Making It: Startup Advice from the Founder & Designer of Gamine

It was at least 60 seconds before Taylor Johnston and I realized we were both in the same coffee shop to meet but had sat down at different tables.

“Are you Shannon?” she asked from the table across from mine. Sipping on our morning caffeine fix (her’s hot, mine iced), we talked shop and connected over the (very limited) sustainable fashion scene in Boston.

Taylor is the designer and founder of Gamine, a line of women’s workwear made entirely in the USA (the word ‘gamine’ means ‘a girl with mischievous or boyish charm’). Launching with the perfect pair of raw denim, durable dungarees, Taylor almost immediately sold out of her first production-run.

We began the conversation with Taylor telling me about the time a photographer from The New York Times came to photograph the Isabella Gardner Museum where Taylor works in the gardens. She said she was wearing a grubby, oversized sweatshirt and felt completely out of sorts while having her photo taken. From that experience, she realized there was a need for functional women’s workwear that was both presentable and flattering while still being able to withstand manual labor.

Throughout the conversation, we bonded over our similar starts in the fashion industry without backgrounds in fashion, our love/hate relationships with social media, and Taylor’s recent purchase of a new house in the small hometown where I grew up.

Today, Taylor is sharing her unique story with the Factory45 community and offering her best entrepreneurial advice.

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1.) Tell us about the inspiration behind Gamine. What sparked you to take the plunge and get over any uncertainty about the idea?

The inspiration for Gamine grew out of my work as a horticulturist. Over the last decade, I’ve tried everything: menswear, big box store clothes, mountaineering gear, high-end knockoffs (looks like workwear, but the quality can’t stand up to the abuse in the field), and of course, anything falling in the brown duck cloth category. I couldn’t find anything that was both functional and polished when you’re digging around in dirt all day. So I decided to fix the problem.

My only feeling of uncertainty was right before I launched — I wanted to make sure my jeans stood up to the “denim snobs” or “workwear nerds” out there. My hope was to create something that was both wearable in the field and totally lived up to the standard set for domestic denim brands. It’s important to do American workwear, especially denim, justice.

2.) What was the initial market response to your launch? Is it what you were expecting?

It’s been unreal. I never thought we would hear from so many women from around the world. We sold out almost immediately and are almost sold out of our pre-orders for our next production run. I am really grateful for the positive response and hope to continue to connect in a positive way with such an inspiring community of hardworking, creative women.

3.) What do you attribute to your early success? How do you think it can be translated to other early-stage companies?

I’m not even sure I would call what’s happening a success yet, but thanks! My hope is that the momentum we are generating is due to solving a real world problem and doing so in a thoughtful way. It’s easy to cut corners or find ways around sustainable/domestic production, but you have to take the long view and think about how your decisions play out over the lifetime of the company. It’s important to think about how you can positively affect micro-economies and hopefully improve the quality of life of someone who either produces or purchases your product.

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I also think it’s really important to connect a product or brand with a story. My good friend Chet of Big Scary Monsters created an unbelievable website for us. It’s the most effective way to show that we are a “for us, by us” type of brand. (And yeah, that was totally a FUBU reference.) But in all seriousness, a clear story and a great website are the best way for people to understand your unique perspective and worldview.

4.) What advice do you have for designers who are trying to set up a supply chain in the U.S.?

Research every aspect of your supply chain and get to know the people making your products. It’s important to form relationships with everyone contributing to your product so that there is a real life and soul to every item. I think we lucked out in working with such great folks, from our patternmaker to manufacturer, and it is the frosting on the cake to know that with each sale we’re supporting someone we care about.

5.) What mistakes did you make that yielded high-value lessons?

Where to begin! I should say I don’t really believe in mistakes — it’s all about learning to do things better. I suppose our biggest “mistake” to date has been being super conservative with getting ourselves out there.

As a gardener I’m a bit quiet and not super used to talking to so many people, so I never anticipated how many like-minded, eager, and amazing women there were out there that felt the same way I did about workwear. Even after the initial response (which was marvelous), we were still a little reluctant to fully engage. Three months in, we are starting to break down the wall and get more comfortable with outreach.

But to be real, I’m pretty sure Twitter will always be super awkward for me — it feels like I’m having a conversation with myself. In public.

I love Taylor’s candid perspective on entrepreneurship and going past her comfort zone — to get in touch with her or to check out her growing inventory of made in the USA and organic apparel, visit Gamine here.