“I feel like everything I make is inspired by what I would want. What doesn’t exist or what can I not afford that I can just make myself?” This was the question recent graphic communications graduate Leah Todd-Borden asked herself when brainstorming an idea for her senior project in winter quarter 2019. The answer to this question became the fun and vibrant swimsuit line, FLOTE Apparel. Todd-Borden markets and sells her funky and fully customizable pieces directly through her Instagram page @flote_apparel.
Todd-Borden began her project by hand sewing unique pieces, and it has since taken off, becoming not just a design, but also a brand concept that incorporates her own personal meaning. “The word ‘float’ is kind of what started the initial idea behind the whole style. And then ‘flote’ spelled the way it is, is the Old English word for wave, so I really liked that aspect because it’s swimwear and I wanted it to be relating to water and the ocean,” Todd-Borden said. She also wanted to incorporate the concept of flow, or a flow state, which is defined by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who coined the term.
“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost,” said Csikszentmihalyi in an interview with WIRED.
Todd-Borden said that that is the feeling she receives through creating, and she wanted to intertwine that concept with her brand to help women find their flow in whatever activity they choose to do. Perfect for the beach, yoga, dancing or relaxing, her line of ethically-sourced and versatile apparel sports funky colors and patterns and showcases Todd-Borden’s shining personality, talent, creativity and natural eye for design.
Her passion for creating took root in middle school when her mother encouraged her to take a sewing class. “I learned how to sew pretty young. And then from there I started making really simple things, and then just continued with it through high school and did it as a hobby,” Todd-Borden said. Although she had dreamt of starting a business all throughout college, she never felt like she had the time. Then, when she was taking her senior project class, she finally found the opportunity to do so. Having the school deadlines provided her with the discipline she needed to set goals and start putting the plans for a business into action.
Todd-Borden said that her efforts creating FLOTE have taught her a lot as far as personal growth. She said starting the business has allowed her a considerable amount of time for reflection and for finding a sense of purpose during the confusing time post-graduation. “It’s always a weird time after you end a chapter in your life and you’re figuring out what you’re going to do next, so it’s been a nice little buffer for me,” said Todd-Borden.
Complete ownership of FLOTE allows Todd-Borden considerable freedoms, but there are also elements that have proven challenging. One major stress is wishing that she could produce more. Because she sews each individual piece by hand, the quantity is limited in comparison to what could be generated with more manpower. “It’s taught me a lot more about discipline and has just made me focus a lot more,” Todd-Borden said. She added that the positive feedback she has received, especially from people that are very involved in the fashion industry or very interested in fashion, has made her desire to take the venture seriously.
Not only does her line represent Todd-Borden’s creativity, it speaks to her values and intent for the brand, which is to combat the overly wasteful fashion industry through using strictly high-quality, ethically-sourced fabrics. As a lover of all things clothing-related, she has grown acutely aware of the problem of waste generated through the fast fashion industry.
“I think just talking about it [fast fashion] more is good. Even in one of my business classes, we all had to come up with an industry issue that we were later trying to find a solution to. And I was like, ‘I want to focus on transparency in the fashion industry and what goes on behind the fast fashion industry.’ People in the class were like, ‘What is that? What does fast fashion mean?’” By learning about this issue through her own research, she recognizes the importance of educating more people about what they are purchasing.
“Consuming less overall, buying used or buying products that you know are being ethically-sourced as much as possible because it ultimately adds more value to your clothing when you know where it’s coming from,” advises Todd-Borden. In her own line, she uses deadstock fabric, which is excess material from big companies like Nike and yoga companies and old swimwear lines that would otherwise go to waste. Starting her own sustainable business has been a step in the right direction towards promoting awareness for the vast majority of us who are blind to the behind-the-scenes of major brands who mass-produce clothing that we quickly consume and dispose of.
She admitted that the uncertainty surrounding what the future might hold for her or for FLOTE is difficult. She described that it’s tough when so much is up in the air in the beginning stages of starting a business. “The fear of not knowing, not knowing how to expand it and where to go with it once you’ve started and what’s attainable,” Todd-Borden said.
Figuring out what the next steps look like for the project is not perfectly clear at times, but she is excited to see what’s in store for FLOTE and has already been blown away by the opportunities starting the business has opened up for her.
For example, through reaching out to the talented photographer and Seager Creative Director Evan Johnson, she was able to direct a photoshoot for her brand. She confided that she was incredibly nervous before the shoot since it was the first time she would be giving creative direction to a professional. An employee on set advised her, “You need to go in there and run it because this is your thing, and you know what? You know what you want more than anyone else. So literally pretend like you do this every day.” After taking the advice, Todd-Borden was very satisfied with the outcome. And it’s pretty clear through FLOTE’s beautifully-curated and eye-catching Instagram page that she had a vision.
Finally, her advice to others looking to start their own business is to just start somewhere. “I think you have to start doing it and not give yourself too many time restraints because everything takes way longer than you would expect it to,” Todd-Borden said. For instance, she didn’t meet all of the goals she initially set for herself, such as having the business up and running in only a couple months. Todd-Borden said that a big part of learning to manage her business was realistically adjusting her expectations.
Todd-Borden’s gift as a designer is undeniable given her already impressive body of work. Although turning her hobby into a business has been challenging, FLOTE by Leah is undoubtedly an inspiration to all to not be afraid to pursue passions and see where they may lead. In Todd-Borden’s case, it has led to a platform and a brand that is making waves in the community and inspiring customers to “find their flow.”
“Just don’t be afraid to start stuff if you feel like it’s unattainable because everything feels unattainable until you check off that first item from your list,” said Todd-Borden.