This is the latest entry in a series called Who Owns That. We’ve asked readers on our LinkedIn group to identify their favourite small businesses from across Canada, and we track down the owners so they can tell us their stories. Their answers are edited.
Introducing Nicole Bridger, owner of a self-titled fashion line for“a new generation of women who want to look effortlessly chic while maintaining a commitment to the earth and its people.”
1. Let’s start with the basics. Can you briefly describe your business, including when it was founded, what it does, and where you operate?
My first collection was in 2007, and then we opened our first store in the spring of 2011, in the Kitsilano neighbourhood of Vancouver. We currently wholesale to about 25 stores across North America, and our big goal is to have 20 stores by 2020, hoping to build store No. 2 next fall.
We bought our factory a year ago, a garment factory in Vancouver about 10 minutes away from our store. It’s been one of the best factories in the city for about 20 years, and it’s a factory I had been using since 2007. The owners wanted to retire, so I bought it. We distribute out of our warehouse for online and our one retail location, for now.
We create ethical clothing for the modern conscious woman. Our mantra is “I am love,” which is about coming from a place of love in all that you do. I use all sustainable fabrics and low-impact dyes. The fabrics are coming from renewable or recycled resources. We also use all ethical manufacturing, 90 per cent of which is at our factory in Vancouver, the other 10 per cent at a fair-trade factory in Nepal.
We rely heavily on different certifications, not just for the factories but also for the mills that we use, assuring me that people are being paid fair wages and working in decent environments and they are using less harmful chemicals and disposing of them in a safe way.
We sew a label that says “I am love” into each piece of clothing, and that’s a reminder to the wearer to come from that place of love in their own world – whether that’s when they’re getting dressed and being kinder to themselves, we really promote loving yourself the way you are. But it also promotes people being an agent of love in their own world: how they treat others around them, and when they feel good about themselves they have more to give to their day. That’s the philosophy behind the company.
2. What inspired you to be an entrepreneur and to launch this business?
I started sewing when I was 13, but I never thought it would be a decent career. My dad’s a dentist and my mother’s a nurse. I thought I should be a vet. I’ve also been very ambitious – I was doing Bio 12 in grade 11 – it was at that time that I met my first love, Adrian, and his father is the local shoe designer John Fluevog. Through that I saw I could do what I loved doing and make a career out of it.
At 16, I decided that I wanted to have my own clothing line and my own retail shops and from that point it was: “What do I need to learn, where do I need to learn, and from who? And how do I get to this end point?”
I went to Ryerson University and studied fashion design – I didn’t even know there was such a degree until then. I always knew I wanted to start a business, it was just a matter of when. After I created Oqoqo for the founder of Lululemon, Chip Wilson, from ’03 until ’05, I was ready to go out on my own. That relationship was all about me learning how to start a business from scratch, how to market, how to make money, how to mass produce. That’s where it came from.
I often get asked about the environmental side of it. To be honest, that’s just how I grew up. I grew up in Vancouver, we always recycled, every school play I did was about saving the planet. I grew up with an awareness that we need to be conscious of the way we’re being. I can’t turn those values off, they’re just ingrained in the business.
I believe in treating people with respect and kindness. That’s a big part not only of the consumer-facing part of the company but also within our company, the culture that we have, which is awesome. It’s great to come to work every day.
3. Who are your typical customers, and how do they find you?
Our customers range from 25 to 65, but our core customers are 35 to 45. They’re usually professionals, they probably have young kids, they lead really busy, active lives. They’re the kind of women who are sort of modern and they are really trying their best to do it all. They’re trying to buy organic food when they can, do their part, and looking good is important but it needs to work for their lifestyles.
Our typical customer is busy. She needs to go from day to night, work to play. She’s not an activist or a perfectionist, but she loves that she can feel good about her purchase with us, and that we make it easy for her. When she comes into the store it’s a calm, inviting, authentic experience and that’s what she loves.
She finds us most of the time through word of mouth. Our clients are really loyal and they tell their friends all about us, or they walk by, or they search for us on the Internet or through social media. We also hold regular events, and we do fundraisers or seminars, and that helps bring in new people and introduce them to the brand.
4. What is your role in the company? How many employees do you have?
We have 21 employees, and my role is head designer and leader, looking at where the company is going and how we’re getting there. I do more of the entrepreneurial roles of financing the business, managing my managers, making sure we’re hitting targets and staying within budget.
5. You’ve been identified by one of our readers as a standout business. What do you consider the key elements of your success?
I would say it’s our integrity. What we are creating is from the heart, and we’re doing it in a special way. There are a lot of clothing brands out there but I believe what we have created is a bit different and special, and that our clients can feel that, and appreciate that.
There’s a movement happening now where people no longer want to be disconnected from the way their clothes have been made, especially after what happened in Bangladesh and Cambodia. With social media spreading what’s going on with the chemicals in our waterways and stuff, people are educated and aware, and they want to be making the right choices with their dollars. I think that’s a big part of our success.
I do a lot of speaking engagements. When people see me talk they’re like, “yeah, that’s somebody I want to buy from and feel good about.” Or if they come in and have an incredible experience with my store manager, who remembers their name and what they bought, they just really value that kind of experience.
It’s going to become the norm. The consumer is demanding more transparency, so you’ll be seeing it more and more. Lucky for us, we started that way instead of having to change things.