The African-inspired, African-made swimwear label Bantu began like many startups: "I was trying to figure out what I was going to do after graduation," explains its founder, Yodit Eklund. "I was looking at investment banking jobs and my brother was like, 'You know you don't really want to do that.' I wanted to do something in Africa."
The continent had been home to Eklund for most of her life prior to her undergraduate stint at Berkeley. The daughter of a refugee coordinator and a former Peace Corps worker, she grew up moving between Ghana, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Egypt and Ethiopia, where she now spends half her time. And despite the crushing poverty and distress that she witnessed due in part to the nature of her father's career, she also saw the most beautiful parts of Africa, its unspoiled coastal beaches and surf scene. "Whatever comes, whatever goes, Africa will always have beautiful beaches," Eklund says. And so, despite her lack of fashion background, her surf-influenced swimwear line was born.
Founded in 2008, Bantu's suits for men and women are wholly cut and sewn in Africa, drawing on traditional colors and textiles for their vibrant prints. Production is handled in Ethiopia, Cameroon and South Africa; artisans from Ivory Coast consult on the designs. The results have found fans worldwide. The line is currently stocked at Barneys New York and will soon be at Opening Ceremony.
Each season, Bantu improves its production -- African manufacturing is one of Eklund's passions -- and broadens its offerings. (She has just introduced surfboards, made in South Africa.) But its focus remains steadfastly on giving back to the African community, in the form of jobs, as well as through a Bantu ambassador program that pairs underprivileged kids with surf instructors. As it turns out, despite running a surf-savvy brand, Eklund could use a little instruction herself. "I surf," she says with a laugh. "But I'm very bad."
Bantu is available at Barneys New York and will be at Opening Ceremony in March.