If you’ve ever been near workout clothes, you’ll know that they’re mostly black. And often designed for slender model type bodies.
Which frustrated Chloe Wickman so much that in 2014, the 36-year-old launched Zeenya Clothing, a colorful line of activewear that celebrates various body types. From her base in Mt Maunganui, she talks to Sharon Stephenson about body positivity, why color makes us happy and why we could learn a thing or two from Brazilians.
Where did it all start for you? I was born in Singapore, where my father was an air force pilot, but we moved around with his job every six months to two years.
We spent time in Asia and Europe, but moved back to Wellington when I was about 15, where Dad eventually became head of the Royal New Zealand Air Force.
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Have you always been athletic? My parents were active in a few sports and my brother and I got into junior surf lifesaving from a young age.
I wasn’t very competitive, so I didn’t compete, but I was more interested in the life-saving side.
Did you also do orienteering? Or “nerd running”, as I call it! I shouldn’t laugh because it taught me map reading skills that have proven useful throughout my life.
You then did a degree in physical education in Otago? My parents didn’t think there really was a career in sports, so I also did a Bachelor of Commerce.
After that, I found a job in Hamilton with Sport Waikato, creating opportunities for people with physical disabilities in various sport codes, such as wheelchair rugby, tennis and basketball, as well as shooting. It was an amazing experience and I stayed there for seven years.
But then your life changed during your vacation in Brazil? A friend and I went to Brazil for three weeks and it had a huge impact on me.
I loved how the locals embraced the bright colors and were so open to different body shapes. On Copacabana Beach, a grandma would wear a bikini and no one would blink. Brazilian women really know how to celebrate, celebrate and have fun. No matter your age or size.
Did that surprise you? It was a huge eye opener and more body freedom than I have ever experienced in my life.
I’ve always been fit and healthy, but I’ve never really felt so good about myself. I also didn’t feel free in how I could dress and was always looking for a top that covered my butt. We are so conservative in New Zealand about how we dress and what options we have if we want to dress differently.
Your attempt at change started with leggings, right? My friend and I brought back some colorful leggings from Brazil and got lots of compliments.
I realized that most sportswear available at the time was black, which seemed so dull compared to what we had seen in South America. Somehow we fell into the French belief that black is slimming. But we are not French, we are Kiwi women with thighs and buttocks. You can create so much joy wearing color and these leggings proved it.
And this is how Zeenya Clothing was born? It was one of those super naive things I went to, how hard can it be to start a business? But of course it was.
It’s been a slow burn, but we now have a few ranges made from biodegradable nylon in great colors and patterns that we import from Brazil. Some are also designed and made here from Brazilian fabric.
Visited your suppliers while volunteering at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games? I was a team assistant for both games, so I was assigned to the Swaziland team for the Olympics and the New Zealand team for the Paralympics. It further strengthened my love for this vibrant and amazing country.
Has running such a body-positive business helped you make peace with your own body? Absoutely. When I think back to the time I spent worrying about my appearance for the sake of others, it pisses me off.
My wish for future generations is that they don’t focus on their appearance, especially women whose value is still judged by their appearance and who are increasingly manipulated by the fitness and wellness industry so that they are smaller for others.
What is your message to others, especially women? First, try not to get carried away with what other people think.
Do what works for you. And don’t make the mistake of wasting so much time worrying about your appearance. There are so many better things to fill your brain with and bigger issues in the world to devote your time and love to.
Next, move your body in a way that makes you feel good? Yes, not just because an Instagram influencer says you have to look a certain way or do a certain thing!
I love running, but I’m not a big gym fan, so that’s what I do. We need to change what fitness looks like, because fitness looks like you.
And wear more color while we do it? I think it was Peta Mathias who said that women who wear color make people happy.
Yes, it can be difficult to put color on your legs when you’re used to black, but we are what we wear and color can uplift us and give our step an extra bounce. I always say the color helps me get out the door and through that last mile.
My advice is to ditch the black and increase the volume of the color. And always, always wear what makes you happy, not what others expect of you.