honubelle swimwear
Photography courtesy of Instagram/@honubelle.

How Calgary’s Honubelle is Making Inclusive Swimwear That’s Stylish and Sustainable

Created from fabric made from recycled waste, these pieces come in prints that celebrate Canada's diverse landscape.

Launched over ten years ago, Alberta-based swimwear brand Honubelle continues to push the dial when it comes to the style world’s most important topics. “I love to portray women of all shapes, sizes and colours,” says founder Julia Barnes about Honubelle’s approach to design and photography. Here, Barnes shares more about the sustainability-focused vision behind her line, why inclusive representation is important to her, and how Canada’s natural beauty proves as inspiring as those who wear her designs.

Tell us about starting the brand. Do you have a background in design?

I don’t. I actually have a background in accounting. But I always wanted to design; actually it was more about making garments and garment production that I was interested in. I dabbled in making a few things here and there for myself and friends, and I thought to myself, ok, I love sewing and creating but I need to find my voice in that.

It was so obvious yet somehow so hidden—it’s surf culture that I’ve always felt that I belonged to in a way, so that’s what I wanted to create. At first it wasn’t apparent what that was going to look like, but over the years the more I thought about it, I thought swimwear was what I wanted to create. So, I married my passion for wind and surf sports with trying to come up with a swimwear brand.

Who and what are you thinking about when you design pieces?

My number one thing is always functionality, so I design with that in mind. I don’t design with trends in mind per se, it’s more about the feeling of what I want to wear and what I think other women want to wear. If I feel like wearing something more cheeky, then I design bottoms that are less modest in coverage. I find as I get older that there are times that I want to have more coverage, but still want to give it a sexy edge. But it’s for the woman herself, not for others to find it sexy.

Most of the women that I use as models are actually friends of mine, and they’re women that I find to be absolute inspirations to me. Women who are fearless, confident, and who exude happiness in their own way and their own body. That’s what I’m drawn to. The images that I post on the website and social media are unedited; when I work with photographers, that’s my number one thing—I want the shots to be as raw as possible. Stretch marks and so-called imperfections, I want to see all of that. It’s important for women to see that and be able to relate. This is the real world, not a photoshopped world, or one with only one body size or shape.

It seems like every aspect of the brand has personal elements. For example, you share stories about the different prints you use and the inspiration behind them. Can you tell us about some of the newer prints you have in the collection right now?

This brand is kind of a family business; my dad is the graphic designer, and my two brothers help me out with the technical part of the process. The lava print is based on a photograph I took while on a hike in our beautiful Canadian wilderness; it’s something that spoke to me, and I wanted to capture that and see what we could do when it comes out on a print. For me, it’s such a beautiful process—trying to imagine a print on a small garment like a bathing suit with the contrast of the soft skin and different types of skin next to it; imagining how it’s is going to feel and look is so important.

For the jelly print, I had an idea of making that specific collection all about things that are beneath the surface. Metaphorically speaking, sometimes you have to dig deeper to see what’s underneath; you can’t take things at face value. The jelly fish is such a beautiful reminder of this [and] I love how that print turned out.

Second wind is again very Canadian inspired and local to Calgary. I took pictures of tall grass from our provincial park called Fish Creek, and I wanted to arrange it into a print that wouldn’t give away exactly what it is, but also give a sense of belonging. If you’re from Canada, if you’re from Alberta, you would feel a little more connected to it. I love marrying Canadian beauty to the traditional culture of swimwear.

Tell me about the lycra that you use, which is composed of recycled waste.

When I started the brand, I wasn’t aware of this type of fabric, so we switched to this sustainable lycra—made from a process called Econyl—around 2016. It was a no-question decision for me. The fabric is more durable, it has higher compression so it fits more snugly, and it’s more resistant to chlorine and sunscreen and suntan oils. So, you’re purchasing a piece that will last for years. Econyl is basically the process of recycling nylon waste, like old fishing nets or old carpets, for example; what comes out is a new regenerated yarn, which is then woven into this fabric.

It’s hard to know everything when it comes to sustainability, but it’s about trying to make the best decision on the information available to us. And moving forward, we’re being more mindful about everything that goes into the process of getting the swimwear from production to the consumer, including packaging.

That’s a good segue into my last question; you’re planning more mindful moves for your brand at a time where there’s a lot of uncertainty. In your day-to-day right now, what are you doing to keep those things rolling and to stay positive?

There are definitely days that I struggle with. But there are a few things that I’ve done over the last few weeks to keep myself in the creative space and to stay inspired. One was to put out an initiative online, which was basically trying to get people to tap into that creative vein. I put out a contest—if people could sit down and make a drawing, take a photograph, or write a song and post it on their Instagram and tag us, we would then look at the entries and every two weeks, we draw a winner to receive a $50 gift card. But it wasn’t so much about the giveaway component, but more about inspiring creativity as a healing and calming aspect to what’s going on around us.

The other thing is, I keep sewing. I’m actually trying to do some children’s swimwear, and I’m in the process of thinking about how to go about this as I would like to keep that production very local and small. But now with the face covering recommendations that have come out, I really wanted to put my resources and skill to use creating face masks for people who maybe don’t have a sewing machine, or the fabric to make masks for themselves. And I’m doing that from upcycled fashion pieces; garments that have been loved but maybe aren’t wanted any longer. Taking these things are making something for another use is pretty fulfilling.

Honubelle is taking part in the Wear Canada Proud Online Shopping Event, presented by FASHION and CAFA, from June 16-17. Click here for more information.