June 2, 2016

Elsie Pinniger hand-makes wetsuits from her studio in Newquay, Cornwall. Having fallen for surfing on a trip to Australia when she was 17-years-old, she decided to found her own wetsuit brand, Neon and she hasn’t looked back since. She shapes her working day around the surf and draws inspiration from timeless, classic designs. We caught up with Elsie about her first experience surfing, her daily routines at Neon and the importance of function in design.

UO: Could tell us a little about how Neon came about?

It all started because I wanted something I couldn’t get! I had been teaching surfing for a few years and then travelling and surfing in the winter, so I was pretty much in a wetsuit all the time. The women’s wetsuit offer was really limited, especially when you are 6ft tall like me! I approached a local wetsuit maker and he helped me produce my first wetsuit. It was what I wanted to wear and is actually very similar to the suits that I make today.

UO: When did you first pick up a surf board and what do you love about surfing as a lifestyle?

I first went surfing when I was 13 years old with my sister, but actually hated it! It was freezing cold and windy and I just wanted to get out of the sea and get warm. Then when I was 17, I went out to Australia and as I am one of those people that gets bored easily, I had no choice but to spend my days surfing rather than lying on the beach.

I love everything that surfing brings with it – being outside, the fact that it is a non-competitive sport and something that I can do either on my own or with friends.

UO: What does a day at Neon look like?

I like to get up early and if there are waves I will go for a surf. In the morning I will meet up with Sarah who looks after the Neon sales and we chat about any opportunities and plans. With website sales coming in all the time I will spend the afternoon making up any custom orders and packing them up to post out. I will then try and slip in for another wave and meet up with friends for dinner and a beer afterwards.

UO: Where do you look to for inspiration when designing?

I’m not very good at looking at what other people are doing. I’m not driven by trend, but instead I will look at classic, timeless designs where the focus is on simple yet flattering cuts.

UO: What is Neon’s ethos?

We are a Core surf brand which combines the essential functionality of a wetsuit, with clean wearable style.

UO: How do you like to balance form vs function when designing?

The function is the most important thing. The wetsuits must be warm and comfortable to wear. I have also worked hard at getting the subtleties of the cut just right.

UO: Talk us through the design process, from inspiration to development

I do things my way. I have never studied design but I know what I want and use my instincts. I am a seamstress and have learned to work with neoprene. I will get an idea in my head and just make it for myself.. if it works then it works! The production line is super clean with a muted palette, whereas my custom stuff is more fun and experimental.

UO: How do you piece together a collection?

It’s really simple – I have to keep the production line super tight so it is just a question of selecting about four styles in simple block colours that can be mixed and matched together.

UO: How does Neon’s base in Newquay inspire your work?

As a wetsuit designer it is important that I am based in a Core surf area. Being able to surf whenever there are waves keeps me happy. I would really struggle to live away from the beach!

UO: What have been the biggest challenges owning your own business and what have been the biggest rewards?

The biggest challenge has been being patient and maintaining confidence and focus. Learning to trust my instincts and not getting caught up with what the rest of the industry is doing has been really hard too, as is balancing working other jobs while growing a business with no financial backing.

It has been incredibly rewarding seeing the growth from ideas to production and then sales. Then there are proud moments like seeing Neon in the Urban Outfitters Surf Pop Up. Also, having a flexible work schedule to surf when the waves are good is a massive bonus.

UO: Best beach for surfing in Cornwall?

Sorry, can’t tell you… its a secret!

UO: What’s next for Neon?

We are doing a Neon surf trip to Galicia in Northern Spain. We are going to make a short movie about the trip and we should be able to get some beautiful photos too. When I get back I will start working on new styles and colour-ways for Europe for next summer and plan for the Australian market, who will start taking in deliveries at the end of our summer.