Elegant Disruption

Five Women Rebranding Fashion in San Francisco

Interviews by Susanna Camp

San Francisco is enjoying a beautiful surge in innovation, not just in tech but in fashion. Meet five self-made female fashion leaders who’ve built their brands around a strong social and professional network — and in the process, reframed the entire local industry as a collaborative, supportive community. They make jewelry, work wear, leather accessories, slippers, and swimsuits. They’re all young with corporate and tech backgrounds, and they’ve helped elevate one another while emerging as business role models. Five women you need to know, whatever your career.

These fashion entrepreneurs share a common aspiration: to make beautiful things with a higher purpose. They hue to the following core principles. They support and advance other women. They intelligently network to foster a community of practice. Their brands embody an ambition to boost women’s confidence. They’re sophisticated about tapping the vibrant local culture of technology and entrepreneurship. And they are generous: they demonstrate a conscious intent to build a better industry for the women who follow in their footsteps.

Empowering Women, from Customers to Peers

Sali Christeson is on a mission to make women’s lives easier. Women in the workplace face all too many challenges: we are often judged on our appearance and held back by self-doubt in the face of unfair obstacles in male-dominated fields. Sali believes finding stylish yet practical clothing shouldn’t compound their struggles. Her company Argent, created last year with co-founder Eleanor Turner, offers functional, fashionable office wear that encourages professional women to be bold. “When you feel confident,” she says, “it’s transformative.”

Sali was an executive at Cisco with an advanced business degree and an expertise in supply chain management. Pairing up with her co-founder, who previously designed products for J.Crew and Tory Burch, they channeled their combined experience into creating a small Argent accelerator.

“It’s hard to find people who understand what it’s like to go through founding a company,” Sali says. “The only people you end up identifying with are other founders. That’s a really powerful relationship.”

Running the accelerator kept them connected to the pulse of the industry, honed their own skillsets, and increased those of the women they brought in. Argent became known as a brand that elevated fashion while supporting their customers and other women fashion designers.

The Power of Collaboration

Read more here about the GUILD’s partnership with EndeCollective.

Krista Gambrel is proof of the power of female support. The founder of Ende Collective, Krista single-handedly launched her brand in September 2016 and then got an extra push in Argent’s accelerator that winter. Ende Collective designs and crafts high-quality, artistic silver jewelry and accessories with a strong message: to empower women to celebrate their individuality through its unique designs.

The accelerator was transformative. “I worked alongside other women who were modeling professional values, and learned how to have a cause behind what I do,” Krista says. “It’s not just about making beautiful things — it’s about building a strong brand with a larger purpose.” Working in the accelerator around strong female leaders, such as the GUILD’s Anne Cocquyt, was “very empowering.”

Krista stresses the value of collaborating with other women. Independent designers often spend all day at the workbench or drafting table without a lot of interaction from their industry peers. “There are things I couldn’t have accomplished without working alongside other women. Planning events with other women in teams, tasks get delegated, and the organization is shared. Everyone’s role is crucial, and we’re all accountable for making the event awesome.”

This more engaged participation and commitment moves everyone forward together, and is more fun and rewarding than going it alone.

“Being a part of helping other women develop their brands is positive and reinforces shared values. We’re not only building each other’s companies and our own networks, we’re building trust.”

The Facebook Launch

Read more here about the GUILD’s partnership with Birdies.

Building a brand around a network of women is a central theme for Bianca Gates, co-founder of Birdies Slippers. She launched her business in 2016, out of the need for comfortable yet fashionable slippers she could wear in the entertaining space of her home (or at parties where you’re asked to remove your shoes).

Bianca had no background in fashion or manufacturing, and designed the product through sheer determination and classic prototyping — “we used duct tape and my kids’ construction paper” — to build the first model.

She conceived of the idea while an ad sales executive at Facebook, working with retailers to help market their brands through the platform. “I wasn’t sure if it would be acceptable for me to have a side hustle,” Bianca told me, “so I emailed Sheryl Sandberg and asked her if it was OK. And she was excited. She said, ‘This is fantastic, I’m so proud of you!’”

Bianca and her co-founder Marisa Sharkey launched the product through social media, reaching increasingly larger networks of friends and acquaintances. “Our journey on social media has been all about women helping other women. It’s also about the passion and energy behind the product. Being passionate about something leads to others wanting to be a part of it.” Currently an online-only retailer, Birdies is also coming soon to a pop-up shop near you, possibly to be launched through the Bespoke accelerator in Westfield Center.

Celebrating Sustainability and Community

Lily Anderson, founder of Maroquine, is a San Francisco native. Lily went to French bilingual schools, majored in Mandarin in college, speaks five languages and has lived in as many countries. For the past two years, she’s been living and working in Colombia establishing her brand. Unlike big retailers like Zara and H&M who make cheap, disposable clothing, Maroquine products are valuable and permanent, sustainably made and environmentally sound. She’s been collaborating with local tanners in Bogota who have their own water treatment plant to develop sustainable scaling.

Lily recently returned to San Francisco, and is thrilled to be back. “Designers here are very community-oriented,” Lily told me. “This is a sanctuary for artists and people who are creative, and care about value and authenticity.” Part of the reason there’s such a strong bond among designers in San Francisco, she explained, is that there aren’t any local fashion behemoths dominating the scene. Unless you want to work for Levi’s or The Gap, you have to work at a smaller company or start your own.

Independent producers are better, more inclusive networkers. “It’s not competitive like New York’s Madison Avenue or Chelsea Market. Here there are smaller women-owned businesses that support each other. As entrepreneurs, we all have unique ideas, we’re not all competing for same space. Not everyone has same priorities. It’s not like The Devil Wears Prada.”

Inspiring Confidence On and Off the Water

Read more here about the GUILD’s partnership with Sensi Graves Bikinis.

Sensi Graves is another local woman founder who seeks to inspire confidence in women through her brand, Sensi Graves Bikinis. She’s a professional kiteboarder who wanted to fashion a new look and feel — athletic swimwear that fits and is stylish. “One of the core tenets of my business is to empower other women in watersports,” Sensi says. “I really try to be an inspiration both within watersports and off the water in boosting women’s confidence.” When you’re trying on a bathing suit, she says, you’re vulnerable — and it’s easy to be self-critical. And body image problems can hold you back, athlete or not.

Sensi is a master at using technology and social media to strengthen her brand and mission. “We try to communicate through our marketing and messaging that we want to instill confidence.” Most swimwear brands, she explains, feature scantily-clad, buxom women. They’re not swimming, and they’re certainly not kiteboarding. Sensi’s brand, “Bikinis for Girls Who Rip”, promotes a different image — real women doing sports and athletics. Through Instagram and other apps, customers contribute photos and testimonials featuring themselves wearing Sensi’s brand.

“It’s inspiring and creates more of a community. Not just an unattainable (fashion model) body, but women having fun and living life.”

Takeaways:

  • Your network is one of the most valuable assets in any career. Make it human and broad. The best networking is diversified across many mediums: face-to-face, through events or collaborations, and online.
  • Women don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time they build a business. Incubators, accelerators, and groups like the GUILD provide resources and an environment where women can share lessons learned and bring each other forward. Collaboration beats out competition.
  • A strong mission is great way to build passion for your brand. Don’t just make beautiful things, understand and celebrate their inherent, transcendent value. That’s what our five favorite fashionistas do, and it can work for you, too!