Since I was luckily enough to partner with Dear Kate earlier this year, I've quite literally lived in their yoga pants and undies. No joke. I wear these pants every single day, wear their underwear as often as it's clean, and at some point plan to revamp my entire undie drawer so that it's filled with Dear Kate – preferably with pieces from their new Jackie collection.
I was super pumped to have the opportunity to ask Dear Kate's founder, Julie Sygiel, a few questions about her life as a business owner, badass person, feminist, fellow-Southern gal, and straight-up chemical engineer.
Without further ado, let's go Behind The Scenes with Julie of Dear Kate:
Hi Julie! Tell me a little about your background. What inspired you to start Dear Kate?
JULIE SYGIEL: I grew up in a small town in Kentucky and would say that I’ve always had an interest in fashion and feminism. I read every page of my Teen Vogue subscription and in high school I designed/sewed my prom dress (it involved 17 yards of lavender tulle). I was also a Girl Scout for 12 years and sold over 10,000 boxes of Girl Scout cookies. I wasn’t sure how to translate my interests to a job so when I started working on Dear Kate, the notion that I could create and then market a product that is fashionable, plus makes women's lives easier, was a dream come true. It checked all of my boxes in a way that I didn't know was possible and just felt "right." Once I started working on the business idea, it was addictive and became all I thought about.
The business plan for Dear Kate was hatched in my college entrepreneurship class. At first it was a fun, unique idea (especially given that our class was 80% male), and then the longer we worked on it, the more committed I became to actually creating the underwear. Once I got started, it snowballed into collaborating with textile development teams at fabric manufacturers to create our patent-pending fabric, Underlux. Instead of having to totally outsource product development, my science background allowed me to be the one guiding everything from the fabric to the designs to the construction and fit of the product, which is something that I continue to be very involved in today as we develop new products.
What’s your favorite thing about being a designer and a small business owner? Least favorite thing?
JS: Favorite thing: The freedom and street cred that you get for diving in and going out on your own.
Least Favorite thing: The addiction to work. Sometimes I’m on a date and I’m thinking to myself, “I’d rather be working right now.” Obvs work ethic is super important when you have a business, however, along the lines of “work hard, play hard,” I often wish I were better at playing hard.
What’s something about your job that people would be surprised to hear?
JS: I try on all of our new designs personally in the office bathroom and since we work in a co-working space, almost every woman here has seen me in my underwear.
Dear Kate is much more than a line of performance wear. It’s more like a movement, thanks to your implied messaging about body acceptance and female empowerment. (Side note – I love that you’re not preachy about it, and more just DO it rather than talk about doing it.) Why was that important to you, and what have you found the response to be?
JS: It’s not something we always did because so many people told me to pick my battles. They said that we were already pushing back on the conventional function of underwear, so we should be as vanilla as possible with our models and photos. At one point we had a conversation in the office about how cool it would be to do a photoshoot depicting women in action, doing things rather than simply looking hot for the camera, and it stuck. We asked one of our friends to model in a limited edition sport set and then asked a trapeze artist to model while flying through the air. The rest was history as we found these lookbooks to be more personally aspirational and kept doing it. Soon after that we added plus sizes (which we call queen sizes because that’s the language used in garment patterns—kind of cool right?). When we were looking for our queen models, many of my larger friends told me that they were tired of seeing size 10 models trying to represent 1X and above. A couple models came in for a casting and I was amazed at how comfortable they were posing for test shots in underwear. That night I remember going home and thinking to myself when I looked in the mirror, “Wait, would I look better if I had more curves?” That was the first time that I acknowledged that the media does have an effect on my self-image perception. It’s not that curves aren’t beautiful — it’s that I hadn’t seen them exposed, ever, and after that, I felt a responsibility to be a company that showcases all different body shapes.
You mostly avoid using professional models in your product and lookbook shots. Can you talk a little about that decision?
JS: We strive to create aspirational and inspirational content at Dear Kate. As soon as we started showing women doing things in photos, it became crystal clear to me that those images were more aspirational than regular lingerie ads. I’d personally rather be known for what I do than for how I look, and I think while that doesn’t resonate with all women, it’s a perspective that is shared among many ambitious movers and shakers who we consider our potential customers. Rather than asking models to pretend to do things in shoots, we realized it made more sense to invite women with expertise to model for us. Featuring someone who is known for something other than modeling changed the role of the woman in the shoot—rather than being in the lookbook simply to make our products look good, she was part of the story.
Walk us through the process of a Dear Kate piece – from idea to finished piece.
JS: I usually keep an eye out for designs that catch my eye — everything from lingerie to art prints that have good color pairing. I’ll sketch a few different design ideas and share them with Heidi, our Operations Director. She then gives me feedback on what’s feasible to produce and sometimes if there are a few options, we’ll do a poll on Instagram to get feedback on styles or colors. Then Heidi makes the pattern, the factory we work with in NYC makes a sample, and Isabella, our Marketing and Creative Coordinator, and I try it on. We then give fit feedback, Heidi revises the pattern, the factory makes another sample, and we try on. Hopefully there are only two fittings, however, we have done more than seven cycles in some cases to make sure it’s right. The pattern then goes to the graders who make it for every size in the collection, and then the patterns all go back to the factory where they can be used for production on the final pieces.
You’re originally from Kentucky! Is there anything you miss about the South?
JS: I love the South and was actually just in Savannah, Georgia this weekend! In addition to the obvious friends and family that are in Kentucky, I miss the food. There are a few places here where I can get biscuits and gravy, but they just aren’t the same as the ones at home.
What’s the one thing you want people to walk away knowing about Dear Kate?
JS: That we’re pushing the boundaries of society’s view on women.
And just for fun:
What’s one book everyone should read? One movie?
JS: "The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P." by Adelle Waldman. It’s a brilliant piece of fiction that depicts a relationship from the male point of view.
"An Education". I love the take away from this movie — that things can get really messy and still turn out ok.
If you weren’t living in New York, where would you live?
JS: I’m not sure, probably another large city like LA, San Fran, or London (I’d get to hang out with you!). (Editor's Note: Yes please!)
What woman or brand/line do you think is killing it right now?
JS: Erin Bagwell is the Director of the documentary, Dream, Girl. I love how she has moved forward incredibly fast from the idea to fundraising to filming. She’s telling stories of female entrepreneurs that need to be heard on a large scale so young women and girls have public role models and see women succeeding in the business world. Disclaimer: I’m interviewed in the film :)
Isn't she amazing? Thank you, Julie!