entrepreneur is that you have to do everything, but you don’t have to do it alone. From the beginning, I’ve sought guidance from mentors and business networks, and have surrounded myself with experience and talent.

During the design process, I’m very lucky to work closely with a beloved friend, who’s a graphic designer. We also work together on branding and marketing collateral. She provides fantastic support on so many levels.

Even though start-up life can be isolating; the good thing about early stage business is you can build it to suit your lifestyle. It’s pretty flexible. You soon realise that you’re better at some tasks than others. I love the creative side – textile and garment design and location shoots. I get to play in a sandy-floored office, and I often think through ideas at the beach.

Solar Bare is based at home, which is great for the kids. My family is very supportive. I couldn’t do it without them; it’s kind of all-in. From discussing business strategy to feedback on designs, each one is a sounding board, and my daughter models for Solar Bare, too. Also, the bonus is that family time and work time are not mutually exclusive; for example, beach blogging or beach testing the designs.

The blog on your website is an interesting read – you appear to have quite a bit of insight into what’s involved for women when it comes to buying swimwear. What’s some advice you’d like to share with female readers, when it comes to choosing their next pair of cossies?

In this digital “Age of Influence”, we’re all faced with the dilemma of having to look even better than our best. It’s a kind of a “compare and despair” world with social media. Our bodies do change and reveal our life’s journey, e.g motherhood or ageing. I think women are really good at knowing what suits them, so buy what makes you feel good. And don’t rely on change room mirrors! They are totally depressing!

Fashion, function and form is a benefit of long-sleeved swimwear. It’s a trend that’s stylish and sun safe.  Also, since it covers up a bit more, it’s a very flattering swimwear style.

What’s next? What new plans/ideas do you have simmering away?

Gosh. The big question for me is “why compromise on style while being sun smart?” Cultural change takes time, but by offering distinctive prints that make sun protection cool, Solar Bare can be part of that change. Our beach-loving lifestyle isn’t as benign as we’d like, and sun protection needs to become  second-nature – just like using seat-belts.

The creative path is to showcase the magnificent patterns of fish and coral on the Great Barrier Reef. By doing this, Solar Bare can help to highlight reef health and be part of the conversation about the future of the reef. The Great Barrier Reef and our beach lifestyle are two of Australia’s greatest assets; there’s a beautiful and strong link there. Three idea pots are constantly simmering away: big picture (strategy) creative (design) and purpose (why).

Where can we contact you and purchase your garments?

Solar Bare is sold online at solarbare.com.au and at markets in summer. A limited range of Solar Bare mini is available at Inner Vision Surf ’n’ Skate here in Port. We also have a small studio at home (near Town Beach); customers are welcome to purchase direct. Please email first to arrange a time: vivien@solarbare.com.au

Thanks Vivien. Interview by Jo Robinson.

Model: Antonia Skene.

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