About Time You Met: Kalita Al Swaidi, Founder of KALITABy Mayola Fernandes
Kalita Al Swaidi is the woman who founded resort-wear label KALITA and grew it into an iconic fashion label, worn by the likes of Kylie Jenner, Jameela Jamil and Julia Roberts, in just four years with her small three-person team. A London-born, Texan-Iraqi, Kalita started her label in 2015, with a capsule collection that secured its first listing in Matches Fashion. Seven collections later, the company has grown into a global brand, stocked by the likes of Net-a-Porter, Nordstrom and Harvey Nichols. We sat down to talk fashion, business and her plans for the future:
What inspired you to start a fashion brand?
Like many women I struggled to feel at-home in my own skin. Even packing for a holiday used to cause hours of stress, as I felt pressure to ‘curate’ my look. A turning point for me was when I was travelling in Greece and was struck by a beautiful woman barefoot on a beach. She was wearing a tee-shirt wrapped around her head as a turban, and her skirt like a dress. She just looked so effortlessly chic, so happy and natural. I wanted to start a fashion brand that made all women feel this way. It was important for me to create clothes that broke the rules of traditional femininity and celebrate women. Real beauty is the confidence to embrace who you are.
What, or who, inspires your designs?
The women who wear my pieces are my inspiration. KALITA has brought together a community of like-minded women who live with passion and are fearless about leaving their mark on the world. My dresses are designed to be both effortless and empowering. I use simple, striking shapes and block colours to make women feel free and vibrant.
What has been your most memorable moment so far in regards to the KALITA brand?
The four years since I started KALITA have been an incredible adventure for me. I went from having the seed of an idea on a beach, to seeing amazing women like Angelina Jolie, Kylie Jenner, Jameela Jamil and Julia Roberts wearing my clothes.
A particularly powerful moment for me was back in 2015 when my capsule collection secured its first listing in Matches Fashion. Seven collections later, we have grown into a global brand, stocked by the likes of Net-a-Porter, Nordstrom and Harvey Nichols.
If you could change one thing in fashion what would it be?
I think it is so vital for more designers to embrace ‘slow fashion’. Fast fashion and the waste the industry creates are causing global environmental and social catastrophes. We’re working in an industry facing enormous challenges, but everyone has an opportunity to make steps towards a more positive future.
With KALITA, I want to create pieces that last a lifetime, that women can wear again and again throughout their lives as they grow and change. I’m a huge fan of Livia Firth’s 30 Wear Challenge and would encourage people to consider a ‘cost per wear’ when they buy any item – investing in garments that will last a lifetime instead of a season.
How has your design process changed since you launched?
Remarkably, very little. While the brand has grown, it is still rooted in the values I started out with.
I have a close-knit team who are like family to me and our dresses are produced in small factories in Bali and India where we know the directors and the staff intimately.
People are often surprised when they hear that behind my global brand is a team of just three of us, but we grew the brand very organically and authentically through the community of women who became fans online. When I started out I didn’t expect that 90 per cent of the content out there about our brand would be driven by the incredible women wearing KALITA designs, but that has been such a fulfilling and incredible journey.
What has been your greatest challenge so far as an entrepreneur?
There have been so many challenges. I started with a mission about the way I wanted women to feel, but there are a lot of business decisions that need to be made that can feel far less liberating!
I am lucky that creativity is at the heart of my business, but that also brings with it risks. I am constantly thinking ahead to the next collection and challenging myself and my team to keep taking risks and reinventing the clothes that we produce. Of course, another challenge is that as the popularity of my collection grows there can be issues around others copying my styles with a fraction of the care and quality. All entrepreneurs and designers face issues like these, but I always think every challenge we face is an opportunity to learn and improve things for the business and our customers.
What do you wish you had known before launching KALITA and becoming an entrepreneur?
It sounds like a cliché, but until you start you will never know just how hard things will be. But being in control of your destiny is one of the most liberating and empowering feelings too. It is unbeatable.
As an entrepreneur, what advice would you give to a young-woman trying to start up her own business?
Believe in yourself and know your strength. You are capable of so much more than you realise.
How do you juggle family demands and a successful business?
I split my time between London and Bali. It is important for me to constantly gain new sources of inspiration and energy to fuel my creativity. My work will always be a labour of love and a passion. As an entrepreneur you never really stop thinking about the business, but as long as you are always growing, travelling and having fun with the people you love, in work and in your personal life, life never gets dull.
What would success look like for you?
I would love to be part of a movement where fashion helps to set women free. The clothes you wear are a huge part of expressing individuality, but often there is a lot of constraint around how women should look and the clothes they should wear. We need to break this down and redefine clothes for women, so they feel empowered.
What is next for KALITA?
We are continuing to expand internationally and constantly innovating to find new ways to bring my vision to life. I hope in five years I can look back and feel I have taken inspiration from new areas, people and landscapes to create clothes that make women feel amazing and free. It’s very exciting!