Interview with Ethical Fashion Designer, Nicole Bridger
Meet Nicole Bridger, ethical fashion design darling to Vancouver and the rest of Canada. Why do we say ‘to the rest of Canada’? Because Nicole was the first Canadian to win Design Forward: Canada’s Sustainable Fashion Award. Being recognized in sustainable materials used, ethical practices and supply chain mapping. We learned quickly that transparency is key when it comes to working with this forward-thinking designer.
A native to Vancouver, Nicole realised early on in life that we live in a beautiful environment that is indeed so precious. While growing and learning about ethical materials, Nicole has worked with well-known designers such as Vivienne Westwood then Chip Wilson, founder of lululemon. There, she created their first eco fashion line called “Oqoqo”. Bridger has made great strides in the eco fashion industry and describes her success due to her strong sense of self and values. Her personal ethics easily translate into her work and is shared by the rest of her team, adding a level of clarity and focus to their core objectives. This is a woman who is deeply grounded on her position in the world and how she is building her authentic community both in store and abroad. Nicole shared so much inspirational content from online brand building to working as a single mother, that we simply had to include all of it. (We think you'll enjoy this particular interview as much as we did!)
1. Were you always interested in sustainable fabrics? Was it always in the back of your mind?
I’ve always had an awareness that we need to take care of our planet. Growing up in Vancouver near the forest and ocean, I was aware that it’s precious. But I had no idea of the severity of the apparel industry had on the planet. When I first went into apparel, I had no idea how I was going to meld my career and values. I felt a responsibility to give back, but not sure how it was going to fit. By working and interning at different places, I started to see the issues. There was a crew of us yogis in school and we wore natural fibers. But we had no idea of the scope of the issues. When I was at (Vivienne) Westwood (she is a total environmentalist and creative being), she showed me that you don’t have to be a shallow a$$hole to be in the fashion industry. You can be whoever it is you want and that was really refreshing as I’m not a ‘fashionista’. When we created Oqoqo (eco-casual wear) in 2006, it was a bit advanced for its time. Clients wondered “why organic? why should we care?” and now they say “that’s awesome” thanks to awareness through social media. To answer your question, those values were always ingrained in me. In my business, personal life, spiritual growth, business and health are all in one. Compared to our parents’ generation where you don’t talk, try to save face and avoid transparency.
2. How has this awareness impacted building an online community?
The tools of social are totally changing the game. Humans are hungry for community and finding themselves through feeling understood. So it’s important to find like-minded people to connect. There’s no more village community and it’s all metropolitan. It’s isolating. Now we’re kind of trying to create a new place of gathering. Especially values-aligned brands are taking place in that. We love hosting events where people are connecting with one another and I love that. Social media allows us to find communities who are aligned with us and it shows us what’s happening in other parts of the world.
3. With your success, transparency has been at the forefront. That’s what we’ve loved about your brand: sharing facts on the factories and their sustainability. Has your community enjoyed seeing this shared information?
I felt like in order to be taken more seriously at first, my values had to be more hidden. To be seen more as a fashion brand first. Because it was really easy to be pocketed into a ‘green designer’ in 2006, which was not seen as cool. Now, that game has totally changed. People are looking for it. So now, we get to share all of it without preaching and we’re simply like “Hey, here’s our stance and if you’re groovy to that, then awesome!”. We’re a tiny team and sharing that takes a lot of work. I think it’s also important to share the struggles as it’s not easy to find eco fabrics and be sure about factories. For example, Patagonia has done a really good job at sharing their hiccups. With transparency, if it’s not authentic, it’s very quickly seen and easy to sniff out. Whatever you’re standing for, it’s got to be shared. So I want to share a post about a fabric that’s pilling quickly and talk about it; how we’re looking to replace it. We take full responsibility for our product (depending on circumstances, of course).
4. This is good for building relationships and building trust!
Totally, ya! We make that product and if it’s not up to our standards, we need to take it back. It’s hard on a tiny company, but it’s important for the long-term.
5. So if you share this online, do you think admitting this fault will aid in growing your community?
I think honestly when you say “Sorry, I screwed up and taking responsibility for it.”, people respect you much more.
6. Now we just want to jump over to a different topic of “Dragons Den”. How did you find being in a different medium like affect the business growth?
I thought it never aired! Someone told me they saw it though. That experience was really good. It came at a time when I was starting to look for investors. I liked that it was a gauntlet of investors and I prepared for what they’d ask. The TV thing doesn’t bother me at all, I’ve always been comfortable speaking on stage.
7. Despite whether or not it aired, it’s great exposure for your brand.
Yes. I wasn’t interested in necessarily getting funded in that situation, but wanted to use it as a marketing tool and increase our online sales. What was really nice was that they spent a lot of time with me (45 minutes). All of them, especially Jim said to not take the money and to do it on my own. It was a great experience and I’m really grateful for their time and advice. I kept going, but I haven’t found my investor yet.
8. Are you still looking for an investor?
Yes. And what I’ve learned that when you’re in a state of panic, it could have been easy to say yes to the wrong thing. If I do find one (an investor) who is really aligned, I have a big pie to share because right now, I still have 100% in ownership.
9. Through business growth, trying to find investors and building online community, you’ve also had to balance this with your personal life. So how has having a child taught you about staying grounded with work?
He is such a mirror. Any time I’m stressed, he’ll let me know in the sweetest, kindest way. So I can’t get upset with that. I have to be like “Ya, you’re right, I’m not being present. I’m here”. I’m a single mom and it’s just the two of us. It’s really lovely to have the privilege to help this little person discover who they are in such a loving way. It is tricky doing it all on my own (after us living with my parents for 6 years), so I’m grateful for the circumstances I’ve gone through.
10. Obviously this taught you a lot about your business as you said your personal and business life are so inter-connected. How are you able translate a lot of this appreciation and groundedness into what you have now?
It made me prioritize. My son comes first, but then if my business isn’t doing well then, we don’t have a life. I’m solely financially responsible for the little guy.
11. How do you balance it now?
I make sure I’m super present. While he’s at school, I exercise and work. I know that I have a very focused schedule. Even when he was born, I’d work 1-2 days per week. My mom would watch him and I’d run up and down the stairs to breast feed him. And you just know “I have 2 hours to get everything done. So, what’s the most important thing to do? And the rest just can’t get done!”
12. Are you more efficient with your time now compared to before having a child? Think about how you worked in your mid 20’s compared to your mid 30’s.
I think the real work is meditating and getting those things aligned. When I’m frantic and spastic, it could take me 13 hours to do something. When I’m aligned and focused, I can get it done in 20 minutes. So, I believe that the real work is the other stuff: mindfulness and connecting with your soul. And this work should be easy and just flow. With that being said with my limited time, the business definitely suffers. I think that things aren’t done to the level that I should be doing them. Thankfully, I have an amazing team who makes it possible for me to be a single mom without child care. I feel like I’m constantly compromising with the business and not getting to do it to the extent that I want it to. So then, I’m thinking of hiring the people who can.
13. What are your goals for your brick and mortar and online store?
I have a hard time thinking short term. My goal has always been to have 60 global stores. I want them to be community building places and show rooms where you connect to the brand. And then the majority of shopping happens online. Technology is so amazing in aiding this. We are doing a lot of pop-ups and people are then shopping online. Then what I’d like to do is open another brick and mortar in one of those pop-up locations. What I’m most excited about it working in developing countries with artisans, crafts people, ethical factories, supporting women in communities. That I see building out too whether it’s co-op style factories in the next 10 or so years.
14. Where would you like to see your next store then?
Toronto, Edmonton or Calgary. Majority of our online sales are coming from Alberta and then Ontario. I’d like to have at least 3 stores in Canada before moving to the U.S., but I’m open to this looking however it’s supposed to be look. If we get to 5 stores and it looks good, then that’s okay. I also want to take the next 2 years to write a book about the journey. My journey inward to connecting to my true self and how that built a conscious brand while mothering. Stories and lessons. So, I’m shifting my focus a little bit to do more speaking and writing. I’d like to be overseeing design and the vision of the business.
15. Is it easy to work from home and communicate with your team if you have to tend to your son?
Yes, it’s nice and we can all have access to files. Only tricky when we’re looking at samples, so we need to be together. I think it’s because the people who are on the team, they’re leaders and motivated. I don’t need to be watching them. I’m not a micro-manager at all. I expect you to be able to do it better than I could at all (she says laughing).
16. Any advice to anyone who wants to launch their own clothing line?
I think really listening to your inner voice because others are going to say all kinds of other things. You need to trust it and go with it. As far as tactical advice, spend as little money as possible. Bootstrap it and you’ll make it work. Don’t sink too much money into any product. Make sure you test the product before you launch the stock. That’s where I screwed up. And one thing Chip Wilson always said, which always held true was to never pay for advertising and make a story worth telling.
- JM -
Interested in Nicole Bridger brand? You can find their site here and be sure to follow them through social media as they continue to grow and educate through fastion.
If you're interested in other stories in the fashion industry, be sure to check out our interview with Elim Chu, Personal Stylist.