Emma Bäcklund has always been obsessed with water. As the owner of sustainable swimwear brand U&I Label, she seeks inspiration in the raw and rugged coastline of the Great Ocean Road.
Having grown up in a small village in rural Sweden, Emma's first attempt to surf was as a young adult, living and working in Norway.
'There was snow and ice on the beach. We did snow angels to warm up, then jumped into the North Sea, to try and do something that looked like surfing,' she says. 'It's definitely different to surfing in Australia.'
She saw her first stretch of Australian sand – Thirteenth Beach, at Barwon Heads – when she travelled with a university surf group from Melbourne to the Surf Coast.
'It was really beautiful seeing the waves,' she says. 'I bought a van and massive longboard so I could make it down to Torquay, to start surfing again.'
Torquay is now home to Emma, partner Felix and their two-year-old son, Hendrix. She works as a freelance graphic designer and photographer, while running U&I Label, which she co-founded seven years ago. She seeks inspiration from her coastal community and Great Ocean Road.
'I love the balance of my life here – having Hendrix and being a professional, running my own business.'
Emma's love of water is threaded into multiple facets of U&I Label – from the designs and colour palette, to the brand's commitment to sustainability.
'You pick up on colours when you're out on the surf,' Emma says. 'The cliffs, the colours and the power of the ocean. It's all dreamed up in between sets while surfing here at Bells Beach.'
The swimwear is intended to be timeless and durable, lasting beyond a single summer. It's designed with everyday women in mind – women who have 'a strong connection to the sea.'
'In swimwear and surfwear I was aesthetically missing something that was designed for women rather than young girls,' Emma says. 'I wanted something that was a bit more grown up, and also very practical for someone who is surfing or free diving – someone more active.'
In 2018, the label made the switch to 100% recycled nylon fibres, created from pre- and post-consumer waste, such as fishnets and other nylon materials. The fabric they use is leftover by other big brands and would otherwise be burned or tossed into landfill.
'This was a really important commitment for us with the label,' Emma says. 'As a surfer or a beach-goer, you're pretty motivated to protect your water playground.'
'With the label we have a tool and a voice, so it falls very naturally for us to be wanting to do what we can to protect those places that we love.'
Through the label, Emma hopes to help create a surf culture for women. 'It's been quite male dominated for a long time. Female surfers are represented but not so much the culture.'
Part of this commitment sees the label hosting women's only surf catch-ups. Participants will commonly drive down to Torquay from Melbourne, to catch waves and connect with other women.
'Being in the water with the girls, it's super fun. Everyone is always cheering each other on. You try and go for a move or make that section. You may not have, unless you were together with a good group.'
In turn, Emma loves to travel to Melbourne for a day of culture and good food, but says there's something special in returning to Torquay and the Great Ocean Road. 'It's a good feeling, knowing you're coming home again,' she says. 'You feel everything slowing down from the bustle in the city.'
It's not only her love of surfing and the coastline that draws her back to this corner of Victoria – it's the community around her. 'I found my people down here,' she says.
'I've lived in a lot of places around the world, but Torquay has a very special, unique feel to it.'
Ultimately, it's Torquay's unique surf culture that inspires its community to want to protect and preserve this unique area – something Emma knows all too well. 'I always need to touch base with the ocean. If I haven't for a day, it feels strange – to not know what the waves are doing.'
'To be able to go from one world-class wave to another in a couple of hundred metres... I just don't think you find that in a lot of places in the world – and it's so accessible from a metropolitan city.'