This is an episode of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders on key lessons learned in the immediate aftermath of their company’s first year of business.
While pregnant with her first son and working full-time at the United Nations as a strategist for partnerships, business development and stakeholder management in 2019, Elle Wang had no luck finding professional maternity wear that was long-lasting, durable and comfortable. She soon realized that many professional women faced the same dilemma. So when she was seven months pregnant, she decided to take matters into her own hands and create her own maternity and postpartum clothing brand, which caters to expectant and new mothers at all stages.
For example, Emilia launched George in 2019 with the goal of redefining the traditional concept of maternity wear by providing expectant mothers with professional silhouettes in sustainable eco fabrics – such as bamboo, cupro and Tencel-Luxe – from niche producers around the world. globe.
The Washington City Times recently spoke with founder Elle Wang to learn more about the company, lessons learned, hurdles overcome and plans for the new year.
The following interview is concise and edited for clarity.
The Washington City Times: Can you tell us a bit about your background and what you were doing professionally before launching Emilia George?
Wang: Before I launched Emilia George, I worked as a company at the UN. Working for the UN has been a great platform and such a rewarding experience. I can’t think of many other professions where you get the chance to work with a small team where everyone comes from a different part of the world.
I am also extremely blessed to have had the opportunity to travel to many different countries, such as Uganda, Haiti, and Guinea, and talk to refugees about the basic survival of natives who come from completely different financial and cultural backgrounds. This job has really shaped my way of thinking and has encouraged me to remain attentive and grateful in everything I do.
I founded Emilia George when I was seven months pregnant, based on months of frustration with a lack of quality maternity clothes that were comfortable on my skin, professional looking and functional. I had invested in a few more expensive maternity clothes at the time, and I outgrew them when I got into the third trimester. I was so furious that I wasted money, not to mention that the clothes were made of such uncomfortable and non-breathable fabrics. So I did some surveys with a few mom groups on Facebook and interviewed other moms. The most interesting conclusion was that many maternity brands underestimate the power of stylish and timeless designs that pregnant working mothers look for. So my mom and I joined forces and a few months later Emilia George was launched.
What inspired you to launch Emilia George? What sets it apart from other maternity wear brands on the market?
Working at the United Nations inspired me in a number of ways, especially when I met the refugee women, some pregnant and some mothers already, in Bidibidi refugee camps in Northern Uganda. I’ve always had this innate passion to help others, and that, along with my entrepreneurial spirit, I knew I wanted to do something good for motherhood.
When I was pregnant with my son, working at the UN, and couldn’t find professional maternity clothes that last, were durable and comfortable, I realized there is a huge gap in the market here. So I made it my mission to create a new mom wear line that would empower professional moms-to-be and new moms to honor their identities, while embracing the transformation of motherhood.
My experiences as a mother to my son, George, have also inspired my work, most notably my creation of the Fabrics Matter Movement. When I discovered that George’s skin was irritated from contact with my clothing containing harsh dyes, I was inspired to raise awareness of the importance of fabrics not only for baby clothes but also for the mother’s clothes. Fabrics are important for pregnancy and postpartum because whatever the mother wears, the little one will eventually wear too.
Today, Emilia George is one of the few 100% sustainable maternity lines on the market. All our pieces are carefully designed with eco-friendly fabrics such as bamboo, cupro and post-consumer plastic bottles, and are sourced from suppliers who have Oeko-Tex and Global Recycled Standard certifications.
One of your collections is centered on maternity workwear. What was the design process like before? What kinds of needs were considered for working mothers-to-be?
Seeing this demand in the market for professional maternity workwear that was also durable, I was inspired to design maternity wear with thoughtful details with innovative, durable fabrics that would make women stronger. Pregnancy is a wonderful time when femininity blossoms, but expectant (and postpartum) women in formal work settings are often forced to sacrifice quality, comfort, and style.
Each piece is designed with working moms in mind. It’s actually really hard to find maternity clothes that are stylish, so this was the core of my design inspiration. I really wanted the clothes to have a professional style – think fitted pencil skirts and dresses. How do women of mine who want to dress a certain way make these pieces more versatile? Our collection offers more advanced clothing options for pregnant women and working mothers.
Now professional doesn’t have to mean working in formal board meetings; it also includes moms who work in creative and diverse industries that encourage a more ‘smart and business casual style’. For example, in our Fabrics Matter collection, we made sure that our pieces could be paired well with a blazer to maintain a corporate image, while still being a transitional period for a night out.
Retailers took quite a hit during the pandemic, so it must be daunting to start a business of any kind now, let alone a clothing brand. What was it like running a clothing store that goes straight to the consumer during a pandemic? What was it like working with chain partners and developing new collections?
This crisis has caused a lot of stress for entrepreneurs, including myself, but I remain so grateful for my health.
Along with the expected delayed shipping and production times, our onboarding process with Neiman Marcus was unfortunately initially suspended. However, at the end of the year we were able to pick things up again and Emilia George is now available online there. I have also noticed a big gap between the “Add to cart” and “Achieved checkout rate” and the actual sales on our site, which is understandable and unavoidable in uncertain times like this.
That said, during this time we have also been able to run business in creative ways that have led to incredible opportunities and growth. With the spring shortage of face masks, we have quickly moved to manufacturing tens of thousands of masks to meet the needs of the customers and donate to daycare centers open to vital workers across the country. Then we actually won a federal contract to supply more than 120,000 custom masks for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Dr. Anthony Fauci even wore one of our masks at a recent Senate hearing. We are now negotiating a federal contract to produce an additional 100,000 masks for federal employees. I am so grateful for how we were able to use our resources to produce sustainable face masks for the country.
We’ve also started hosting webinars, which were interactive opportunities to not only get to know our audience, but also provide them with something valuable instead of a sponsored social media post. It was a great opportunity for us and the Emilia George community, many of whom in this uncertain time expected to receive hands-on advice, support, and resources from doctors and authors who work not only with mothers but are mothers themselves. It was very rewarding to receive positive feedback from those present.
We were still able to launch our Fabrics Matter collection in the summer and of course there were a lot of moving parts to plan the launch of a new collection during a pandemic. Plus, when I was pregnant, this collection meant something extra special to me. Instead of casting models for the collection, we used real women who we crowdsource through an Instagram campaign. We let them choose their favorite pieces from the collection and we gave photo guidelines so that we could make the photos look cohesive on our site.
The images were so organic and raw and exceeded our expectations. It made me want to keep creating content in this way. My number one priority is that our brand conveys positive and real energy, and I am so happy that we were able to achieve that with these photos.
We recently launched on Amazon and are proud to be in line with Amazon’s climate promise.
What was it like securing funding for Emilia George? Is it mainly self-funded, funded by VC or a combination of both?
I was very lucky and lucky to be able to finance myself. Plus, I have a great network of people who helped me build Emilia George in my journey. My mother, who has since retired, has over 15 years of experience in the textile industry and really believed in my mission. She has always been my biggest supporter and I feel very blessed that she has invested in this brand too.
By the end of 2020 I started my own investment arm, Mother Funder, as I am really passionate about working with more “mompreneurs” who are like minded! If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my freshman year as an entrepreneur, it’s that having great ideas doesn’t take a lot of money, but sometimes you just need a little help to get your idea a reality. So I wanted to give female entrepreneurs a way to get ahead. In November 2020, we signed our first investment agreement with Markid, a buying / selling platform for baby products started by a number of fellow parents.
Looking forward, where will you see Emilia George in five years?
When I launched Emilia George, I quickly realized that the learning curve was very steep. Especially in my attempt to get through the pandemic, it dawned on me that Emilia George was doing a lot more than just producing and supplying clothes. I am and will remain committed to making Emilia George a maternity brand that stands out from the crowd.
As for our products, I’d like to be in a place where we can build on our sustainable options. I’m not sure what it looks like yet, but I think Emilia George has the ability to innovate and improve the sustainable fashion industry, and I’m looking forward to seeing how we can achieve that. All in all, I’ve found that what I want to achieve with Emilia George is much more than our clothes. I want to do more for the motherhood community through mentorship, investment and making the voice of mothers heard in general.
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