Gemma Lee brings a splash of joy to the waves

Two people dive under the water wearing colourful wet suits. They wear goggles and flipers.

Gemma designs and manufactures ethically and sustainably made wetsuits and swimwear through her business namesake, Gemma Lee.

But they’re not your typical wetsuit — Gemma’s are full of colour.

“I love colour, I’m obsessed with colour and that is reflected in my collection where I’ve put lime and coral together. Anyone wearing Gemma Lee will be easy to spot at sea!”

The brighter the better

Growing up Gemma spent most of her time in the water, be it surf lifesaving, competitive swimming or even synchronized swimming.

And she would always be the one wearing the brightest swimwear.

“I wanted swimwear that nobody else had, I was always on the internet to find the coolest, most colourful swimwear which I’d order from overseas.”

Nothing much has changed. Gemma’s wardrobe is full of colour and she’s managed to carve a niche for herself in creating colourful garments for the water.

“I knew when I was a little kid that I wanted to be a fashion designer when I grew up, I was one of those people who always knew what they wanted to do.”

In her first year out of university, in 2018, Gemma launched Gemma Lee and was flabbergasted to find herself as a designer in New Zealand Fashion Week.

“My career goal was to be a designer in NZ Fashion Week, so to do that in my first year out of uni was an incredible experience, and totally insane!”

“To think a few years earlier I was in high school and went to NZ Fashion Week to be a dresser behind the scenes, where I was looking at everything with googly eyes.”

It’s been onward and upward since then. The Gemma Lee collection has grown from full wetsuits to also include spring suits, jackets, and swimwear.

“It’s all very colourful matching, it’s slowly grown into more of what I dreamed it to be and it’s certainly a reflection of the lifestyle I live and breathe.”

A person sits on a paddleboard, holding a paddle. She wears a colourful wet suit.

Ethical and sustainable surfwear

Gemma hasn’t had as much time in the water lately though. Behind the scenes, there’s much work to do, especially around her ethical and sustainable values.

Early on it took time to source materials, manufacturers and packaging, but that groundwork has paid off.

“It’s quite challenging when you try and take every aspect of your business as eco-conscious as possible, but once you’ve finally found it, it’s worth it. We only have one planet, so we’ve got to take good care of it.”

Gemma’s swimwear is made from 100% recycled materials such as abandoned fishing nets and other post-consumer products.

“Thousands of fishing nets are discarded in the ocean every year, killing our beautiful marine life. So using a material that regenerates nets into premium nylon is one way we can reduce waste in the world, and give these discarded nets a new life.”

“It’s cool to create a new product with what would have ended up in the landfill, which blows my mind!”

Gemma searched high and low for the most eco-conscious swimwear hygienic liners, which are all compostable.

All swimwear and wetsuits are now ethically made in China.

Wetsuits are made from premium limestone-based neoprene which is 94% water impermeable. Old-fashioned wetsuits are petroleum-based with a different cell structure.

“This distinctive cell structure of a limestone suit makes them warmer, lighter; absorbing little water, more durable and stretchier,” says Gemma.

“A petroleum-based wetsuit has a cell penetration of 60 to 70%. They soak up water like a sponge, they get heavy, let the cold water get to you, and are an absolute pain to get on with their limited stretch.”

Manufacturing of the wetsuits happens in China by a Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production-certified organisation.

The ethical social compliance certification is a standard that ensures production facilities operate in a safe and socially responsible manner. While making a conscious effort to reduce environmental impact, explains Gemma.

The distribution still sits with Gemma.

“It’s quite challenging when you try and take every aspect of your business as eco-conscious as possible, but once you’ve finally found it, it’s worth it. We only have one planet so we’ve got to take good care of it.”

Gemma Cornish

Wellington is a hub of support

As a designer and lover of water, Gemma is aware of the skills she’s lacked along the way but she’s built up a good support network around her.

She engaged a WellingtonNZ business growth manager for advice and support and qualified for marketing expertise funding.

“I’ve learnt so much through the guys at Synthesis Marketing that it blows my mind, I love it!”

The entire experience has been a massive learning curve.

“Going into business is so hard and scary, but I am a big risk-taker. I remember someone saying to me once that ‘you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take’ and none of this would have happened if I didn’t take risks and ask questions.”

“Setting up business in Wellington has helped too… I’ve got an amazing community around me and that’s one of my favourite things about Wellington. In the wider business sense, the people and community here are so supportive.”