A 13-year-old American business prodigy has teamed up with a Canadian fashion designer on the island of Bali to produce high grade Covid-19 masks – and now employs a hundred people in an ethical company that values unity and sustainability over sharp practice.
San Diego-born Hanalei Swan began her involvement with business at the tender age of seven, when her parents took her out of school and decided to abandon corporate life in order to travel the world.
“I’m the only Elementary School dropout that I know,” says Hanalei, who by the age of 11 had already visited 48 countries and six continents. “At that time my parents asked me what I wanted to do – not when I was older and grown up, but right now.”
“Like many young girls at that age, I told them I wanted to design and make clothes.” Her first venture into business began almost immediately.
“I borrowed $20 from mom and dad and I sewed together some cool key rings and sold them at their events. From that money I made, it was enough to make my first fashion prototype,” says Hanalei.
There followed experiments in materials and styles, and a growing awareness of the problem of fast fashion and its impact on the planet.
“I was young but I was keenly aware of the environmental problems facing the world. We moved to Bali, and the plastic on the beaches was a daily reminder of how our lives were impacting the planet.”
Hanalei started HS Styles, deciding to work only with sustainable materials. Abandoning the cotton and rayon favoured by fast fashion companies, she decided instead to embrace bamboo as the basis for her clothes. “Bamboo limits soil erosion and even improves the soil’s fertility,” she says. “It also grows on its own and replenishes itself, so there’s no need to replant.”
Her latest venture is UNIFY, an eco-conscious company producing Covid-19 masks based on the island of Bali.
“When COVID-19 hit I had to lay my workers off and close the doors to my studio because no one was buying sustainable fashion. It was sad and difficult,” said Hanalei.
She met 37-year-old Canadian Jesseca Scheck, whose fashion brand Sea Dragon Studio had suffered a similarly abrupt demise due to the pandemic. Scheck had spent the previous decade building a company making unique clothes for festival goers at Burning Man and Coachella.
The two decided to put their talents together and create an entirely new company that would combine their values and expertise: the result is Unify.
Today, Unify employs 100 people making triple layer masks designed under advice from an Infectious Diseases MD and an infectious disease specialist from Doctors Without Borders.
Their newest line of surgical-style masks features an innovative three-ply design using a variety of materials – an outside decorative layer, an inner replaceable 2.5m five-layer filter and finally a Luxury Bamboo Jersey layer that softly rests against the wearer’s face.
“I have always ensured my workers receive fair pay and benefits along with safe working conditions,” says Hanalei. Her conviction ran so deep that she once turned down a US$30 million investment from a Shark Tank venture capitalist that would have put her firmly in the game of mass production. It would have meant outsourcing to China and India – to countries where working conditions and salaries are very low, and it would have meant going against everything she believed in.
Yet Unify is more than just a mask company – it’s a business built on top of the strong moral foundations of its owners. Scheck and Swan knew the company couldn’t just be another mask-maker – it had to be a reflection of shared values.