ITA Leisure: bringing diversity outdoors

When the pandemic threw her day-to-day into sharp relief, Jade Akintola recognized the need to explore and create a space of calm and leisure for the underserved.
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Brooklyn-based British-Nigerian entrepreneur Jade Akintola spent over a decade building a career in branding and marketing that left little free time outside work. But as lockdowns hit last year, she began to prioritize leisure time and realized that the outdoors industry had long overlooked diversity. With that in mind, she launched ITA Leisure, an outdoor goods brand that centers the experience of BIPOC from product design to creative campaigns. Here, Jade talks reimagining free time and how to build a brand with inclusivity at the core.

Q.
What was your relationship to the outdoors before starting ITA Leisure?

A. ‘Very little. I grew up in London, like bang in the center of London, between Marble Arch and Edgware Road. I started working at a very young age – I got my first job at 16. I was very career focused and that was my life for the next 10 to 15 years, really about work and figuring out what my path was. 

‘When Covid hit, my partner and I were spending more time outdoors because our day-to-day habits changed significantly. As well as the racial awakening of that summer, being outdoors and finding spaces of calm became something that we really craved.’

Q.
What led you to start an outdoor goods company?

A. ‘There are a few dominant themes that I find with outdoors [brands]: bohemian, Aussie beach vibes, and then just stripes – just nautical colored stripes. And that’s it. I know that for a generation that does spend more time outdoors – or at least is more conscious about it – that the market hasn’t necessarily caught up. 

‘There are a lot of heritage brands like The North Face, REI and LL Bean, and similar companies that really dominate the outdoors. I did a “What were they saying in June” audit and a lot of these organizations were putting their hands up and saying: we need to make the outdoors more inclusive and to amplify stories and we’re going to share our platforms. And that’s really wonderful and so necessary. But the bigger question that was posed to me was: what does it look like when it’s actually a brand where this is the foundation – where inclusivity is the foundation?’

Q.
ITA is a leisure brand. Why choose that distinction within this larger outdoor space?

A. ‘I wanted to really tap into and open up a conversation around leisure, because that, to me, was something I didn’t connect with for a while. It’s somewhat adjacent to the wellness conversation and radical acts of self-care. To me, “radical acts of leisure”, which is the title of our campaign for this year, feels like a very fruitful space because all you’re trying to draw attention to is people having free time. And, for communities of color, I think that’s important because that’s not a dialog that has been presented to us as a priority, or for us to be a priority within that conversation.

‘If we think back to the actual definition of “leisure” and having free time to engage in activities that are not work, that already is a bit charged when you look at the history of America. The idea of free time from work, when you’re thinking of enslaved people, it’s not for them. It is literally for free people.’

Q.
You choose leisure staples, such as the beach chair, to launch your brand. Why?

A. ‘The beach chair was where it started. I saw that last year, when people were hanging out outside, they were taking those camping chairs outdoors. We were spending more time in the parks as well, and I realized that if we created something that is really multipurpose, you can take comfort in each of those situations.’

Q.
What's the story behind the design of the products?

A. ‘There was a lot of research into traditional crafts, so that’s where the weaving of the chair came in. That whole branding and design exploration was super rewarding because we were able to look back at a lot of African photography and design from the sixties. The towels are inspired by Ghanaian kente cloth. My sister’s husband is Ghanaian and I’m West African, so I have been very exposed to the prints and fabrics that bring so much richness to our culture. 

Then, with the blanket, that’s more inspired by Nigerian aso-oke [fabric], which has very graphic prints. But I wanted to reimagine it a little bit, obviously treating it with care and being clear in terms of our inspiration points, but not wanting to necessarily share the designs that people have seen presented at the forefront. 

‘The designers that have worked on the project are all people of color, which is a really enriching experience. That’s something that’s always going to be part of our foundation. The brand is absolutely for everybody, but I think there is equity to be gained in the space by having the brief as creatives to explore within the outdoor space and create products for that.’

This article was first published in Courier issue 43, October/November 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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