This is a rate of Starting year one, on special series of interviews with Founders on key lessons learned immediately after their company’s first year of operation.
When Elle Wang was pregnant with her first son and was working full-time at the United Nations as a strategist for partnerships, business development and stakeholder management in 2019, she had no luck finding professional maternity wear that was durable, sustainable and comfortable. She soon realized that many working women faced the same dilemma. When she was seven months pregnant, she decided to take matters into her own hands and start her own brand of maternity and postpartum clothing that takes care of expectant and young mothers at all stages.
So, Emilia George The company was launched in 2019 with the aim of redefining the traditional concept of maternity wear by bringing professional silhouettes to mothers-to-be in sustainable eco-fabrics like bamboo, cupro and tencel-luxe from niche manufacturers around the world.
capital recently spoke to founder Elle Wang to learn more about the business, the lessons learned, the hurdles overcome and the plans for the new year.
For the sake of clarity, the following interview has been condensed and edited slightly.
Capital: Before Emilia George started, can you tell us a bit about your background and professional activities?
Wang: Before I started Emilia George, I did my corporate job 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 have the opportunity to work with a small team where everyone is from a different part of the world.
I was also immensely blessed to have had the opportunity to travel to many different countries such as Uganda, Haiti, and Guinea and speak to refugees to learn about the basic survival of locals who come from completely different financial and cultural backgrounds. This job really shaped the way I think and encouraged me to be mindful and grateful in everything I do.
I started Emilia George when I was seven months pregnant due to months of frustration with a lack of quality maternity clothing that was comfortable on my skin, looked professional, and was functional. I had invested in some more expensive maternity clothes back then and outgrown them in my third trimester. I was so angry 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 couple of mother groups Facebook and interviewed other mothers. The most interesting conclusion was that many maternity brands underestimate the power of classy and timeless designs that pregnant working mothers are looking for. So my mom and I got together and a few months later, Emilia George was born.
What inspired you to start Emilia George? How does it differ from other maternity wear brands on the market?
Working at the United Nations has inspired me in many ways, especially when I met the refugee women, some pregnant and some already mothers, in Bidibidi refugee camps in northern Uganda. I’ve always had an innate passion to help others, and besides being an entrepreneur, I knew I wanted to do something good for motherhood.
Then when I was pregnant with my son, worked at the UN and couldn’t find professional maternity wear that was durable, sustainable and comfortable, I realized that there was a big niche in the market here. That’s why I made it my mission to create a new line for wearing mothers that would allow professional expectations and new mothers to honor their identity while accepting the transformation of motherhood.
My experiences as the mother of my son George also inspired my work, especially my founding of the Fabrics Matter Movement. After discovering that George’s skin was irritated from contact with my clothes that contained harsh dyes, I was inspired to raise awareness of the importance of fabrics, not just baby clothes, but mother’s clothes as well. Fabrics are important for pregnancy and after the birth, because what the mother wears, the little one also wears in the end.
Today Emilia George is one of the few 100% sustainable maternity lines on the market. All of our parts have been carefully designed with environmentally friendly fabrics such as bamboo, cupro and post-consumer plastic bottles and come from suppliers who have Oeko-Tex and Global Recycled Standard certifications.
One of your collections focuses on maternity wear. How was the design process for that? What needs were taken into account for expectant mothers?
When I saw this market demand for professional maternity workwear that was sustainable too, I was inspired to design maternity wear with thoughtful details using innovative, sustainable fabrics that would empower women. Pregnancy is a beautiful moment when femininity flourishes, but expectant (and postpartum) women in formal work settings are often forced to sacrifice quality, comfort, and style.
Each piece is designed for working mothers. It’s really very difficult to find fashionable maternity clothes, so this was the core of my design inspiration. I really wanted the clothes to be modeled after a professional style – think fitted pencil skirts and dresses. How do women like me who want to dress a certain way make these pieces more versatile? Our collection offers more sophisticated clothing options for pregnant women and working mothers.
Now professional no longer has to mean working in formal meetings in the boardroom. This also includes mothers who work in creative and diverse industries and who promote a “smarter, more business-like style of leisure”. In our Fabrics Matter collection, for example, we’ve made sure that our pieces can be paired well with a blazer to maintain a corporate image while they’re still in transition for an evening.
Retailers have had quite the success during the pandemic, so it must be daunting starting any business right now, let alone a clothing brand. What was it like running a direct-to-consumer clothing store during a pandemic? What was it like working with supply chain partners and developing new collections?
This crisis has created a lot of stress for business owners, including me, but I remain very grateful for my health.
Unfortunately, together with the expected delayed shipping and production times, our onboarding process with Neiman Marcus was initially interrupted. We were able to get things back on track at the end of the year, however, and Emilia George is now available online there. I have also noticed a huge gap between the “Add-to-Cart” and “Reached Check Out” rates and actual sales on our website that is understandable and inevitable during uncertain times like this.
However, during this time we were also able to steer the business in a creative way, which resulted in incredible opportunity and growth. Given the springtime shortage of face masks, we quickly made tens of thousands of masks to meet customer needs and donated them to daycare centers that are open to key employees across the country. Then we actually won a federal contract to provide over 120,000 bespoke masks for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Dr. Anthony Fauci even wore one of our masks at a recent Senate hearing. We are in the process of negotiating a federal treaty to make an additional 100,000 masks for federal employees. I am so grateful that we were able to use our resources to create sustainable face masks for the nation.
We also started running webinars that were interactive ways to not only get to know our audience, but also offer them something of value, instead of making a sponsored post on social media. It was a great opportunity for us and the Emilia George community, many of whom had expected during this uncertain time, to receive practical advice, support, and resources from doctors and writers who not only work with mothers, but are mothers themselves. It was very rewarding to get positive feedback from attendees.
We were able to launch our Fabrics Matter collection in the summer and there were of course a lot of moving parts to plan for a new collection to be launched during a pandemic. Since I was pregnant at the time, this collection meant something very special to me. Instead of casting models for the collection, we used real women that we crowdsourced through an Instagram campaign. We let them pick their favorite pieces from the collection and provided photo guidelines to make the photos look cohesive on our website.
The pictures were so organic and raw and exceeded our expectations. Actually, I wanted to keep creating content this way. My top priority is that our brand exudes positive and real energy, and I’m so glad we were able to achieve that with these photos.
We last started on Amazonand are proud to be in line with Amazon’s climate protection promise.
What was it like securing funding for Emilia George? Is it primarily self-funded, VC-supported, or a mix of both?
I was very lucky and lucky enough to be able to finance myself. I also have a great network of people who have helped me build Emilia George on my way. My mother, who has now retired, has more than 15 years of experience in the textile industry and really believed in my mission. She has always been my greatest supporter and I feel extremely blessed that she has invested in this brand too.
Towards the end of 2020, I started my own investment arm, Mutter Funder, as I’m really passionate about working with more “like-minded mompreneurs”! If I learned anything in my first year as an entrepreneur, it’s that great ideas don’t take a lot of money, but sometimes it just takes a little help to make your idea come true. That’s why I wanted to offer women entrepreneurs an opportunity to have one leg up. In November 2020 we signed our first investment contract with Markid, a buy / sell platform for baby products that was started by some co-parents.
Looking ahead, where do you see Emilia George in five years?
When I started Emilia George, I quickly realized that the learning curve was very steep. Especially when I was trying to get out of the pandemic, I realized that Emilia George was doing a lot more than just producing and providing clothing. I was and am determined to make Emilia George a maternity brand that stands out from the rest.
With our products, I’d like to get to 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 look forward to seeing how we can achieve that. All in all, I’ve found that what I want to achieve with Emilia George is far more than our clothes. I want to do more for the motherhood community by listening to mentoring, investing, and overall the voices of mothers.
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