Before starting high school, native St. Louisan Claire Forrest took to the water while in the Florida Keys with her mother. She recalls that first snorkeling experience as the moment she fell in love with our planet’s regal reef systems.
When confronted with the brutal reality of the delicate ecosystem’s disappearance last year, Forrest felt compelled to restore the piece of this planet that first inspired her, and so began the fashion brand Coralee Swimwear, which aims to rebuild reef systems with each purchase.
Forrest, after her freshman year in college, became a certified PADI scuba diver and snorkel instructor for the Boy Scouts of America in the Florida Keys.
“I lived on a sailboat and slept above deck, which was incredible,” she says. “I would watch the stars every night and fall asleep in this hammock. It was the most magical summer.”
She taught children how to snorkel and attempted to show the value and delicateness of the reefs that they explored.
“We knew it was a fragile system and were trying to be careful,” Forrest shares. “Part of my spiel would be ‘These reefs take 10,000 years to grow. Even if you’re nervous, please don’t touch them with your feet.’ I wasn’t really aware of how much damage was being done until I looked at [the reef system through Google Images] this year. They’re gone. That was just 10 years ago, and it broke my heart.”
Forrest, who also owns Claire Forrest Films, took the lull in photoshoot jobs caused by the coronaviral pandemic as an opportunity to focus on her first love – the ocean. She found an organization in French Polynesia through which people could pay to plant a reef.
“I was thinking, what could I sell in volume that would buy a bunch of them?” she says. “I had started getting more into brand work [and] had a bunch of ideas for swimsuit shoots. What if I made [the swimsuits], marketed them? We could do the coral reef preservation as part of it.”
In one day, she sketched 10 designs. After a bit of trial and error, she found her manufacturer in Los Angeles. The company matched her with a fabric partner, another LA-based business that uses recycled plastic bottles to create quality cloth and even provides the bottle count for each suit.
“I am trying to market to Midwestern women,” Forrest says of her careful examinations of each pattern in every size. “I want everyone to look good in [these suits]. We have to look at what a small looks like, what a medium looks like, what does a large, XL, XXL look like? We test all these different things.”
She takes great pride in building a brand that is authentically made in America.
“Localization is going to be powerful in the future,” she says. “This is all out-of-pocket. It’s been a work in progress, a little labor of love.”
Education is an important piece of building her brand. Currently, each suit purchase comes with coordinates to a coral reef planted in French Polynesia on the customer’s behalf. Forrest hopes to soon partner with the Coral Restoration Foundation, a lab in the Florida Keys that grows coral reefs in-house and later plants them in the ocean to ensure vitality.
“That’s where my history with coral reefs is, and I genuinely want to keep it all in the U.S., if I can,” she says. “To work on our own reef system here at home – that’s what I would love to see happen.”
Coralee Swimwear’s first collection, featuring the brand’s signature print, is available online now. Forrest hopes to launch the “honeymoon collection” in late summer, which will showcase her original designs inspired by an Italian luxury bridal shoot she had planned pre-pandemic. Her biggest hope for Coralee Swimwear is to inspire love in these coral reef systems, so that many feel compelled to join in helping with their preservation.
Coralee Swimwear, St. Louis, coraleeswim.com