How a small company advocated gender-equitable clothing
Entrepreneur E Leifer wants a stylish world in which gender no longer plays a role in how we dress or wear. After two decades in the fashion industry, Leifer co-founded Play Out Apparel, acted as chief design officer and shaped the future of “gender-sensitive clothing”. Mission-driven beyond their product lines, Leifer and his team strive to be intersectional in the communities they nurture and have made a goal since day one to donate 20% of their net profits to Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ + nonprofits .
Like most companies, Play Out Apparel took a hit in March 2020 when the pandemic crippled most of the world. As clothing production and orders came to a standstill, Leifer and Co. had to rethink their business methods and re-prioritize their importance to them. Bustle recently spoke to Leifer about what it was like to run her own clothing line in a turbulent year, what inspires her, and how Play Out Apparel got back into business thanks to the brand’s extremely loyal customer base.
Why are you doing the work that you are doing?
I come from a long career in the fashion industry and have seen how this industry excludes, marginalizes and belittles people who just have stylish clothing in a wide range of sizes and want to see themselves represented in advertising. People don’t want to feel like they have to be “someone else” to wear a certain brand. I buy in my assets and see my expenses as a means of power. Play Out Apparel is a company that doesn’t make “other” people. We have built a company that essentially stands for equality, representation and individuality. Fulfilling this need drives me as a person and designer, and that drives our founder and CEO Abby Sugar as well.
What was it like doing business before vs. during the pandemic?
The biggest difference before the pandemic was that we could be “hands-on” with our customers and our brand advertising. We could do “pop-up” shops, personal events in stores selling our products, and we even had a beach volleyball team that we sponsored every summer. Product shoots with models coming together and interacting are also very important to us and that was put on hold during the pandemic. So we had to be creative in how we communicate products on our websites and on social media.
Were there any “light bulb moments” during Covid-19 due to the challenges you faced as a small fashion business owner?
Since we as a small company were physically separated from each other during the shelter-in-place and could not order or receive any new products, we have rethought, reinvented and rescheduled our entire marketing and production channels for 2020. This year we took what we learned and realized that we can “move up” in the future. We saw that we could be more agile in terms of employee locations and team communication, and we built in apps that gave us the flexibility to source all sorts of content from around the world.
How did you maintain a positive and productive perspective over the past year?
We have always been committed to agility as a team and as a company, but we never thought it would be as practical as it was in 2020. We knew early on that we had to keep rolling with the beat and stay true to our long-term vision, no matter what happens. We thought if we could get through this, we could get through almost anything. We took every victory, no matter how small, and always put one foot in front of the other. Our mission to serve and support our community has also helped us a lot in staying positive.
What technologies or innovations have you used to navigate Covid-19 and beyond?
So many amazing platforms have developed in that time. We have moved our influencer relationship management to Influence.co so that we have everything in one place and access to thousands of ambassadors and influencers who align with our brand values.
We have streamed events on Twitch, hosted panels on Zoom, been on panels in the clubhouse, integrated apps into our Shopify store, really branched out on TikTok, and are constantly exploring every new platform, device, and plugin we hear about. The days when you could only rely on paid Facebook ads are obviously over and entirely new, global communities are slowly taking their place.
What were your big losses and big wins over the past year?
Our biggest loss was time, production, and delivery windows, and we didn’t have creative control over the content we relied on to sell products because we couldn’t work directly with the models on shoots. We had to reinvent the entire year that was planned for the first quarter. But in the end our victories far outweighed these losses.
We were able to launch two new collections and virtually expand our team. Above all, we were able to virtually woo our current COO – the former H&M Country Manager Mexico, John Lackner – and win him as a partner last September. It is also a great asset to know that we as a team can withstand the pressure and uncertainty that 2020 has brought with it. 2020 was a pivotal moment for our business, and the lessons we have learned about what we can overcome and advance will be carried far into the future.
What is your advice to small business owners who are still trying to get back on their feet?
Owning a business is a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it when you can see that your mission is connected to your audience. Don’t be afraid to take risks, but always think about your “why”. Remembering why you started a business will keep you energized when things are overwhelming or obstacles arise. Don’t be afraid to address yourself either. Share your mission with everyone and understand what you need so that you can connect with people and work with them to move your business forward.
This interview has been edited and shortened for the sake of clarity.