Four years ago, when Ashley Chase went to Bali for the first time, she didn’t pack a bathing suit. Bali is one of the biggest surf spots in the world so she figured she’d have no problem finding one when she got there. She was wrong.
“I went to every surf shop there was. I searched for a week,” Ms. Chase says. While she gave up her search, she did not give up on finding a suit. “I went to a fabric store and then to a seamstress to design my own.”
Her first suit was a success and she enjoyed the process, so she designed a couple more. It was her boyfriend, Islander Whitney Brush, who suggested she turn it into a business. He helped make that a reality by investing $1,000 of the money he’d earned bass fishing. Ms. Chase matched that with another $1,000 that she made landscaping, and Ulu Swimwear was born.
Ms. Chase is 25-years-old with a life-long connection to the beach. She was born in Newport, R.I. and raised in Jamestown, R.I. Much of her childhood was spent living between Rhode Island and Martha’s Vineyard, where her grandparents have a home. During high school, Ms. Chase tired of the back and forth and came to live on the Island full-time.
That nomadic spirit was ingrained in her and followed Ms. Chase into adulthood. She earned two bachelor’s degrees, in alternative medicine and fine arts, through coursework at several colleges, Johnson State College in Vermont, St. Michael’s in Vermont, Lorenzo de Medici in Florence, Italy, and with online courses taken while living in Bali.
Ms. Chase and her boyfriend continue to spend their winters in Bali, where he exports furniture and she teaches English.
That first year, Ms. Chase made about 100 suits in Bali, and stuffed them all in her carry-on to bring home. Now that her business is growing, she might have to look into more practical shipping options.
Ms. Chase gets her fabrics in New York City and seeks out distinctive accessories in Bali. But inspiration generally finds her on the Vineyard, whether it’s from gardening or keeping up with the latest fashion magazines. From hundreds of her own sketches, she picks 12 or 14 to bring to Bali, where the suits are made.
Choosing the right manufacturer was no simple task for Ms. Chase (or Mr. Brush, who did most of the driving) The two drove to different shops for weeks before she decided.
“If they were working with chemicals and no ventilation, I’d walk out. I couldn’t stand behind that.” Finally, they came upon a small sewing studio in someone’s house. “There were six sewing machines on a terrace, overlooking a rice paddy. It looked like a really nice place to work,” she says.
After she decided on her manufacturer, Ms. Chase traveled three hours, three times a week to visit with them, to go over samples and designs, and check on progress. “I like knowing each and every person who works on my product,” she says.
Ms. Chase handles every aspect of her business, from tracking down models (usually willing friends) and taking the photos, to setting up the website and finding buyers. She’s also obsessive about the quality of what she’s putting out there.
Because all of Ulu Swimwear is handmade, each piece is unique. Still, Ms. Chase does painstaking quality control on every article. “I probably check every piece a hundred times, I have to make sure every detail is right,” she says. “At every stop along the way.”
Where to buy?
Back on the Vineyard, its time to get down to business, Ms. Chase’s least favorite part of the job. She’s currently working on finding retail outlets to sell her product. “I’m not a business woman,” she quips. “It’s a difficult balance between being persistent and not being annoying.”
But she must be doing something right. Boutiques in California and Oregon are carrying Ulu. Elaine Barse at the Green Room in Vineyard Haven was Ms. Chase’s first Vineyard buyer, and now you can also get Ulu at GettiGear, a women’s sporting store soon to open in Edgartown.
Ms. Chase hopes that Ulu continues to be a success so that she can give back, through environmental conservation and orphanage work, to Uluwatu, the swim line’s namesake and Ms. Chase’s hometown in Bali.
Learn more about Ulu Swimwear and check out the 2011 collection at uluswimwear.com.