Kalena McElroy ’14 grew up in a bathing suit. Life in her hometown of Waimānalo, near the eastern tip of Oahu, revolved around the ocean. Today you can still find her on the water — off the coast of Hawaii or Southern California — exploring the depths on a free dive or cresting the waves in an outrigger canoe.

Courtesy of Kalena McElroy
McElroy striking a pose in Hawaii. One of the things she loves about her work, she says, is the chance to share a little bit of Hawaiian culture. 

So perhaps it’s no surprise that McElroy has some strong opinions about beachwear: A bathing suit, she insists, needs to be sporty, cute and eco-friendly. “I never really found a suit that fit everything I needed,” McElroy says. “That’s when I knew I wanted to create my own brand.” 

So she did. In 2021, McElroy launched Kaiona Swimwear, named for the quiet stretch of sand and sea where she spent much of her childhood. As a student at UCLA, she says, “I got to meet people from around the world and across the U.S., which made me realize how little people actually know about Hawaii and Hawaiian culture.”

Her sleek, simple one-pieces and bikinis showcase the natural colors of the tropics, most with a cheeky bottom cut that’s long been trendy in the islands. After the Hawai’i Swim Show in 2023, no less an authority than Sports Illustrated — whose annual swimsuit issue is the stuff of media legend — praised McElroy’s creations as “functional yet fashion-forward ... designed to stay put during a cliff dive.”

For McElroy, starting her one-woman business in itself felt a bit like a cliff dive, a leap into the unknown. Is this going to be a huge flop? she wondered more than once. She spent the better part of a decade researching the swimwear market, identifying vendors who could craft suits from recycled-plastic fabrics in factories committed to ethical labor practices. 

“What I love about Kalena is that she’s rooted in mālama ‘āina,” says Kassandra Weiss of No​​‘eau Designers, an Oahu-based retailer that stocks Kaiona Swimwear. Mālama ‘āina is the indigenous Hawaiian concept of caring for and honoring the land. You can see that care in every detail of McElroy’s brand, down to the hemp twine and cassava-starch bags she uses in her packaging.

Active on social media, McElroy maintains a playful presence that has drawn in fans from New York to New Zealand. That reach has given her an opportunity she didn’t anticipate: She’s not just selling swimsuits anymore — she’s also spreading the very idea of mālama ‘āina.

“I love to share a little bit of Hawaiian culture,” she says, “with people from all over the place.”

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Summer 2024 issue.