Marli for Gc2b was interviewed on Sept. 14th, 2018 by Kelly Reddy-Best via Zoom. The interview was 50 minutes. The oral history transcript reflects the history of the brand at the time of the interview.
Oral History Video
Oral History Transcript
MARLI: I grew up in the same county as where our office now, which is Prince George’s County, Maryland. I lived in a suburban area.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Can you tell me about your educational background, both formal and informal?
MARLI: Mm-hm (affirmative). I went to art school after high school. I initially went in for photography, but I went to the University of Arts in Philadelphia and they have something called “foundational year,” which is to try out different things, and they just want you to hit the basic stuff, and then sophomore year, you choose your major. So I heard about industrial design, and I didn’t know that it existed. As I recall, I thought, “I can make stuff and design things. This is what everything around us comes from. Someone designed it. That stuff is really what I want to do.” So, I studied that in college and I have a Bachelor’s of Science. Then informally… The University of Arts offers an incubator through their business center called the Corzo Center. I took that for a few weeks, but it actually wasn’t for starting a business, it was just to get some background. I started right after school. I started right after I graduated, so I didn’t really have time to take any other classes.
REDDY-BEST: So, your work history is that you went to college, and then started gc2b. Was there anything in between, or anything else?
MARLI: So, actually… I was still able to work with my clients, I had a kind of a break down senior year, and so I didn’t get to finish on time. I didn’t actually graduate on time. I had an extension over the summer to complete my senior thesis, and I had to present that before fall to get my degree. So, in between that time, I was completing my thesis, and since I didn’t have a degree on paper so I knew I couldn’t get a job. That’s why I actually started gc2b, it was because I had the time. I needed to do something, in between not completing and graduating and being able to apply for jobs.
REDDY-BEST: How would you describe your personal clothing style?
MARLI: It fluctuates. It’s definitely taken a while for me to accept that I’m a transman and I’m not non-binary. I’m not gender fluid. So, I definitely express that in my clothing and am definitely masculine. Sometimes I’m plain and it also depends on how, how I feel about myself. Recently, I’ve been on testosterone. I started testosterone five months ago, so I’m feeling better about myself, so I’m wearing more tight-fitting clothing because my body is starting to redistribute and I feel more comfortable in my own skin. It’s actually funny because some days I’m like, “Okay I want to wear a button-up and Oxfords, and a belt and look super-professional and then other days I’m just like, “Okay, I’m going to wear my blue striped Adidas pants and a cool T-shirt. It really goes back and forth. It’s really anything, really.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: When did you begin thinking about thinking about creating the company?
MARLI: Early in my senior year. I had started my thesis. I thought I could handle two projects and I kind of could, but as I said, I had a breakdown, so I really couldn’t. My thesis was actually about kid’s nutrition, “game-ifying” that with a toy product and so they were completely different things. But I knew I needed this, so I made it. I knew that other people could use it too, so I did some prototypes and some user-testing with some people that I met in Philadelphia, who were actually the first transmen that I’ve ever met. That’s when things started to become clear for me. I knew that if I had to move back home, I wouldn’t have that community.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Was that 2015?
MARLI: That was 2014.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: 2014. And then-
MARLI: Yeah, so, I graduated in 2014 and I started selling October of 2014.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Oh. Okay. What is the significance of the name.
MARLI: It’s actually kind of homage to my parents who were clothing designers. They had a junior line, urban clothing, back in the late ‘90s, early 2000s. Then the recession hit and it kind of fell apart, so they still had all of the access to their fabrics, and their knowledge, and their machines. They actually started clothing for exotic dancers, because that was the one industry that wasn’t really going anywhere. So, that kind of put me through college, and but the name of their original company was GC2, or Gear Company.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: And the B is?.
MARLI: It’s separating mine from theirs.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Yeah. Part A, part B or something.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Cool. [laughs]
MARLI: A lot of people ask, and it’s just a drawn out story, so I really didn’t want it to be super obvious, you know, having queer in the name, but it is gc2b transitional apparel, so that clarifies it. People make it what they want it to be. Now it’s Go Create to Be, for me personally, because I knew that in order to be what I wanted to be I have to go and create this thing and just constantly create in order to be happy with myself.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Then can you tell me about the business model of your brand, how does it work? Is it e-commerce or …
MARLI: Yeah. So, we’re all e-commerce. Then, at times, we sell in person or during conferences, and at their first pride this year, which was crazy. So we have our manufacturers and we give them orders. We receive all of the product here. The office that we’re in now is just 4,000 square feet, so we have customer service in here, and our shipment team, and storage. We run through Shopify, and orders come in, and in the backend we ship them out, and then customer service just deals with any inquiries and order issues and size help. We’ve had a lot of people ask for wholesale prices, but I think the nature of the product with the knitting, custom sizing, and the high possibility of needing exchange doesn’t lend itself to wholesale. I feel that if I let other stores sell it then it will kind of take away from the brand. I don’t want people having issues and not having our customer service handle it, which is great. We have a 90 – 99.7% size-factory rating, so I don’t want to tarnish that, or our reputation.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: On your website, every time I was going to a different spot, it was like, “do you need help? Do you need help?”
MARLI: Yeah, because a lot of people are nervous to ask, and I think if you are getting your first binder, and realizing that that’s something you want to do, is in itself a huge process, so I think even reaching out to the people providing that to you, still you makes some people nervous. We get all types of inquiries. People talk to us about coming out and stuff, and that’s not our job, but a lot of our customer service team can relate to the customers, so it’s hard to automate.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Can you tell me about your products? You offer binders, and you have some T-shirts, are there other products that I missed beyond that?
MARLI: No, you didn’t miss anything, but we are coming out with packing shorts, and we’re working on the patent for that now. That was actually designed three years ago, but it’s hard to grow, and then also re-stock, and then also deal with the personal lifestyle. We’re ready to release, so hopefully that will be out by Christmas, by the holiday selling season.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Can you tell me about your company, what does it look like for you? What do you do? Everything?
MARLI: Yeah! Recently, we switched around some employees, so I have been filling in, in shipping, and I haven’t shipped in three years. The past two weeks I’ve been coming in, almost every day, making sure orders get out. Creative direction is definitely my second job duty. I have an assistant graphic designer, and they are really good technically so, we usually discuss the vision, and go back and forth with graphics. It’s mostly for Instagram, seeing what sells and stuff. It’s also a lot of planning and community stuff, and marketing, keeping up-to-date with the things that are happening in the community, and outside of the community, to make successful marketing campaigns, and seeing what we can really learn from them, not necessarily recreate them, but mostly just learning for now, to use in the future. And then I handle all the financials. I pay everybody. [laughs]
KELLY REDDY-BEST: You’re an important person.
MARLI:[laughs] Yeah. Kind of, yeah. There’s always something coming up, using inter-office, inter-personnel things, knitting and things. There’s always something new so … have to be. I’m definitely going to do anything. It doesn’t necessarily mean I know how to do everything.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: How many other people work with you?
MARLI: 15. Yeah.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Can you tell us about some process and talk about how you go from concept to final product?
MARLI: I feel that user-testing is at the core of any successful design, so there was a lot of that, even if it was just taking something in. All of that is something that needs to be done, so there’s a lot of that. There’s a lot of prototyping small changes in patterns, and there’s just a lot to consider. There was a lot to consider because it has to bind, but it also can’t restrict it. So, I think that evolution of how to actually get that done, and then, what pieces to put together, was when I figured out that all I really needed was a non-stretch front, instead of trying to completely restrict people. That was my moment, and from then it was mostly tweaks and material research. I needed something non-stretch, that’s not itchy and doesn’t shrink when you wash it, but the inner material can possibly shrink, so buying something sturdy enough that’s going to hold the rigidity in the form in the front, but not be too solid.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: I’m assuming that in industrial design school – that’s the whole process that you learned there?
MARLI: Yeah. I more so learnt the theory of how important that it is in different methods, but we didn’t specifically learn pattern making. If you were a furniture person, then you found your own resources to teach yourself that, and if you were into clothing or printing, everyone had their own means. We were all briefed on a lot of this stuff, but we weren’t taught how to saw or how to really stitch. A lot of it is self-taught.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Do you produce in the US? Do you produce the stuff that you design.
MARLI: Yeah, it’s all in the US.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Is it near Maryland?
MARLI: Mm-hm (affirmative). I actually employed my parents. They started one factory with us in Maryland. Then, we were just growing so fast and I was kind of getting upset with them that they couldn’t work faster. I found a dedicated manufacturer in Baltimore, and then, that guy, after working with us, he started to be able to rebuild his business, too. He’s been in the game for maybe 40 years and he had to shut down one factory, but then, he was able to reopen it. So, he made that one and dedicated it to us as well. Then, we also needed a third manufacturer. There’s four on-locations that manufacturers.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Do you source your material in the US, as well, or does that come from other places?
MARLI: They’re sourced from here, but I’m not really sure where those people get it from.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Right.
MARLI: I’m sure they import it themselves, but they are US distributors. We’re not directly getting it from overseas, but I can’t really tell you where they’re getting it from. Sometimes for our new lines, we have to custom dye once we run out of stuff. I know that that’s definitely done here, but that’s probably done to white fabric that’s bought somewhere else.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: What do you think has been most successful for your brand so far?
MARLI: Social media was such a huge help and I think we now know, but I think initially we didn’t know. We actually became one of the largest social media pages for transmasculine and genderqueer people who you know want to be on, and get advice from the page, in the comment sections and stuff like that. It was kind of a place to celebrate and be body positive, when we’re showing people and their binders. I find that just going through seeing other people hype up the person in the photos is really beautiful, of course we still have to police it for negativity, because there’s a lot of that. However, I think that the community that what we’ve created, in the sense, is successful. I’m also proud of knowing how many lives we’ve changed. When I did a lot of customer service I was just reading letters or reading some emails, and I really couldn’t believe it, people were really saying that now they’re able to leave the house because of us. I’ve been in a place where I wasn’t able to leave the house for other reasons, but not because of dysphoria, and just sort of realizing how deep a lot of this goes, for a lot of people, and how one product just changed that. I think it’s just that’s what has been really successful and where really cool stuff happens. So, my answer is social media and changing people’s life are what has been most successful.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: What are you most proud of?
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Yeah.
MARLI: Not, like, from the business?
MARLI: I think, personally, the adaptability, and the drive, because I feel that there’s a point. here where it’s just, you’re going too fast and doing lots of work all day, and I had to bring on my family member to help me ship, and my best friend to help me answer emails, and then if someone asked if I needed help and I would say, “yeah.” I think the adaptability, just keeping things moving and really doing whatever it takes to get as much stock as we can, because we’re doing inventory, making sure everything goes out, and making sure customers are happy, and getting an office together, because we have no room. So, adaptability and, I think, drive, because I don’t know how I could have been, “Oh, this is too much, we’re just going to be a super small, and only have a limited amount of inventory, and that’s it,” but I didn’t want that, so I just did my best to try to grow it, and also adapt to some of the growth that I didn’t expect.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: And then, was there anything that surprised you in the beginning?
MARLI: Yeah, just how fast it grew really. I think I hit six sales, six or eight sales my first day, and I was 16, and then the next week it was 36, and then it just kept going up. I couldn’t believe it. I had really thought it was just going to be something to hold me over until I could get a job at a firm.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Mm-hm (affirmative).
MARLI: Yeah, so I guess the growth was what really surprised me. Does that answer it, or is there something specific? I feel that I’m not surprised that much anymore, because I think that was probably just one of the biggest surprises that just really changed everything, so anything after that is just something that comes with it.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Then what are or were some of the struggles that you experienced?
MARLI: Just trying to keep up with stuff by yourself, or with the small team. Also knowing you need to decide on stuff, but never having any experience with this, and not knowing if you’re going to make the right decision, especially with if things grow. I don’t know, “Oh, crap, we need five more employees,” but then, you never know what next month looks like. It could just be some random growth. Not wanting to make mistakes is a struggle. Could you repeat the question again?
KELLY REDDY-BEST: I think you answered it, but what are some of the struggles that you encountered or are still encountering?
MARLI: Yeah, definitely office stuff; doing a transqueer on-brand. We have our own things that we’re dealing with, so the office is supposed to be this accepting place but there’s a lot of heaviness that’s brought in, just because of the nature of what we do, and you know it could be anything – from an email from a customer giving us information that they should probably be giving a therapist to someone who experienced something on the way to work, or even personal stuff. I think being a queer brand, and wanting to be authentically that brand is a struggle in it’s own way.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Then you kind of mentioned this a little bit, but what types of feedback do you get, related to your brand, from people?
MARLI: That it changed their lives for better, and I really like getting stuff from parents, because I seeing that there’s accepting parents out there. I think back to my own history with my parents, knowing what these parents are going through, and creating an environment where their kids can be healthy and independent. Just seeing the beginning of that and seeing that the parents are beginning to see that their kids are smiling now, and feel like they are able to leave the house. It’s really great and I have a few friends and acquaintances that also have small queer brands and they just tell me that it’s amazing how large we’ve grown, and I guess I don’t realize it, just because I’m in it. So that, and then the customer service. The customer service part gives great feedback, actually.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Do you ever get negative feedback from folks about the brand?
MARLI: Yeah, it’s that not everything that can work for everybody, so some people are disappointed, which is totally understandable. I do feel for them, when they see this celebrated brand, or they see their friends, or see the people they’re following posting about how great it is for them, and then, it doesn’t work, or they received the wrong size, and they are upset. So yeah, and I don’t think it’s anything besides it is just not being able to work for some people. There’s also, just your regular shipping incidences and stuff, but we really do our best to try to make people happy. If we know we sent the wrong thing we are accountable to that. We even have a policy where, if people email us and get sizing help, and they received the binder and it still doesn’t fit, then we make sure we cover all the exchange, shipping and everything, because you want to take accountability for that.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Which is nice! It’s difficult to get sizing right over the internet. Sizing is so difficult in general. [laughs]
MARLI: Yeah, especially for this. I was looking at the exchange percentage for online clothing companies, and we have a lower than average exchange percentage, which is really awesome considering that it’s something that is so tight, and really needs to fit properly. So that was pretty nice to see. We have some people that just order and don’t want to ask for help, which I also get, but our binders were sized for a smaller frame. They are not for male’s frame so, I’m a size Large and I’m the small-medium range for other apparel, so a lot of people will order and get things that are really too small. We really try to emphasize, without scaring people, that they really need to get their own size.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Can you just talk about how you consider sustainability and ethical business model practices?
MARLI: Sustainability is just really hard as a start-up, and definitely as a company that ships a lot of stuff, it is something that me and my partner are concerned about. It is hard also as a startup, because you need to really know, where the budget is, and not necessarily knowing where all that will fall in the first week or first few years. You don’t know what could change. So that’s definitely a challenge that we want to take on in the future. I think sustainability definitely making sure everything is made in the USA. It’s in the office itself, no one is paid minimum wage, everyone is paid above that. Everyone that is full-time has the option to get healthcare. It’s not dependent on how long they’ve worked here, or their salary. We recently added a policy, because we actually haven’t had any of our employees get surgery until this year, so we needed a policy to allow employees go live somewhere for any gender affirming surgery, for a paid two weeks. That’s so much a parental thing. So, I’m just making sure that things are as taken care of as much as possible and to our office and our community specifications. We are changing and adding a few new policies. We initially started a policy to transport people with Uber-lift, just to make sure everyone got here. Now that it’s grown, it’s definitely a larger cost than what we started with, but it’s something we’re able still work out covering almost every month. We want to be able to keep it and not have it misused. It’s definitely a balanced turn to offer things for our community, and for our employees but let’s not have it taken too far. Um … yeah. is that good for …
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Yeah. That’s awesome, and it seems like you definitely think about people’s experiences in the office, and not only in the office, but the actions outside, which can be just as important as inside the space.
MARLI: Yeah, especially in this climate and, I think where we are based in Maryland isn’t necessarily any place to really worry about stuff, because it’s not super urban where you never really know what you’ll encounter, but it’s not…
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Rural Iowa?
MARLI: Yeah, it’s not conservative, but you never know.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Can you talk about your community outreach just briefly? I know you have a lot on your website, such as to the things that you’re involved in, but is there anything that would be important to talk about, in regards to the values of your brand?
MARLI: With the nature of the product, we do get a lot of exchanges. Not necessarily returns, but you know a lot of the binders will come back used, and we obviously we can’t sell most of them. We can’t resell, we have to restock most of them, so, in hopes of not just putting product to waste, we do partner with a lot of organizations. The largest one is Point of Pride. We donate about 50 binders to them a month. We just donate to them. We don’t help them run, or distribute anything, but they are our largest partnership. They have a list of people that they ship out to, and they’ll request sizes from us, and if we have product to donate, we’ll send those out. We also partner with LGBTQ centers and youth centers across the nation. They’ll reach out to us, and we’ll reach out to them, and then we’ll send them stuff, or give them discount cards, but mostly we have enough to donate. We are partnered with a few famous social media people that run their own donations. So, we mostly donate a lot of our returned products and then if there’s any repair, we either repair, or we don’t send it. We always make sure everything is good quality, so we send everything to the wash before we send it out and do repairs. A lot of that is just me needing to be a control freak and not wanting anyone to have a bad experience with our product, whether it’s donated or purchased. We are currently trying to find organizations to do our first monetary donation to this holiday season, so that’ll be the first time we’re doing that.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: How would you describe your customer base? Who is your customer?
MARLI: Our customer demographics? Well, it’s really anyone that … It’s all types of people, really. I can’t even say it’s just trans and then …
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Mm-hm (affirmative).
MARLI: You know, we have cross-queers. We have female identifying people that either want to present more masculine for whatever reason, or that present themselves very feminine, and want to conceal their chests for many reasons. I mean, they are mostly people questioning their gender-assignment and who want to see if there can be any relief from just altering their appearance. A lot of our customers are gender-fluid and non-binary people that don’t identify as trans-men.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: You mentioned “cross-queers” or just that others are buying, too…
MARLI: I don’t know if they’re buying it just for sports, or if they also identify as something other than cisgender, but we do have some firefighters and policemen and people in the military, that have reached out to us. They said it would be more comfortable during their training, so we also have people that just have more active lifestyles and want to feel more comfortable.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: How do you think people find out about your brands? Is it mainly through social media?
MARLI: Yeah, it’s through social media for sure, because I’m always surprised. Occasionally, we will have someone that’s a first-time customer that heard about it from their friend or something. Not everyone is on social media 24/7, so there’s a lot of word of mouth. Something I always intend to mention about social media is that their communities really care for each other, so if they find something that works, they’re going to want to share that with other people. It’s not like that in other communities, where it’s like, “I will keep this secret, and I’m not going to not tell you,” or, “I have this new makeup that works really well, but I don’t want other people to look me.” It’s not competitive, and people know how relieving it is to have it, so they’re more than willing to share that with other people and spread the word. We have other people that are just self-proclaimed marketers for us that, I’ve never met and never talked to, but every time we have a sale, they’re referencing it. I think that’s really cool. Word-of-mouth is something that we definitely want to look more into, to market in that direction. It’s definitely about that for me. What I want to achieve is not pushing this product on someone, and having them think they need to change something, but just having people think about the possibility.
KELLY REDDY-BEST: Is there anything else that will be important to know about the history of your brand, or your background or the story in general that we didn’t cover?
MARLI: I’m mixed race, so, I guess, it’s just the story of how we came up with the new line, is customers not knowing who was behind gc2b. I would get messages that, “we need to release a new binder, we need to release a new binder,” but they were all from white people. So, I’m just reading this and I’m like, “Your new isn’t my new. There is nothing wrong with you thinking that, but it is a little bit wrong.” I needed that, so that if I did want to release a new binder, there would have to be a full spectrum. I think that that’s definitely one of my problems, because I was a designer, and just being me, I didn’t want to just cater to just one demographic, who is our largest demographic. Even if we don’t, we definitely sell every shade of our binder, but we wouldn’t just discontinue selling one, just because one is outperforming. It’s definitely a values thing.