Pinghwa Okorie developed a passion for the beach early in life. Okorie, whose father is Nigerian and whose mother is Taiwanese, often traveled to tropical destinations, such as her mother’s homeland and the Philippines. But no matter how many pieces of swimwear she bought, they were never quite right.
“Growing up in Lagos, it was hard to find swimwear that I loved and felt comfortable in,” she says.
Okorie, who studied business at George Washington University in the U.S. and is a digital marketing specialist by trade, realized that there was a growing market for such swimwear. In addition to the boom in tourism that many parts of Africa have been experiencing, Okorie has noticed that over the past few years, locals have been taking more advantage of the city’s proximity to beaches.
“That’s almost like our escape outside of the hustle and bustle and the stress of the city,” she says. “A lot of the beaches are accessible by driving an hour, or you can just take a boat, whether it’s 15 minutes or 30 minutes away, to get there.”
Launched in 2019, Salt and Sunscreen is “based on the beauty of an African woman—the feminine physique and accentuated curves.” The brand also gives creative nods to its birthplace, such as the Merah Hati shade in its most recent collection, which was influenced by the red sand of Okorie’s father’s hometown in Enugu state.
Black Enterprise spoke to Okorie about how she came to develop Salt and Sunscreen as a swimwear brand that celebrates her minimalist aesthetic, caters to diverse bodies, and pays homage to her homeland:
What made you want to start a swimwear brand?
I felt like, because Nigerians are very on the forefront of things, they like very vibrant, very bold prints. There weren’t that many pieces that were minimalistic. Let’s say you just want like a black swimsuit or just a solid color, something simple. There wasn’t that many. And if there were, it was lacking quality.
You studied business but never fashion. How hard was it to start a fashion brand without that training?
I have no design background. But I’ve tried so many types of swimwear on in my life. Every time I go somewhere, I buy a new piece. From that, it grew my understanding of OK, this is how I want it to fit. And then also gathering a lot of market research, asking consumers, especially my target market, what are some pieces that you like and what would you wear—is it a one piece, a two piece, would you like padding, no padding. Just all those different questions to gather their understanding of fit and their own practices. And from that I created designs. I worked a lot with freelancers online because you need those professional sketches to get factories to produce.
What was that process like, working with factories?
When I met my manufacturers, I literally went through every piece like, “This is how I want the stitch to go. This is how I like the padding.” So going through all the different details that make up the swimwear, and then bringing them back. I went through like four rounds of sampling. I know people usually go maybe two rounds, because the costs add up, but because I was just starting off I wanted to almost be perfect. Not only that, but because here, people’s figures are a little bit different, they’re more curvier, so you want to make sure it fits them well.
Fit is really important to you. You pride yourself on making swimwear specifically for our bodies.
One of the things that I learned the most out of the beginning stages is that you have to test it on multiple body types and don’t just listen to what the factory says. Because you’re manufacturing in China, their standards are a little bit different. Their size small could be like an extra extra small. I remember the first sample I got I was like, “This is a small? It can’t even fit so many women that are a size small here. It makes no sense to me.”
I had already wasted hundreds of dollars on a sample and I had to make a new set and tell them OK, I want a medium, based on these measurements—so making my own measurement chart and not just the standard that you find in the industry but customizing it to my own target market. I was grateful to have friends and other people that I could say, “Hey can you try this on? What is your feedback on it, as someone that is hard for you to find swimwear for your body type?”
Right now I have sizes S through XL. I wish I could go even bigger but I only have so much finance. I don’t want to be another swimwear that has very few sizes. I want the brand to be something that’s inclusive for all women.