Kristi Soomer: founder of Encircled
I've been so impressed with the thoughtfulness behind Encircled's apparel, and even more inspired by the fact that Kristi founded it based on her personal observation of a gap in the industry for versatile clothing that women on the go could use on their adventures. I've been wearing a few of Encircled's items recently (see my review of them here), and I believe Kristi has achieved her vision of creating timeless pieces that are comfy enough to travel in. It's my honor to share her interview with you today...
Share a little about your background...
I was born in Toronto, where I still reside. I’m actually not a trained fashion designer, I ended up the CEO of a fashion company because I saw a need for women travellers to travel lightly, and in style. After graduating with a business degree, I spent most of my career in marketing, and then when I completed my MBA, I got my dream job as a strategy consultant. I’m into fitness, yoga, surfing and proud mama to my two furbabies, Madison (cat) and Harlow (puppy).
What was your inspiration for Encircled?
When I was a strategy consultant, the job kept me on the road often. I’d fly weekly to client sites all over North America. As such, I started to become a devout carry-on only traveller which is where the idea for our first product - the Chrysalis Cardi came from. I was taking a break from work to head to a yoga retreat when the idea first came about. I was packing and my suitcase broke, and I had to stuff everything into a way smaller bag. I started wondering why I didn’t have more multi-purpose clothing. I had one of those 30-way-to-wear infinity scarves but it was so impractical - you had to tie it into knots to create the looks, and the fabric was cheap, unhemmed and see through. The idea was good but the execution was terrible.
I spent the night drawing out product ideas and when I got back from the retreat, I made my first prototype with a sewing machine bought of craigslist. Encircled was chosen as a name originally because my first product was a multi-way scarf, and I like the idea of full-circle fashion. The notion that fashion can give back to the planet, people and customers equally.
How has the brand evolved since you first started it?
The brand has evolved quite naturally and expansively over the years. Our founding mission was to help women travel lighter, and now we’ve expanded to helping women truly be more with less in their everyday adventures and epic journeys alike. When people go on vacation, somehow they are able to pack a small suitcase, yet in our daily lives we have overstuffed closets full of things we never wear. The fashion industry wants consumers to buy more - we want them to buy quality, over quantity and focus on ethics first.
Can you identify any major obstacles in this endeavor?
Yes, for sure - two.
Firstly, finding and managing production - the Canadian apparel industry is almost non-existent so finding reliable, high quality and capable sewing contractors has been a massive challenge. In addition to that, sourcing eco/ethical fabrics and notions is difficult. The industry has not yet caught up with consumer demand.
Second, building a pricing structure that is accessible to a consumer and allows us to build a sustainable and scalable brand. We use ultra-premium sustainable fabrics and local production - our cost base is sometimes 20-50x higher than off-shore brands. However, it’s important to me to make ethical options reasonably affordable which is why we do the majority of our business direct to consumers through our website.
How do you decide what items to make?
We don’t create collections, we launch products. This is very different than most fashion companies who come out with seasonal 35-50 piece collections. In 2017, we’ll launch 10 new designs, and spend up to 6 months perfecting each one prior to launch. Even after launch, we keep iterating to make it the most functional, beautiful and comfortable piece possible.
The design ideation process has admittedly been quite random - I love flexing my creative muscle, and innovating with clothing. Our latest design, the Retrograde Kimono Dress which is a kimono, lightweight jacket and t-shirt dress in one, just popped in my head one day. Now that we have a designer full-time on staff, she’s working on a more concrete plan to expand our design where we know there is opportunities and consumer demand.
Describe your personal style...
Relaxed, modern, edgy-athleisure. I love t-shirts (our Nomadic V-Neck was to fill my own void in the search for the perfect tee), ripped jeans, leggings, moto boots, oversized sweatshirts and sweaters, and basic necklaces/earrings. Less is definitely more for me when it comes to dressing up. The perfect black dress, earrings and a nice heel is all I’ll wear.
I live in Canada, so my winter wear wardrobe definitely is larger than my summer.
What are your favorite Places to shop?
Truth -- I shop a lot at my own brand. I recently bought our minimalist leggings, our new Essential Long sleeved bamboo top and another v-neck (hooked). I live in a fairly small space and keep a minimalist wardrobe so if I’m buying something, it’s with purpose. I do still find it challenging to find ethical brands that are stylish and sustainable, but have a few go-to labels. Bailey 44 (Made in USA) for going-out / dressy tops, yoga jeans (made in Canada), and Chaser (made in USA) for graphic tees.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I’m usually up around 6am to take my puppy out, and into the office by 8am. Encircled’s HQ is open concept, so the day is full of meetings, chatter and getting stuff done. We have a small team of 6 people, so today, I’m focused on marketing strategy, working with our influencers, pitching PR, logistics and managing the overall business operations.
What's been the most rewarding aspect of running Encircled?
The most rewarding part has been seeing the customer interest in ethical fashion evolve over the past few years. When I first started Encircled, people were more interested in the designs than ethics. In the past few years, we’ve seen a strong shift in customers wanting to align their values with their wardrobe, which is exactly our mission. It’s nice to feel like we’re making a difference and people truly get what we’re trying to do and why.
Where would you like to see the brand in 5 years?
As one of the leading ethical womenswear brands in North America.
I believe it can and will happen, we just have to stay the course and keep doing more of what works for us, and play to our strengths.
Internally, I want to bring some of our production in house so that we can truly become an agile fashion brand - produce to demand and ensure fair treatment of workers, while keeping a close eye on quality. In addition, I see us expanding into a retail footprint in 5 years. Our own stores across the country that in addition to being places to showcase our brand and our ethics, will truly become a community hub for experiences, workshops and seminars on topics like minimalism, healthy living, eco-lifestyle, entrepreneurship and travel.
Anything else you'd like to share?
The journey to building a more ethical closet doesn’t need to be all or nothing. Starting with an ethically-made t-shirt, or pair of jeans is an incremental change in the right direction. We encourage our customers it’s about progress, not perfection. We don’t expect customers to toss out their entire closet and replace it with ethical items. The goal is to encourage customers to be more mindful about what they buy, and why.