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Business: WHS grad’s start-up fashion firm finds partner in Bali

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Like many students, Mitchell Saum has a part-time job. The difference is that he started at the top, as founder of Swell, a company that has a growing line of sustainable fashion accessories.

“It was kind of spontaneous and it’s grown into something I do every day now,” he said.

The 2013 Waccamaw High graduate started Swell in his senior year. He’s now a sophomore at Wofford College. The start-up helped define his course of study. He’s majoring in Mandarin and business economics.

“I started it all by myself, without the help of my parents. Now, they’re the ones that keep it going,” he said.

Allen and Ellen Saum now handle the shipping from their Pawleys Island area home. It’s becoming more than a part-time job for the family as Swell expands from its original line of bamboo-frame sunglasses to watches and, coming soon, T-shirts.

Mitchell was looking around for an alternative to the typical student-level job. He said he was fascinated by fashion trends and by the idea that people would pay over $100 for plastic sunglasses because of the brand name. “I thought, why can’t I do that,” he said.

He went online and found a line of Chinese-made imitation Ray-Bans. After selling those to friends, he started looking at wooden sunglasses.

“I was looking for something that would be different from the sunglasses everyone else has,” Saum said. He settled on bamboo. It had the look and it’s a sustainable product.

When he got his first pair he realized there was another advantage: they float.

He started promoting the sunglasses on social media, initially swapping sunglasses for photos of people “doing something cool.” He built a following and that led to online sales through a website, swellvision.com. “I’ve learned a lot about running an online business,” Saum said.

Swell has sold over 1,500 pairs of sunglasses. Last week, it launched a line of watches with bamboo cases. “We’ve rebranded ourselves over the last year,” Saum said. “We’re trying to change the way that people see fashion.”

Next up will be a line of organic T-shirts. “A lot of companies sell bamboo fabric, bamboo rayon. It’s not as environmentally-friendly as everyone claims,” he said. Saum is looking at organic cotton or hemp.

Sustainability is a difficult concept. Although made from renewable bamboo, the sunglasses have polycarbonate lenses. They’re also shipped 8,000 miles from the factory in Wenzhou, China. “There’s no way to be 100 percent sustainable,” Saum said.

But Swell has entered into a sponsorship with an entity that gets pretty close: the Green School on the Indonesian island of Bali.

Allen saw a segment on CBS Sunday Morning about the Green School and thought it would be an ideal partner. The international school teaches sustainability. Its facility is made entirely of bamboo.

Allen got no response from John Hardy, the school’s founder.

Mitchell tried and heard back immediately. The difference, Hardy told them, was that Mitchell was 19. The school gets a steady stream of requests for product partnerships, but Hardy told him if Mitchell came to Bali and talked to his students about entrepreneurship they could do a deal.

Hardy is a designer of high-end jewelry whose work and ethic of sustainability were inspired by a visit to Bali in the 1970s. He left the business in 2006 and he and his wife opened the school two years later. The Indonesian government requires 20 percent of its students to be local and Swell is donating a portion of its sales to fund those students.

Saum and his family spent 10 days in Bali in October. “The entire thing is made out of bamboo and it’s massive,” he said. “It’s cool to be in that environment. You couldn’t really imagine it.”

While there, Hardy gave Saum some design ideas for displaying his new watch line. “We’d love to see everyone wearing bamboo sunglasses instead of plastic ones,” said Chris Thompson, head of development at the Green School. “This is a fine example of corporate and social responsibility built into the fabric of the company.”

Saum said the goal of the school is to develop leaders who will take the concept of sustainability into their careers. For himself, he envisions a career in international business. “Working with the Chinese inspired me to major in Chinese,” he said. It isn’t necessary for his venture, but “it’s a cool thing to know. One of every eight people globally speak it. I think it will come in handy one day.”

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