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Take a Break with Courtney Chew, Founder of OCIN Eco-Swimwear & Lifestyle Brand

Photo credit: Jeremy Jude Lee

Step into calm, breezy, beachy vibes this weekend (November 26-27) at The Break Room, a unique pop-up celebrating community and our oceans, taking place at La Bomba Floristry in Chinatown.

Now in its fourth year, The Break Room is a multi-sensory weekend experience and space designed by OCIN (like ‘ocean’), that began as a space to promote rest, mindfulness, community and connection, ahead of the busy holiday season. The Break Room features around 28 purpose-led brands and creators, most of whom are BIPOC and/or female-founded. The goods include jewellery from Noren and bisous beads; ingestables like functional mushroom supplements from Optimi, gut-friendly vinegars from Acid League, and teas from Cultivate Tea; beautiful objects for the home from Stooludio and Copenhagen-based Frama; skincare from 3rd Ritual and Salt and Stone; and more. Artwork on view will transport us to the coastlines of O‘ahu, courtesy of Hawai‘i-based photographer, Mark Kushimi. Ticketed events include a sensory sound experience (Saturday, November 26, 7:15-8:30pm) and an ocean talk (Sunday, November 27, 10-11am), and OCIN will also be launching their latest collection of swimwear, for in and out of the water. [EDITORS NOTE (NOV. 22, 2022): ‘An Ocean Talk Story’ event (Sunday, Nov. 27) has been postponed until further notice.]

Ahead of the pop-up, we caught up with OCIN founder, Courtney Chew, to learn more about herself, her love of the oceans, and her commitment to leading with purpose…

Tell us a bit about your background and what inspired you to create OCIN. I grew up a competitive swimmer, and have been by the water or in oceans all my life. Bridging my 16 years in the fashion and apparel industry (helping to establish, grow and scale retail and apparel brands), with my love for building and amplifying communities, inspiring purpose, and empowering positive actions for people, planet, and the oceans, I founded OCIN – an eco-swim label and ocean collective.

OCIN is so much more than a swim label— your mission of raising awareness for protecting our oceans and commitment to giving back to ocean conservation organizations are clearly at the forefront of the brand. So what came first: the swimwear or the calling to take action? It all came hand-in-hand. The idea of launching OCIN as a brand was actually a pretty layered internal dialogue I had with myself for a long time. The world does not need another swimwear or apparel company, and I felt that if I were going to commit to putting something out there, it had to be meaningful and transcend being just a product to consume. A lot of thought and intention went into each element of our brand through the lens of our values. I wanted to make sure that everything we touched (product, circularity program, packaging, events, content, partnerships) not only held ourselves accountable to being the best we could be, but that it also encouraged dialogue, learning, and approachable action for our community to easily engage in. We know we’re not perfect, but we’re committed to being better, together.

From the beginning, I knew that I wanted to build a deeply connected ecosystem of kind humans that were conscious about their impact and led their lives with open minds and hearts. A global community that embraced the idea that small steps matter and that together our impact is so much greater. So, we started with swim because it was a product that fits into many people’s unique lifestyles. We wanted to show that a commodity like swim could become an investment piece that lasts in your wardrobe, rather than used for one season on vacation. We wanted to show that whether you’re a swimmer, surfer, nature enthusiast, or just someone that enjoys being by the water, we share a common interest as admirers of this beautiful ecosystem that gives us so much – life, stability, memories. To us, swim is the perfect vehicle to first connect our awareness and actions with change that we can see and be a part of. And from there, we hope that sentiment can ripple out to other causes we care about and want to stand for and protect.

Why is protecting our oceans important to you? Is there a single moment or experience that led you to discovering your sense of purpose through OCIN? The oceans are pretty incredible — they make up 70% of the Earth’s surface and 97% of the Earth’s water supply. They generate more than half of the oxygen that sustains life on the planet. While regulating our climate, the oceans support our economy, is home to millions of plants and species (many that we still don’t know of!), and offers us a source of nourishment, healing, and way of living. Our connection to water is also a huge part of our existence. We are built with water and made of water – it’s vital to our survival and the life of every cell. And to me, the oceans are a symbol of limitlessness, openness, potential, and expansion. The oceans give us space to play, reset, and deeply connect. They are also the only thing that truly connects us physically, regardless of location and distance.

And the hard truth is that they are slowly dying, and we have everything to do with that. I remember going to our first big beach clean up with WSL and our non-profit partner Sustainable Coastlines Hawai‘i on O‘ahu a couple years back. We were cleaning up one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and every part of the sand was covered with millions of microplastics and trash littered along the coastlines, coming in with every wave. It was devastating to see. When you see all that garbage first hand, and realize that even after an hour of clean up you’ve barely made a dent, it puts it all into perspective.

The concerns surrounding the oceans look extremely daunting and it tends to leave people feeling hopeless, overwhelmed, and not knowing where to start. We want to encourage the narrative that even the smallest action is important, and that change can happen in approachable steps.

Although we’re a small brand, we are committed to doing what we can to encourage others to learn and take action with us. We hope through our content, Magazine, beach clean ups and other events we host, we will inspire more opportunities for our community to have fun while doing good, feeling connected to the oceans, and understanding why they deserve our protection.

“I hope we can do our small part in bringing some energy to Chinatown, even if it’s just for a weekend, and drive awareness to the hardworking community that is at the heart of this neighbourhood, keeping it alive.”

You’re launching your new collection, ‘Chapter III’, at The Break Room this weekend. How has OCIN evolved from Chapter I and II to now? Each collection is built in Chapters, designed outside of a traditional retail calendar. It was something we did consciously to be intentional with how much product we put out each year, while also being realistic about the resources and budget we have to commit to each new season, as a small brand. We wanted the Chapters to build upon one another, in terms of styles and colours, so that our customer could purchase a set one year, and then just add a different extra top or bottom to make their original set new again. I’m excited for the first drop of Chapter III because it’s our first since the pandemic. We have two beautiful chic colour ways – Earth and Sea – and a brand new one-piece racerback suit that I designed to be the perfect piece for in and out of the water. This drop is launching first with women’s styles. But we’re hoping to share more men’s/unisex styles later in 2023, and even add something for the little humans in the near future.

Last year’s Break Room took place at Arcade, the stunning showroom of furniture designer Lock and Mortice and lighting designer Matthew McCormick. This year’s venue is La Bomba Floristry in Chinatown, a neighbourhood that is meaningful to you. Can you expand on that? What makes The Break Room so special is that we really want it to be an environment that feels different and experiential for our community. We are so grateful to have collaborated with some incredible spaces, many being the first event that they’ve ever hosted before. It’s neat being able to share moments and places through our lens of admiration, with people who are experiencing it for the first time. But, we also know that it’s an honour and privilege to be able to organize events that bring hundreds of people together, so we try to be intentional with choosing places that could possibly extend support to the neighbourhood as well. Chinatown is one that is dear to me – I’m second-generation, born here in Vancouver, the unceded and traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples — and my grandparents and parents lived right on Union street. There are so many stories of wisdom, strength, resilience, and determination that exist here – it’s incredibly inspiring. But the pandemic really hit Chinatown hard, and I know that many businesses, organizations and people, young and old, were affected. I hope we can do our small part in bringing some energy to Chinatown, even if it’s just for a weekend, and drive awareness to the hardworking community that is at the heart of this neighbourhood, keeping it alive.

You’ve curated an incredible and unique lineup of local and international brands, many not found in shops around town or at other holiday markets. Can you choose one brand or creator that we’ll find at The Break Room that you think people should know about? How did you discover them and what drew you to them? I’m always so appreciative for the opportunity and trust that our vendors, partners, and creators have in The Break Room. We have a relationship with everyone we collaborate with, and it’s really such a testament to the supportive and global community we are lucky to be surrounded by. It’s hard to choose just one brand; they all offer something unique that inspires connection to self and others, while also giving back. But I am really excited to be exhibiting the work of one of my favourite photographers from Hawai‘i, Mark Kushimi. We have a very special piece from his Oceanscapes series called ‘Forever Drowning’, depicting the mesmerizing coastlines of O‘ahu. It’s a piece that brings everything I love together, and we get to show it for the first time in Vancouver, exclusively at The Break Room. Everyone is welcome to come and enjoy.

There are a couple of ticketed events over the weekend, including a talk about the oceans with environmental organizations Ocean Uprise and Surfrider Vancouver (proceeds from ticket sales go to both non-profits), and a sensory sound experience. [EDITORS NOTE (NOV. 22, 2022): ‘An Ocean Talk Story’ event (Sunday, Nov. 27) has been postponed until further notice.] I’m particularly curious about the sound experience. Who is it led by and what can we expect? We want our community to take away from our experiences – whether it becomes an opportunity to share and learn, or just be present and connect with self, one another, and our environment. So we try and leverage what we see as global languages — movement, music, food — as tools to help us break down our walls and bring us closer together.

To us, sound is medicine, a powerful tool we believe deeply inspires, connects, and offers collective healing, and I like exploring different intersections of sound. We’ve hosted sound baths and live musical performances before, but I’m really excited for our sensory sound event at this year’s The Break Room that we’re calling ‘Infinite Composition’. My good friend, May Globus, founder of sound therapy studio otō healing, will be orchestrating a sound bath accompanied by talented local pianist, Andrew Lo. Together, they are collaborating through their own mediums of sound, and composing a beautiful piece right in the moment. Definitely something you don’t want to miss out on.

Photo credit: Jeremy Jude Lee

What’s next for OCIN and The Break Room? Is a brick-and-mortar space on the horizon? Is that something you would even want? I really enjoy hosting events like The Break Room, and would love to continue to see them grow year after year. The Break Room started as just a small event with five brands and now, four years in, we’re showcasing over fifteen brands, with multiple sensory experiences and art exhibits over a weekend. I hope it continues to be an extension and showcase of our city and community, that brings people together to have conversations, learn, share support, and enjoy each other’s company. It’s one of my favourite events that we host in celebration of our community and our oceans, and is always such a good time. We hope that our community enjoys it as much as we do.

We do get asked if we would ever open a brick-and-mortar space — it’s not a never, but like everything we do, it has to have a purpose and offer something more than just a space to shop. It would be a dream to design an OCIN concept space, but for now we want to focus on expanding these events, even taking The Break Room to other cities that we have roots in.

Do you have a creative practice (besides swim design) or a daily mindfulness practice? I always make sure to go for at least one long walk a day either first thing in the morning or at sunset. It’s incredible what even a short 15-minute walk can do for your mind and body. We’re especially lucky to live in a place that has Nature surrounding us, and access to mountain and ocean views right in the city. Walking is my way to connect, spend time, and appreciate this planet we get to call home.

What’s one simple thing we can do to minimize our impact on the ocean? There are lots of little things you can do, like switching out your single-use plastics for reusable options, being intentional with what you consume and invest in, or taking part in a beach clean up. But I think for any long-lasting habits, it ultimately starts with your mindset — it’s something you have to care about. Protecting and minimizing our impact on the oceans is something you have to want to do. Because when you care about something and you’re connected to it, your actions and behaviour around that come naturally. Something you could start with is surrounding yourself with ocean-led organizations and activists on your social feeds to be a constant resource, connect you, and keep the oceans top of mind for you. Some friends and ocean partners that we always learn from are listed here on our OCIN Viewpoints ocean awareness project, including Surfrider, Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, Parley, Ocean Uprise, and Urban Ocean Lab.

Where’s your favourite spot to enjoy our oceans, near or far? There’s a little private beach in West Van we like to get out to for cold swims throughout the year. But honestly, anywhere I can safely get in the ocean is amazing. Hawai‘i, my home away from home, will always be a top spot to enjoy the Pacific.

The Break Room is free and open to all. The pop-up takes place at La Bomba Floristry (247 East Georgia Street). Weekend hours are Saturday, November 26 from 10am-6pm and Sunday, November 27 from 11am-6pm. All the details, including tickets to the sensory sound experience on Saturday evening and the ocean talk on Sunday morning, here. [EDITORS NOTE (NOV. 22, 2022): ‘An Ocean Talk Story’ event (Sunday, Nov. 27) has been postponed until further notice.]

La Bomba Floristry
Neighbourhood: Chinatown
247 E Georgia St.

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