“I slept next to the Alexander McQueen ‘Butterfly’ dress the night before it was debuted at Paris. After hours spent sewing each of the thousands of butterflies on, teamed with the pressure of Sarah Burton’s first collection, there was no way I was letting it out of my sight for a second.”
The iconic dress became the stand out piece from Burton’s first show as Creative Director at Alexander McQueen. But it was also a career highlight for Kasia Bromley, who would go on to turn her high fashion experience into creating a leading outdoor apparel brand, specifically designed for women.
Kasia’s career started at the iconic McQueen fashion house in London. Whilst studying for a degree in womenswear design at the Edinburgh College of Art she had dreamed of a placement with her favourite designer and made it happen in the Summer of 2010.
“However, the reality of living in London unpaid was ridiculous,” she remembers. “I rang my parents back in Poland and as ever they were there to support me. They took out a loan and with that and the offer of sleeping on a friend’s couch I could make the placement happen.”
Kasia spent five months working long days on Burton’s SS11 collection. When it was time for the team to head to the French capital to showcase their work, she was told to take the Butterfly dress with her.
“I was absolutely terrified something would happen to it. So I had the mannequin next to me on my friend’s couch the night before we left for Paris and then I held on to it for the entire Eurostar journey.”
The pressure on Burton’s first collection lifted as it made its way down the catwalk to great acclaim. And when it came for its showpiece, Kasia was still sewing on the last few butterflies just seconds before the model walked out.
“I was incredibly inspired by the experience I had at McQueen but I also realised that I didn’t want to create the kind of fashion that would end up on display in The Met, like the Butterfly dress,” Kasia says.
“I wanted the clothes I designed to give the wearer the same feeling of cut, flattery and style as couture fashion, but to serve a purpose and support their lifestyle in the outdoors."
“And at ACAI, that’s exactly what we do. We create clothes that are designed to make you look and feel great, and above all else, give you the mental and physical confidence to get outdoors.”
Following her stint in London, Kasia headed back to Scotland and got a job with the cycling brand Endura where she began designing men’s mountain biking garments. She quickly saw a gap in the fashion market which her own brand would eventually fill.
"There was a real ‘pink and shrink’ mentality towards women’s outdoorwear at the time," she remembers. "So many brands were just looking for a quick and easy fix. Companies would take male clothing and tweak it slightly to make it more feminine
i.e. smaller and pink or purple. There was no real consideration of female form, individuality or expression.”
Passionate about the great outdoors, one day she was making the most of having the Scottish Highlands on her doorstep when she noticed she was getting sideways looks from some fellow hikers.
“I was wearing funky leggings and an oversized t-shirt. I was comfy, felt stylish and was enjoying myself. But because I wasn’t wearing clothing designed for the activity I got these judgmental looks from other walkers. I felt ridiculed by men.”
Her confidence was knocked but she knew there was truth in the fact that her clothing wasn’t functional for the environment she was in. It wasn’t durable, waterproof, breathable or quick-drying - all of the features required to be fit for purpose in the outdoors.
Kasia now had the vision for her business. To make women’s outdoorwear that was the perfect blend of style, performance and fit. With her couture background, fashion degree under her belt, as well as experience designing technical gear, she felt she had the right skills to embark on the challenge.
Not long after this light bulb moment, Kasia’s now husband and business partner Joe was offered a role in South Korea as an offshore engineer. The couple jumped at the opportunity for an adventure and that was where the foundations of ACAI were laid.
“I bought a sewing machine from a local and scribbled endlessly on my sketchpad. I explored the incredible markets in both Korea and Japan, searching for fabrics and inspiration. I researched and went through countless samples until eventually I created the entire first collection and our signature piece, the Skinny Outdoor Trousers - just me and my sewing machine, in a little studio in South Korea.”
In February 2016 Joe was made redundant and Baby Bromley was on the way. With Kasia’s vision, and Joe’s “unfaltering support”, they used the money for their house deposit and registered ACAI.
“We just thought we had to have a go,” says Kasia. “But I won’t pretend it wasn’t difficult. I remember very clearly being in labour with my son and an email from a potential supplier came in and I thought ‘I can’t miss this opportunity’, so replied in between contractions! When I returned from the hospital I went straight to look at the box of samples that had been sent.
“People around us thought I was crazy and didn’t believe we were serious about it. Apart from my mum, who knows my determination and focus, and that once I have set my mind on something, nothing stops me.”
Time and again Kasia was asked “why on earth would you start a business when you are about to have a baby?”.
“I couldn’t quite answer it, I just knew in my gut I had to do it,” she says. “I had this really strong sense that I could be the woman to break the bias in the outdoor industry and put women first in the outdoors.”
With Joe by her side she knew that they could make ACAI a reality. But that reality came at a cost.
“I paid a hefty price for the timing of realising my vision, falling ill with severe post-natal depression which lasted for the first 18 months of our son’s life,” she says.
“Juggling being a mum of a newborn and starting a business wasn’t easy. But I used the outdoors whenever I could to try and understand my feelings and what I was going through. Having personally experienced the healing power of nature has largely influenced what ACAI is today and what the brand stands for.”
With a range of samples in hand ACAI was launched at a trade show, and just two weeks later picked up by an agent who got it listed in House of Fraser. However the excitement was quickly replaced with strict supplier guidelines and low margins, causing financial strain.
“It was an incredibly difficult time,” remembers Kasia. “We had to move out of our rented home as we could no longer afford it. We sold our furniture and car, with Joe picking up a run-down lime green car we affectionately called the ‘Snot Rocket’ so he could get to work.”
Kasia decided that if ACAI was to progress, she’d need to learn how to promote it. So with the help of her brother taught herself how to market the brand via social media.
She moved to be with her parents in Poland whilst Joe took up residence on his sister’s couch in the UK, picking up a temporary job during the day, and working on ACAI in the evenings; fulfilling orders and dropping them off at the post office.
Demand flooded in, and despite some hiccups, ACAI has grown 2,000% since launching online in February 2017.
So what’s the secret to its success? ACAI’s founder says it’s all down to the “magical combination of performance and fit, with high fashion influence delicately embedded into each and every garment”.
“Our clothes are put through a rigorous 18- month testing process and it’s the cut of the cloth that’s our point of difference. The cut is shaped to fit the female form and create silhouettes which make the form flattering. We design our clothes to offer a variety of fits so the clothes are adjusted to different body shapes, and not vice versa. We embrace the diversity and uniqueness of each and every woman.”
Today ACAI has not only filled the void in the market for sustainable, performance-led outdoorwear for women, but also built a community via campaigns such as ‘Outdoorsing’; largely influenced by Kasia’s own experience of the outdoors and the positive impact it can have on wellbeing.
“Launched in June 2021, Outdoorsing was backed by a host of celebrities and influencers in a bid to encourage and inspire more women to take time and enjoy the outdoors for their mental and physical health,” says Kasia.
So what lies ahead for ACAI?
“We have exciting plans, which include growing our product range into a full outdoorsing collection that carries the same ACAI DNA; expanding into international markets; and most importantly continuing to inspire more women to spend time in the outdoors for their mental and physical wellbeing.”