Imagine it is the height of summer and all you have to wear is polyester clothing. Or other synthetic fibres. No natural, breathable materials. And you have to dress up for work every day. Soon, because your skin is irritated, red and blotchy, so are you, making you a nightmare to be around. So far, so bad. Now imagine you are pregnant, your body temperature is naturally a bit higher and your skin a bit more sensitive. But all you have to wear is uncomfortable, non-breathable materials. Sounds bad? It is. So bad that entrepreneur Elle Wang decided to found Emilia George, the first ever 100 percent sustainable maternity and nursing wear line.
At the time, Wang was pregnant herself and had enough of seven months of hot, itchy misery. She had also spoken to many moms-to-be and they all agreed that maternity wear was something one “got through and over with” and never looked back again. Because pregnancy is such a short time in a woman’s life, they were also not ready to invest in a new wardrobe. But this is where Wang disagrees.
Pregnancy should be celebrated, not forgotten
“Pregnancy is such a special time in a woman’s life, for many a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Yet, women don’t want to be seen as beautiful when they should pamper themselves and invest in good, comfortable clothing that does not make them and their skin irritable. Let’s really celebrate pregnancy. That’s why people take beautiful photo shoots; they want to remember that period and not wear their husband’s old shirts,” she says. Thus, Emilia George was born (George is the name of her son and Emilia is a girl’s name she really likes).
From the beginning, Wang was sure that the quality of the fabric was not something she wanted to compromise on. Today, the label uses three eco-friendly fabrics in its collections: bamboo, cupro and Tencel-Luxe. While bamboo is naturally cooling and breathable, cupro is a cotton by-product that is a popular alternative to silk as it is soft with a subtle sheen, and Tencel-Luxe is an eco-friendly fiber sourced from eucalyptus trees.
Given these high-quality and thus expensive fabrics plus Emilia George’s small quantity requirements, the thought of starting a commercial label seemed almost impossible. But Wang persisted and convinced people with her vision, determination and the quality of her products.
Producing high-quality maternity wear in small quantities seemed impossible
Initially, Wang produced close to where she lives in Manhattan, right in the garment district, by a small boutique store that sewed her pieces. Though convenient and cost-effective in terms of transport, long-term production in New York was neither sustainable nor affordable. So Wang also put her feelers out towards production in China, which is her country of origin. “There are so many ways for you to achieve a goal - for example being stuck on making in the US or exploring the supply chain,” she iterates.
Soon she found a Chinese company she liked - she met them at Texworld in New York - but they did not want to work with her. “I said: I don’t have an office, I don’t have a website - will you help me?,” Wang remembers. They said no. “We only work with high-quality women’s wear,” was the answer. But Wang kept in touch, sent press coverage about her brand as it picked up speed and grew and finally convinced them to start a trial run with her.
Then Wang went to China to take a look at the factories herself - fortunately before the lockdown - and now the first summer collection will be made in China. “The factories I finally picked in China, you just have to do your homework, which brands have they been working with, you have to meet the people, the factories,” she advises and adds that she talks to her contacts at the factory every day, once her 13-months-old son has gone to sleep.
Careful selection of suppliers pays off in times of crisis
This careful selection and investing in contacts pays off, especially now in times of the Covid-19 crisis, as the business relationship developed organically and Wang is aware of the situation on site. “Human interaction is important, the level of trust and building that connection,” confirms Wang. Plus, she has her mother as a local contact. Now retired, the veteran with 15 years of experience in the textile business recently visited the factories for an update on the situation and quality control. That alone saves precious time as samples do not have to be couriered back and forth and then approved.
“It’s a mother-daughter team and my mom is managing most of the production and operations while I am here to connect with all the women out there from my first-hand experiences and tell the story of Emilia George,” explains Wang.
Today, every Emilia George piece is 100 percent sustainable and recycled, produced in small batches, and nearly all are Oeko-Tex certified, defining them as safe for nursing infants. All Emilia George pieces are also thoughtfully designed with discreet nursing capabilities for easy pump access, and the enduringly classic designs are perfect for any occasion during pregnancy and throughout motherhood.
But Wang thinks about her customers in the current coronavirus situation too and the fact that wearing masks is here to stay for a while. Needless to say, a piece of cloth that is worn so close to the face should be made of the best of fabric and be breathable yet effective. That is why Wang checked with her supplier who is making her popular Irene dress, which is made 100 percent of cupro. She found out that there were enough waste pieces to make sustainable face masks and this is what the factory is currently doing. The response was so good that Wang is even working with government agencies to help make them in bulk. As for her customers, Wang will gift them a mask with each item they buy.
Maternity wear has become cool - even for women who are not pregnant
“That is the beauty of my company, the mission to create beautiful clothes,” says Wang. “I came from a consumer perspective. I was a member of all the mom groups, I love bonding with other moms, it’s just the kind of message and positive vibes that I like to share. I had a different approach, I wanted to make maternity wear cool,” says the busy entrepreneur who has still kept her day job and describes herself as a “storm chaser type of personality”.
That she succeeded with this goal shows the fact that half of her customers are women who are not pregnant and do not plan to be in the near future. They just like the quality and designs of the elegant and yet practical pieces, making them perfect for office wear and formal occasions. Asked about a typical Emilia George customer - if she exists - Wang said that the women who buy her clothes want to wear them longer and buy less in general. Instead, they invest in lasting pieces.
In the future, Wang is hoping to offer better sustainable alternatives to the current expensive fabrics and high production costs. While the US will remain the strongest market for a while, there is a lot of interest coming from Europe, especially the Scandinavian countries and the UK. Eventually, Emilia George is planning to enter the Chinese market as well but keeps in mind that it is a very different market that requires a different approach. Yet, there is certainly a new generation of moms out there who are looking to be more stylish. We certainly wish them and Emilia George all the best.
Photos: courtesy of Emilia George