Relying on Three Ps to Disrupt the Maternity Industry Positioning, perseverance and people are key in building a brand.
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Almost every mom I talk to has a lot to say about maternity wear, and many of them want to start their own maternity brand—if they haven't already. Among those who haven't, I often sense self-doubt, and in a lot of ways, they convince themselves that they won't be able to do it. If there is anything, I learned from being both a mother to two small children and an entrepreneur, motherhood and entrepreneurship truly form a beautiful constellation.
My background has nothing to do with either fashion or business. I have a Ph.D. in Public Policy, and I have been working at the United Nations for my entire professional life. I did not know where to buy fabrics, nor did I know what MOQ meant. I didn't have a single clue about the clothing production process, and I still don't know how to sketch. When I went to fabrics shows by myself, most suppliers didn't even bother to stand up. People ignored me, lied to me, intimidated me, insulted me, and dismissed me more times than I can remember. Then, I launched Emilia George, defying all odds, only to find ourselves hit by a global pandemic three months later.
Fast forward to this Mother's Day, one-and-half years since launch. Emilia George will proudly be the first maternity brand to use AI-generated pregnant models in its eCommerce business. Furthermore, Emilia George is also working with digital fashion technology firms to launch a completely digitized fashion show for maternity wear.
As I reflect on my entrepreneurial journey, here are three Ps I relied on to build and lead a brand on its way to disrupt an underserved and under-appreciated maternity industry.
Positioning (value proposition)
Market positioning and value proposition are two words a lot of fashion startups don't mention in their introductions. A lot of fashion entrepreneurs talk about the aesthetic differentiation their brand offers and sometimes the fabric differentiation or where the clothes are made. But as challenging as it already is to survive and thrive in the fashion industry, a global pandemic is shattering to even the biggest retailers and brands. Brands that stand out have proven their value to customers and clients either through versatile designs, value for money, quality, and/or the right product offerings.
As the Creative Director for Emilia George, I often tell my design team that we are not building a museum for maternity wear. It doesn't matter how beautiful and special we think our collections are until an expecting mom truly believes the clothes are worth her hard-earned money. Designers should constantly ask themselves what value a piece or garment provides to a mom. Is this value already being provided by another brand or designer? What are the missing values that expecting and postpartum moms and all the women planning to go through these life stages need? Can we fill these gaps with our resources and expertise? Also, what are the things that we don't even know we don't know yet? Can we add brand-new value to the current maternity industry that nobody has added before?
Until recently, the whole maternity wear industry has been dominated by polyester-made, maxi/flowy dresses and unflattering nursing clothes. Thanks to the power of social media's pregnant influencers, with Duchess Kate leading the way, we've seen a lot better designs and a stronger public interest in high-quality fabrics such as Tencel and cupro. But the industry as a whole is hardly a poster child for fashion digitalization, innovative fabrics and designs, or a robust supply chain.
As a startup in an already cost-prohibitive industry, the pandemic has stopped us from pursuing any in-person photoshoots for an entire year. I realized there must be a better way. That's why I worked with a Dutch AI start-up to generate the world's first pregnant AI model to showcase our clothing.
And that is also the thought process that drives us to constantly look for innovative solutions, not just for our direct customers but also for the maternity industry. Never stop thinking about how you can add value to your customers and your industry.
When I first started the brand, a fellow Asian friend once commented, "are you sure you want to break into the fashion world and the New York mom world as a minority woman?" I never really thought of it this way, even though I knew my limitations—I came to this country as one of hundreds of thousands of international students and at first, knew no one, I can't even draw a goldfish, social media gives me so much anxiety that I often find myself stressed out when I have to post on Emilia George's account, and I had zero contacts in the fashion industry.
But in the end, I have managed to bring Emilia George to Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, Neighborhood Goods, and Nuuly, and also to win a federal contract to produce over 120,000 masks for the National Institutes of Health, all as a one-woman show during a year of a full-blown global pandemic. How did I do it? Perseverance, perseverance, and perseverance.
It takes me about four months to search LinkedIn for people with titles as buyers from a particular department store until I successfully establish direct communication with the store's correct buyer. I always follow up—but not in an obnoxiously frequent way. Many people in this industry appreciate hard work, and they want to help you if they see you working hard, even if it just means telling you they are not the right person to contact.
This was even the case with one of our manufacturers. Their clients are all internationally recognized brands, so given our smaller order quantity, the manufacturer refused to work with us for an entire year—until we've shown them our progress and press coverage since our first meeting. They finally agreed to give us a shot.
When your best friend is not a fashion editor or a social media influencer, or a celebrity who can help you reach millions of followers with a swipe-up story, your only option is to persevere if you truly want to get somewhere in the pursuit of your dreams.
If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together. It may sound cliché, but it is the ultimate truth. Nobody can do it all alone forever. I've been building a one-woman show for as long as I can, but even at the beginning, I had my husband to help, staying up until 1 to 2 a.m. to fulfill hundreds of mask orders. I had my mom come from overseas to help with my newborn. When we pulled our toddler out of daycare during COVID, my in-laws were able to look after him for three to four days a week, so I could work from home for my day job and build a side business.
Nobody can do it alone. When it comes to business partners and collaborators, trust your instincts fiercely. If you feel you can't trust someone, if you feel your brand is being put on the back burner, if you feel disrespected for what you are trying to build, more often than not, you are right about it. Most people have incredible instincts, but they often end up saying "I knew it" too late rather than addressing the issues early on. However, this doesn't mean you have to be paranoid or not trust anyone. There will also be people who truly appreciate your work, spirit, and mission, and who will love your products. You will never forget the surreal feeling when people spend money to buy something you created. Again, you have to trust your positive instincts and be fierce about them.
When you do find these people, do all that you can to keep them and grow with them. A lot of entrepreneurs are very protective of their companies. I am one of them. It takes a lot for me to trust someone enough to represent Emilia George in front of clients and customers. I used to draft every single email for them to send out on behalf of the company. But I also quickly learned that I should absolutely let people do what they've been hired for. If I don't trust that they can do their job, what is the point of the hire? Learn to grow a team and grow with the team.
In the end, I'd like to send my highest regards to all the moms who are building something— whether it's uber-tiny or a billion-dollar industry.