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Image courtesy of Create & Cultivate. Photographer: Turkan Najar

LIGHTBOX FEATURE: ELLIE DINH // GIRLFRIEND COLLECTIVE

Ellie Dinh is one of our beloved clients and co-founder of Girlfriend Collective - an athleisure wear company with a focus on sustainability. With a few years under her belt as a business owner, she tells us about her experience thus far and lessons learned in building a successful brand.

Tell us a little bit about your yourself and your background – how did you become the entrepreneur/co-founder of an extremely successful company that you are today?

I was born and raised in Ontario, Canada (close to Toronto) and studied graphic design in Vancouver, BC in my early twenties before moving to Seattle when I met my husband, Quang. By that point, he had started a few different businesses with his friends (one in particular was a denim brand), and we had talked about one day working on a project together. My focus has always been on brand and content creation, while Quang is very marketing-focused and handles more of the business logistics. Around 2015 we just put one foot in front of the other and each tackled different areas of the business to bring our idea to life!

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Can you walk us through the inception of Girlfriend? Was it part of the mission to provide a solution the issues and/or problems that the fashion industry was facing at the time?

Definitely! Before we even knew exactly what we were creating, we knew it had to be ecologically conscious. Quang’s denim brand was focused on eco and ethical manufacturing, so it was important to us to continue that, but I would say Girlfriend has gone a few steps further. It started with the idea of creating a conscious clothing brand, but really took form after we honed in on activewear, a product typically made from virgin plastic. I was working out regularly with some friends, but nothing in the activewear space compelled me. In parallel to that, Quang had stumbled upon a way to make polyester entirely from recycled water bottles that was not only a high-performance material but felt amazing when worn, and we knew we had something special.

How do you feel about the fashion industry now? Have you seen much change in terms of ethics, suitability, etc.?

It’s crazy to look back only 3-4 years ago and remember moments where we would question if sustainability was something consumers cared about. Patagonia was already playing a huge role in sustainable fashion, but generally speaking, not a lot of fashion brands were held accountable for their manufacturing processes back then. There’s still a long road ahead, but we’ve seen a huge shift in consumer demand for eco and ethical clothing, and more and more brands are taking notice and making changes to their practices.

We understand the importance of a brand name - what was the inspiration behind the name “Girlfriend Collective?”

We wanted our brand to represent and be inclusive to all women in their quest for health and wellness. Community is so important to us, not only that community you create through being active for your health, but also in collectively pushing for more sustainable and ethical practices. It really takes a village.

What do you want your brand, product, and messaging to communicate to your customers?

Our mission statement is to make sustainable activewear for people who care — care about other people, care about how their clothes are made, and care about making an impact through their purchasing power. Through ethically manufactured activewear, recycled materials, and our ever-growing community, we hope to help people lead more sustainable lives and rethink the activewear industry’s role in saving the earth.

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What is at the forefront when designing athleisure wear for women?

Our focus for every piece is comfort, both functionally and aesthetically. You should be able to sweat in something that doesn’t feel (or look) like body armor, and performs at every level of activity. Activewear is like a second skin, and you want to feel great in your own skin.

Before the official launch of the company in 2017, Girlfriend announced their free legging promotion. Undoubtedly a risk, but you seemed so confident in your product that you were willing to gamble a bit. What was the response to this campaign?

We had a very (understandably) mixed reaction to our legging promotion. Consumers are so inundated with deals these days that it’s hard to set yourself apart as a real one. There were a lot of people questioning the validity of our company, but thankfully once we started to ship out leggings and people had a chance to feel and test our product (without a huge investment) they began advocating for us in a huge way.

How was the process of starting your own company? What were some challenges or surprises along the way?

To be totally transparent, the process was terrifying for me and way beyond my comfort zone. You really have to shut off that part of your brain that worries about what other people will think, and asks “what if I fail?” otherwise you will burn through your emotional capacity before the day even begins. I was also genuinely surprised at how much work is involved when you’re starting something from scratch. I realize now that all the pieces are out there, for everyone, to become their own “entrepreneur,” you just have to be the person to work at putting them together.

You are now a mother to a beautiful baby boy! Can you tell us a little bit about how it’s been juggling motherhood with running your own business? We see that this is the reality for a lot of other successful women in business!

Becoming a mother is by far the most rewarding experience of my life, and I’ll be honest that caring for a child and a business at the same time is incredibly hard. I’ve definitely had to make sacrifices at work in order to be more present at home with my son, and I’m more than okay with that. I have so much respect for both working and stay-at-home moms — there’s a ton of pressure to wear multiple hats and make it look easy, it’s not! :) I truly believe there is no perfect balance, despite what you see on Instagram/Facebook. It’s nice to take some of that pressure off, do the best you can and know that falling short in some areas isn’t failure, it’s just human!

Where do you look, what do you read, or where do you go to find inspiration?

I discover the majority of inspiration, content, brands etc. via Instagram, which is pretty cliche, but it’s so endless and easy to digest now that my time is more and more limited with work.

What other brands do you look to for inspiration?

There’s a lot! To name a few, I get a lot of colorway inspiration from brands like Paloma Wool and Mansur Gavriel. I’m also really inspired by how Glossier creates such immerse online and in-store experiences. And of course, brands like Patagonia that have been pioneers in sustainable fashion.

How do you “recharge?”

Walks after work with my family, and weekends spent with friends.