TomboyX: Oral History
Fran Dunaway and Naomi Gonzalez for TomboyX were interviewed on November 11th, 2017 by Kelly Reddy-Best via Zoom. This interview was 59 minutes. The oral history transcript reflects the history of the brand at the time of the interview.
Oral History Video
Oral History Transcript
DUNAWAY: Hi, I’m Fran Dunaway and I’m the cofounder and CEO of TomboyX.
GONZALEZ: Hi, I’m Naomi Gonzalez and I’m the, COO and cofounder of TomboyX.
REDDY-BEST: Can you both tell me a little bit about your background? Where did you grow up and where have you lived, and then where are you now?
DUNAWAY: Wait, you go.
GONZALEZ: [laughs] Yeah, sure. So, I grew up in New York City, in Washington Heights. I’m first generation Cuban American. I’m the first in my family to go to college. I always wanted to be a massage therapist growing up and I fulfilled that dream, by working on Olympic athletes at a college. I was working with just great athletes. In 2004 I wound up working with US Women’s soccer team. We went to Greece that year and I am very excited to say that they won gold. So, that was an incredible experience. I learned what it takes to win, not just win but all the work that goes into that final, incredible moment, just the drive and dedication that it takes to see your goal through. After, finishing up with US Women’s Soccer I opened up my own small massage business and then sold that a few years later and then moved out to Seattle. Fran and I started TomboyX shortly thereafter.
DUNAWAY: She got tired of me complaining about the lack of shirting options in the stores and infamously said, “Well, how hard can it be to start a clothing line?” And so, off we went.
GONZALEZ: What’s your past?
DUNAWAY: I grew up in, I’m an army brat. I grew up all over the US. Spent some time in Germany. My family, is from the deep south: Mississippi and Alabama, which is where my parents and brother still are, in Mississippi. I ended up spending a lot of time in Missouri and got my master’s degree in Missouri and was trying to decide where to live. Whether to live in the mountains, in Boulder, or somewhere in Florida. I came to visit the Pacific Northwest and realized I could have mountains and beach, so that was it! I’ve been here since 1987. So, a long time. And I call it home. And, you know there’s just a couple months of the year that it’s a good time to get out of here, but otherwise, the Pacific Northwest is a great place to be.
REDDY-BEST: And then, what did you all study in school?
DUNAWAY: Let’s see, I got my master’s in education. For my first career, at 25, I was an administrator of a group home. I opened the first medically fragile group home. Actually, I went to my master’s full time and worked full time as a manager of a group home for “Behaviorally Disabled Mentally Retarded Adult Males” is what they called it. It was aggressive males, with developmental disabilities or intellectual disabilities. And so, I worked there in the evenings full time, was a manager, and then moved to the Northwest and opened the first group home for medically fragile children. And, at 30 I was an executive director of the agency, had 40 employees. I then sold everything and went to film school. Then I moved up to Vancouver, BC and did their one-year certificate program and was interested in producing. So, I became kind of a producer for the next 10 years. I freelanced and then combined my activism with my work and became a partner in a media strategies firm, and I produced political ads for democratic candidates and campaigns nationwide. I did some work in Uruguay and helped legalize marijuana there. Yeah, so this is career number three.
REDDY-BEST: And then, I forgot to put this on there. Do you mind sharing how old you both are?
DUNAWAY: Sure, I am, how old am I? I’m 57. [Laughs]
GONZALEZ: I’m 43. That seems, right? Yeah that seems right. [Laughing] I never get asked that anymore, you know?
REDDY-BEST: And then, can you tell me which terms you use to prefer, you use to describe your gender identity?
REDDY-BEST: And then, which terms do you use to describe your sexual identity or your sexuality?
REDDY-BEST: And then, how do you two know each other?
DUNAWAY: Well, we met through the president of my former firm. I used to run a bicoastal office and she introduced us, what, nine years ago? Something like that? So, then we dated long distance for a year and she moved out here and we’ve been married, how long have we been married? I say we were, it was a shotgun.
GONZALEZ: Two years.
DUNAWAY: Two years. It was a shotgun wedding because we were expecting a puppy. She’s over here now. She’s 8 years old so. [Laughing]
REDDY-BEST: And then, what did you study in school?
GONZALEZ: I was a bio psych major, women’s studies minor.
REDDY-BEST: How would you describe your personal clothing styles?
DUNAWAY: Oh, god. Sloppy? Flannel? [Laughing]
DUNAWAY: Comfortable? [Laughing] Evolving? [Laughing]
GONZALEZ: I’m not sure style ever comes into it. [Laughing]
DUNAWAY: Tomboy! How about that!
REDDY-BEST: What was your experience wearing or shopping for the products that you offer, before starting TomboyX?
DUNAWAY: Well, you know, it really started because I wanted a cool shirt. I prefer to wear a button-up shirt especially at work. I’m not that into, well, at the time we didn’t know a knit from a woven, but now I know that it’s knits I wasn’t comfortable wearing and I prefer a woven. We had a hard time finding shirts that would fit my changing body, as I was getting older and no longer able to do triathlons. So, I could find really cool shirts in the men’s department that had fun details under the collar, or around the cuffs, just playful, and made of really cool, high-quality fabric. And the men’s didn’t fit my body. So, we decided that that’s where we would start and we added a hidden button so it wouldn’t gape open in meetings and just created a beautiful shirt that we had zero returns on. We picked the name Tomboy because we thought it was cute, it was fun, and it reflected who we are. We launched a Kickstarter campaign to pay for our shirts. We had a couple of prototypes for the shirts, we had some polos, and a knit blazer. So, we, launched a Kickstarter campaign and about a week into the Kickstarter campaign, it became very apparent to us that the name was resonating and we had an instant brand. I think, the branding success is because both of us. I ended up training in producing political ads and the last few years she was doing that as well. I think because of our background in politics we were able to recognize that there was something powerful and palpable that was going on around the brand. It was just the two of us. We weren’t getting paid. So, Naomi was our customer service person and she was hearing from a lot people that we should make boxer briefs for women. And, neither of us wore boxer briefs, I think?
GONZALEZ: I did. I used to wear the Hanes. Hanes made this like, four-inch, brief. It’s like a boxer brief and then they stopped making it and so in my drawer I had this tattered 10-year-old pair of underwear that I really liked. But, it was never really long enough? Like, I always wanted it a little bit longer. But, it was the closest I could get.
DUNAWAY: So yeah. We, we, we didn’t realize that no one was making boxer briefs for women. Or, she hadn’t thought about the tattered pair, so we started looking around and sure enough on Nordstrom.com the only thing that came up when you type in “Women’s boxer briefs” was a pair of Spanx. We were pretty sure that was not what our customer was looking for. So, we decided that we would take the lead and Naomi met this woman, Karma, at when, at physical therapy?
DUNAWAY: Right? And so, Karma came in and she brought in her stack of men’s boxer briefs and she told us everything that was wrong with them, and we started working with Julie Nomi, who is still our head of product. We had contracted with her to help us. And she went out, set out to make the most comfortable pair of boxer briefs for women and we knew that it was important for us, as a brand, to be all-inclusive. We didn’t like the subtle shaming of the “extra,” the “plus size” category. So, we decided to create them all, every style that we have and that’s how we continue today, every style goes from extra small through 4X and all at the same price, I don’t know if I answered the question.
REDDY-BEST: Yeah. No, that answered a lot of the questions.
GONZALEZ: I have no comment.
DUNAWAY: She warned you! [Laughing]
GONZALEZ: [Laughing] I have no comment.
REDDY-BEST: Can you tell me about the timeline? As a historian, you know, we’re interested in, the timeline. And can you tell me when you first started thinking about, like the years of when you started thinking about the business, and then when it actually, when you, when you officially became a business. Or when you incorporated or whatever the process was that you went through.
GONZALEZ: So, we started the idea in 2011. That summer. It’s when we started thinking about that button-down shirt.
DUNAWAY: It was just the idea.
GONZALEZ: It was just the idea and we were just trying to meet somebody that could even design this shirt for us and have a prototype made. And, so we went far enough along that and in March 2012 we incorporated. And then, we started working on a Kickstarter.
DUNAWAY: No, we, we actually bootstrapped. We bootstrapped.
GONZALEZ: We bootstrapped, yeah.
DUNAWAY: And we did the samples, and got the samples, and that took us about a year. And then, in March of 2013, we launched the Kickstarter program and a month later we raised $76,000. We knew we had an instant brand. So, September of 2014 was when we introduced our first boxer brief and we sold out in two weeks. We presold them, and sold out. And six months we had tripled our revenue and decided that we needed to consider we’re an underwear company now, since that seemed to be our niche. And we got accepted into an accelerator program. You had to have at least one female co-founder. It was the first, we were in the first cohort of Merge Lane based in Boulder, Colorado. And they took a lead, and they said, “You guys need to raise some money.” And they took the lead on helping us raise enough capital. And so, we graduated, or finished, that program in April of 2015, and in July we had raised enough, had enough commitment in that round to put some money in. So in August of 2015 we hired our first employees and we went on payroll.
REDDY-BEST: Cool. And then…
GONZALEZ: We were pretty broke by then, I don’t know if it was cool.
DUNAWAY: [Laughing] We were still working.
DUNAWAY: We still had full time jobs or doing ere freelance and she was still seeing clients at the house.
GONZALEZ: And doing production.
REDDY-BEST: So, is this full time though now?
REDDY-BEST: Do you? You don’t have other?
DUNAWAY: We have twelve employees now.
REDDY-BEST: Wow. Ok, that was what I was just going to ask. Can you tell me about, the model? Like, for the business do people buy online, do you have stores, like what, how do people obtain the items?
GONZALEZ: Yeah, we’re direct consumer only. Everything is sold online. And we do pop-up-shops around the country. We go to a lot of prides around the country and we have done that for the last three years?
GONZALEZ: Almost four years? And it’s great because that’s where we get to actually meet our customers and say hi and also, they get to touch and feel the product, which is really a big part. Some people want to wait until they can actually touch and feel it, so it serves that purpose for us as well. But, primarily, we really love meeting everybody. It’s part of, of why, you know, it’s everything, of why we keep doing this is our customers. So meeting them, is, is, is, it is a big deal for us.
REDDY-BEST: So, you have twelve employees, and I think that’s the most out of any brand I’ve interviewed. Twelve is the most employees anybody’s ever had.
GONZALEZ: Oh, really?
DUNAWAY: We’re doing, we’re doing alright.
REDDY-BEST: I think so! So, can you just tell me the different styles you offer? Any of the ones that maybe you haven’t mentioned yet?
GONZALEZ: I’m sorry, I missed what.
DUNAWAY: Let me close out my email because it’s making noises.
GONZALEZ: It’s making noises, so.
DUNAWAY: It keeps dinging and I’m like what does that say? What does…? Are there PJs going live now?
REDDY-BEST: Can you tell me the products, any other products that you offer. So, you had mentioned a bunch of them, but is there any other things that you sell, and again, it’s for the sake of the oral history. I know I can look online, but…
DUNAWAY: Yeah, yeah.
GONZALEZ: So yeah, we sell underwear, everything from a bikini to a 9″ boxer brief. We sell bras: soft bras, racerback bras… And we just launched swim earlier this summer. And that was just a resounding success, it sold out in a few weeks. So, we’re actually designing our next line, right now. We just did the final details on our next swim line coming out in December.
GONZALEZ: Sharks. So excited. [Laughing] I cannot wait for these! And we also, are offering loungewear, as well so some long johns and PJs that just went live.
DUNAWAY: Like moments ago.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, so it’s really in the intimates apparel space.
DUNAWAY: And yeah, so activewear, bras, yeah.
REDDY-BEST: And then, you talked about this a little bit, but can you tell me, so there’s you two and so what your roles? Do you both do everything or are you sort of in different areas? How would you describe your different roles?
GONZALEZ: The reason why we’re still married today is because we do very different things. [Laughing]
DUNAWAY: I have two jobs. I’ve had two jobs since day one: one is to not run out of money, and two is not to fuck it up. And Naomi does everything else. That’s how we divide it up.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. [Laughing]
DUNAWAY: I work more with the marketing team and fundraising and finance. Then Naomi works very much with production, logistics, and.
GONZALEZ: Fran still doesn’t actually know all that I do because she can’t sit around long enough to hear what all it is. [Laughing] Yeah, just a lot of production. The operations end of things: end of month reporting, accounting, not the fun side of the business.
DUNAWAY: Customer service.
DUNAWAY: I’m serious, she does it all.
REDDY-BEST: And what do the other twelve folks do?
DUNAWAY: Well, let’s see. We have Julie Nomi who is our head of product. Julie Nomi is our head of production. She has over 30 years of experience. We wouldn’t be where we are without her. She came in early on. She found us, which was awesome. And, we just had said the week before that we need someone like this Julie Nomi and she appeared. We’ve had a lot of magical moments along the journey. And then she has an assistant. We finally got her an assistant last year. The two of them are the hardest working people in the company.
GONZALEZ: They do the job of literally four people.
GONZALEZ: If not maybe more.
DUNAWAY: They are workhorses. And so, they do everything in product. We have a contractor quality control person. Then we have our marketing and creative: we have a director of marketing, and an associate director of marketing. We have an art director and her assistant and they do all of our product photography, all of our photography, newsletters, all of that stuff. So, they work on all of that. Out in the warehouse is Steph and she does our logistics and returns. She works with our warehouse to make sure that thing, things are going smoothly. And is a liaison with our factories. And then we have, remotely working with us is Stephanie and she is our customer service/HR/bookkeeper. Did I forget anyone?
DUNAWAY: We’ve got, yeah, no, I got her. And then we have a few full-time contractors that include, we have a chief merchant, we’re working with the CFO-COO person. And then we outsource, our digital media, we outsource our SEO, and we’ve got a new brand affiliate program that we just, brought in house.
REDDY-BEST: And then, can you tell me about, the design process for maybe like some of your products? Like how do you go from original, like from first idea to final product. and I guess we’re interested in like, where you make them. Do you make them locally or do you outsource?
GONZALEZ: We, we take inspiration from life in a lot of ways and things that we’ve always wanted to see. One time, one of our friends, we were on a boat with her and she was just talking about how she loves octopi and we love octopi too, and it wound up we just created an octopus print from that conversation and it was fantastic. It’s one of our best-selling prints. Another time, we met with a lawyer in New York City and she was wearing this polka dot dress and it was mostly black and white, with a few colors interspersed in between, and so we took that and we created a polka dot print out of that.
DUNAWAY: But as far as the production process, how does that whole thing work? Step by step?
GONZALEZ: Yeah. So, once we have something in mind, then we go out and we decide what kind of fabric we want it in, do we want in our cotton fabric? Do we want a new fabric? So, like we introduced a Micro Modal which is eco-friendly fiber.
GONZALEZ: A lot like beech. It’s made out of beechwood trees. So, a bit like bamboo? It’s fantastic. So we decided with that particular type of fabric we wanted the colors to be more muted tones and we brought that around. So, we basically, have a collection of stripes bring in every quarter, a new print every month or two, and new colors every month, is how we…
DUNAWAY: So, when we figure out what the product is going to be, for example, if it’s a new racerback bra because of either customer demand or we know that that’s kind of the next area. It’s usually customer demand, none of these ideas are really ours. So then we’ll pick the fabric, and then Julie and Jamie will work to get the pattern made, and they’ll work with different pattern-makers, and then they’ll get samples made, and they’ll work with the factory. We have a women-owned factory with whom we perfect our product up in Canada. Then they’ll send samples down and then Julie and Jamie will bring in various sized fit models all the way from XS through 4X to make sure that the grading adjusts accordingly. Then they’ll put the final tweaks on it, and send it in and get a final sample from the factory. Then, typically, we’ll do a smaller run of certain things, and then, when we scale, we scale with a factory affiliated with the Canadian factory over in China and it’s owned by a couple. The woman is the CEO, we call her The CEO, and they have been over to our place twice now in the three years we have been working with them, or has it been two years? And we’ve been over to their factory. We just got back recently. So we keep a close eye. Julie is a perfectionist and we all care very deeply about our sustainability and about workers getting fair wages, and the condition of the factory, and the lighting, and all of that. So, we’re very picky about who we work with, and then we go over there and make sure that it’s being upheld.
GONZALEZ: And, like, from start to finish, in terms of timing and how long something takes, from the start of the idea, especially if it’s a new product that we haven’t ever done any work with, it can be nine months. If we’ve done it before it’s, you know, anywhere from six to eight to get it in.
REDDY-BEST: And then, do you all think about trends, in your design process? Or do you sort of look to your own.
GONZALEZ: Sort of the anti-trend.
DUNAWAY: Well, no. Yesterday we were holding up the new octopus print that we’re going to have in our swim. I was holding it up full body and was like, “Is this too much octopus?” but I do see, you know, people are wearing print on prints, so I think it could work. So, we’ve got this really great octopus print.
GONZALEZ: For swim, yeah.
DUNAWAY: And we were discussing whether or not to have the top and the bottom be the full print, and we decided to go ahead and do it and and that was basically because of the trend, or, or different fabrics and that kind of thing. But, not as far as like, well, we did do a fashion show in New York. [Laughs] Did you see the video? It was, it was a great, it’s on our website.
REDDY-BEST: Wait, so can you tell me about the fashion show? Where was that one?
DUNAWAY: It was in Brooklyn.
REDDY-BEST: Yeah, okay.
DUNAWAY: Queer Fashion Week.
GONZALEZ: Queer Fashion Show.
REDDY-BEST: So, you participated in it last year? For this oral history, I guess it’s fall right now, so was it this past one in September ?
DUNAWAY: Yeah, yep.
GONZALEZ: Shena, our Art Director, she just totally dreamed that whole thing up and did an incredible job getting the models and then doing a collaboration with a local Seattle company that produces clear raincoats. So, the models were wearing the clear raincoats and our underwear was underneath it and they just owned the runway. We opened it up, we opened the show and it was incredible. Really, pretty awesome to see.
REDDY-BEST: Did you, was that the first time that you all had participated in that, because I know it’s been going on for a few years. And there’s one in Oakland, too.
GONZALEZ: We sponsor them every year.
DUNAWAY: And the one in Oakland, too. But this was the first time we had models walk.
REDDY-BEST: And then, can you just tell me, who is your customer? Like, who do you sell to primarily? I know you said you went to Pride and met a lot of customers there, but how would describe them?
DUNAWAY: Early on, when we were hearing from people about they were identifying with the brand and the word tomboy and the whole idea behind it, we were hearing from a lot of people that wanted to make sure that they were included. And so, the beauty of, of picking underwear, landing on underwear, is it’s that layer between who you are on the inside and how you present on the outside. Obviously, we started in the LGBTQ community because that was, I like to say, the low hanging fruit? And easy to target and, you know, get ads out to and what not. And we’re in the community so it was a no-brainer. But we’ve always tried to be all-inclusive. And especially in some of our, it depends on our style, but we have, a large customer base that is in the plus size category. You know 57% of the US population are size 14 and above, so we wanted to provide them some quality undergarments that are functional. So really we have three different categories: we’ve got our “function first,” our “comfort first,” and our “status first.” And so, that’s the, kind of the three buckets of customer.
REDDY-BEST: So you would say that you started off mainly were reaching out to folks in the LGBTQ community but now it’s expanded a little bit.
REDDY-BEST: And the plus-size customer, is going be much more included in the brand.
DUNAWAY: Yes. And also “function first,” our “function first customer,” – are police officers, firefighters, EMTs and military
GONZALEZ: Construction workers.
DUNAWAY: All, all the people that are wearing a uniform to work every day, people that wear scrubs. So that’s our “function first” category, and we have a lot of customers there that, when you wear loose-fitting clothing, a boxer-brief underneath is very much the comfortable way to go.
REDDY-BEST: And then, so when you’re, when your brand’s interacting with customers, is it you two who’s, or who’s interacting, is it one of your employees or is it you two?
DUNAWAY: That’s who I forgot. I forgot our social media person.
GONZALEZ: Oh yeah. [Laughing]
DUNAWAY: Yes! We have a social media person, that is doing all our Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. She just recently went down to the Pride from Hell. And then –
GONZALEZ: It was like an airplane issue, you know, “Pride from Hell,” not that Pride itself was Hell. [Laughing]
DUNAWAY: Yeah, yeah, yeah, right. Yeah, getting there was hell. She got there without any tent, without any walls. She does a lot of it, Naomi will do some reach out. She’s been good about identifying customers just to call and thank, and then our customer service person spends a lot of time interacting and engaging with customers. I’ll pop in once in a while. And then we love to go out and meet people in person.
REDDY-BEST: Do you guys have any garments you could show me right now and like just maybe talk through, besides the print?
GONZALEZ: Oh, these are just samples that we’ve recently made.
DUNAWAY: So, you don’t want to show those?
GONZALEZ and FRAN DUNAWAY: These are.
DUNAWAY: These are two-and-a-half-inch boxer boy shorts. So, the inseam is two and a half inches. This is a new fabric; this is our new moisture wicking performance fabric.
GONZALEZ: “Dry release.”
DUNAWAY: And the bikini cut. And then we have, this is the luxury Micro Modal with a beautiful print on it.
GONZALEZ: Six inches.
DUNAWAY: Six-inch length. And our secret sauce is the waistband. We really got that right. It’s silky soft, doesn’t ride up, doesn’t leave a mark. What else have we got?
GONZALEZ: I don’t know if you can see, I’m just going to tilt it. Where’s that octopus…?
DUNAWAY: Oh! We’re working on a pajama. Here’s a Micro Modal pajama top. This is a sample that we have been fitting. I don’t know what else I’ve got over here. We’re working on some, French terry cloth and shorts, which would be really fun. And we’ve got, swim. Oh yeah, we’ve got new activewear bottoms. And the new pajamas. The new pajamas went live recently. Here’s a bra… This is a nine-inch boy brief. This is the holiday print.
REDDY-BEST: And is that the nine inch one?
GONZALEZ: This is the nine inch, yep, so this is on sale right now on our website. That just came in. Yeah.
REDDY-BEST: Yeah, I think I’ve got.
GONZALEZ: Okay. Fran. Sit down, Fran. [Laughing] She’s trying to run away.
DUNAWAY: [Laughing] Thanks for that, letting me get up.
REDDY-BEST: And then, um, how do, how do folks find out about you? Like how do you think your customers find out about your brand?
DUNAWAY: Well, we do a lot of advertising on Facebook and when someone Googles something. We work with a digital, media agency that places our ad-buys. But that’s probably about 20% of our revenue? And then, the other 80% comes from our emails. Emails do very well for us. We have a lot of brand ambassador community rep affiliates that are helping us spread the word. Our reviews speak for themselves, we have, like 90% of our reviews are four stars or better, four or five stars. And so, we’re just really proud of the quality and the fit and the, and the comfort. And that, that gets spread by word of mouth. it’s, so people are talking about it and that’s exciting.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, we’re super excited about, a lot of brand reps that we have right now. They’re just all really doing such interesting things and really changing the world doing things that matter in the world and we love having them.
REDDY-BEST: What are you most proud of so far?
DUNAWAY: When we first started this was a little project in our little one-car garage, and it wasn’t enough for us that this opportunity could be a good business opportunity even though we hadn’t run a business before. I’ve been a gay rights activist, human rights activist, my entire life. I started the first committee of the human rights campaign here in Seattle with five other people and have just been very active in politics my entire adult life. One thing that was important to us was not to just be another brand that was out to tell people how to be cool. I think that Naomi and I really enjoy people and think and accept them for who they are, and so we wanted to be that brand that, that lets you be unapologetic about who you are, all day every day, just to feel comfortable in your own skin. So, finding, having that opportunity and that starting to resonate with people, is something that we continue to, to be really excited and, and…
GONZALEZ: …and proud of. I love seeing it every time someone posts that this is the thing that makes them feel comfortable in their own skin. And we’re saying that again because that’s literally what it is. It’s feeling empowered and feeling really good about yourself. You know, that’s a challenge for a lot of people. So, if we can help in that that’s what we want.
DUNAWAY: And the emails that we get, the people that come by. It’s just really powerful.
GONZALEZ: People say like the first time they put on our underwear they started crying, because it’s the first time they could feel like it was the right thing for them underneath what they’re all wearing.
REDDY-BEST: Yeah. Yeah. I’ll tell you this really quick: when I, I interview folks, I interview like a lot of LGBT women in like other studies about their experiences with fashion and the body and aesthetics, and people always say when they find the right pair of underwear like it makes such a big difference, you know? Now I’ll be like did you hear about TomboyX?
DUNAWAY: Yeah, there you go! [Laughing]
GONZALEZ: Yeah! It’s true!
DUNAWAY: It matters! It really matters.
REDDY-BEST: It’s the thing that’s against the skin, right? So it’s like the experience is really important.
DUNAWAY: Yep, yeah.
REDDY-BEST: and then what did you, what do you view as most successful so far?
DUNAWAY: The four and a half inch.
GONZALEZ: Oh, for product?
REDDY-BEST: Oh, just overall. Anything that comes to mind. Maybe it’s the four and a half inch!
DUNAWAY: [Laughing] The black four and a half-inch boxer briefs.
REDDY-BEST: If you were going to think about from start, from 2011, to now, 2017, ooh. Um. I was surprised!
DUNAWAY: We’re still here. That’s the most successful.
GONZALEZ: That is right. We, we’re, literally, we’re still standing and that’s, that’s truly the biggest success because that’s.
DUNAWAY: The company and us.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. [Laughing] Yeah, she still makes me laugh.
REDDY-BEST: You guys are great; I love talking to you guys! One of the funniest interviews I’ve done. I mean, they’re always really nice to do, but man! I love doing these ones. So cool! Okay, so then what were, when you started, what were some of the things that you, that surprised you? Was there anything in the beginning that you like didn’t think would happen that happened?
GONZALEZ: Yes! How long it takes to manufacture something. It is, we would produce political ads from start to finish in, what? Two? Three days?
DUNAWAY: Well, my record is 24 hours.
GONZALEZ: True. Yeah, but.
DUNAWAY: Including a flight to Montana!
GONZALEZ: But who’s bragging, who’s bragging?
DUNAWAY: So everything moves at a snail’s pace! Is what she’s saying.
GONZALEZ: I mean the idea that it could take months to get a product in, in house and if we run out, you know, if you don’t plan ahead! It’s going to be several more months before you get it back in, in, in door, in, in, in stock. It, it just it boggles the mind. But that is the process, it just really does take that long. And I think people, customers, don’t understand when something’s sold out they want more right away. Because they’re used to fast fashion. And it’s just, it doesn’t work that way. And then to be able to provide that sooner when it does run out requires a lot of money.
DUNAWAY: And the thing around money is, well, a couple of things. Some interesting data for you – I love data. So, 2% of women-owned businesses ever make more than a million dollars a year. And only 4% of women, of companies that receive venture capital funding, only 4% are female owned. So, throw that astounding statistic in there along with the fact that we’re lesbians making underwear. When most people.
GONZALEZ: The VCs, you know.
DUNAWAY: Or any, any funders out there are primarily men and, they think that there’s nothing wrong with Victoria’s Secret. So, it, it, it, the fundraising side of it was incredibly, long and arduous and, frustrating? But at the same time, today 90% of our investors are female. And, we have a great rapport and relationship with them. So, I think that that’s one of the hardest things. We’re actually leaving tomorrow to go down to Palm Springs because, I was chosen as one of the CEOs for the Earnestine Young Winning Women Entrepreneur Program. And so they’re paying both of us to, for both of us to fly down and attend this incredible weeklong conference. And, their sole purpose is to help female-owned companies, scale? And so, I, we’re in a world that is trying to address some of the inequities that are, around gender. And so, we’re pretty excited about that but that was really surprising at how, off-kilter that is.
REDDY-BEST: Yeah. I mean it’s, it’s pretty crazy, you know the, so, I guess, do you have any male backers? Or any men…?
DUNAWAY: Oh, yeah!
DUNAWAY: Oh, yeah, we do. We have had mentors. There was this one guy, he’s still with us as an advisor, and he started with us, gosh, four years ago and, he used to run operations and CTO for like, Land’s End and Tommy Bahama, and he has been incredible, he like would come and move. Like, when we would have to move our warehouse he’d just come in and do it. And, we, we have a lot of support from, from men, that not only write checks but help out in other ways. So, yeah! Absolutely.
REDDY-BEST: And so you’ve talked a lot about some of the positive feedback, um about the products, like when people put on your products, you know, it’s like they, they, you know cry because it’s like a pretty emotional experience because they haven’t ever felt a full sense of self, right? Before they wear some of your stuff, which is really powerful in a lot of ways for a lot of people. Do you ever have any negative feedback from folks like inside or outside the community? The LGBTQ community.
GONZALEZ: If we have negative feedback it’s usually just around the price point. And again people just don’t understand how expensive it is to run a business, pay wages, and use fabrics that are ecofriendly, and processes that are ecofriendly. It all costs money.
DUNAWAY: And with factories that don’t gouge people. Yeah.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, and it’s, you know. You also have to buy fabrics at a much lower amount than a Walmart or, you know, some other…
DUNAWAY: Big box stores.
GONZALEZ: You know, Fruit of the Loom might buy, or something like that. So, there’s massive cost savings buying such huge volumes. and we just can’t do that.
REDDY-BEST: People always ask me why, like teaching in design or something, you know, they always want, they think I know the answers to everything and I’m like well, kind of. I mean I would like to think I do but, they’re like why does all that, you know, “This is so expensive!” And I’m like, “If you only knew!”
REDDY-BEST: The capital needed to, you know, there’s so many parts. They’re like, “it’s just a t-shirt!” I’m like “it’s not just a t-shirt.”
REDDY-BEST: There’s so much more to a t-shirt that you don’t even understand!
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah.
REDDY-BEST: So, I, and then, you talked a lot about sustainability and like ethics and maybe a little bit about, I don’t know if you touched on community outreach stuff? You said going to Prides. Anything else that you all do in regards to like community stuff?
GONZALEZ: Yeah, we donate a lot. Whether it’s via goods or, you know, recently for the hurricane in Puerto Rico we were able to raise $10,000.
DUNAWAY: And in Houston we sent some underwear.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, so. You know, we are, we are constantly helping raise money towards causes, or donating towards um charitable organizations.
DUNAWAY: Bringing interns in.
DUNAWAY: Sponsoring people for, different programs.
GONZALEZ: So, this year alone, we’re well over $50,000 in donations.
DUNAWAY: That we’ve given, not that we’ve taken.
GONZALEZ: [Laughing] In case anyone was unclear about that. It’s like one of those quotes that someone will take out of context. [Laughing]
REDDY-BEST: You are exactly right. That is so true. I’m like that is not what I!
REDDY-BEST: So, we talked about your backgrounds, your own styles, your appearance and then how the company started, and the timeline, an overview of like the model of how it works… Are there any things that would be, are there any products that you would want to make or that you would want to expand that are sort of like the dream products?
GONZALEZ: I would love to be able to afford to do gender neutral clothing for kids. It’s a very expensive thing and it’s usually a lost leader for most businesses that do it. So we can’t afford to take that loss. But, I think there’s a huge opportunity there.
DUNAWAY: Yeah, and I think that we’ll get there. I think that the direction of the company and the product that we’re adding shows there’s more to come. We’re learning, and exploring new things all the time.
REDDY-BEST: You have a ton of products. How many different categories you’re in right now? Or I know you’re all in intimates but…
GONZALEZ: We have about 350 products right now but the SKU count is pretty high because they go from XS to 4X. S
REDDY-BEST: And then, um. Ok, so then I asked about, so I’m just reviewing and then I’ll ask the final question, so then I asked about inspiration and where those kinds of ideas come from, the design process, where you manufacture, if you think about trends or how trends kind of come into play, your customers, some of your proudest moments, things that feel most successful, and then feedback, business and funding, and you had kind of talked a lot about funding and Kickstarter, and then ethics. So, you talked about a lot. Is there, I always ask in the end, is there anything about, and you also talked about you do pop-up stores, and you know, go to Prides, and and had done Queer Fashion Week at the Brooklyn Muse and even that, and even were the, what is it called, sponsors for them, so is there anything else about the history, about how you started, about yourselves that would be important to know in an oral history about TomboyX?
DUNAWAY: We’ve shipped to 45 different countries now. Without doing real outreach. So people are finding us. We know that this is a global opportunity.
GONZALEZ: We ship to Lithuania. I mean, I don’t know how someone from Lithuania would have heard of us? But I do think that the name Tomboy is universal and it’s a natural curiosity point of search. I think we picked the right name.
DUNAWAY: And I think that the, that the, that we’re timely in that our brand is resonating when there’s so much negativity and divisiveness that’s happening in this country and around the world. That it’s great to be part of kind of a more positive movement that it’s about inclusivity and about celebrating people for who they are.
GONZALEZ: And empowerment.
DUNAWAY: So, that, that, that to me is something that, that is, historically we’re hoping we’ll create some positive change.
REDDY-BEST: Why did you put the X on the name?
DUNAWAY: So, when we were working with our branding agency, who, who came in– we re-launched in July of 2016, that should go on your timeline, so we did a rebrand with The July where we came out with a new look and feel and new logo. And so, when we were working with them, we mentioned we’d spent a lot of time talking about the fact that, we wanted to be all-inclusive, again, around gender and gender-neutral, and bringing in, you know taking sex out of, out of underwear. And so, we created the X, logo as an alternative, a non-word logo. We are hoping we will become known for is our X and the way we believe. The short version is: what does your X equal? And so that is what the brand represents and, we have a campaign going “Live the X,” that is just kind of embracing that. I mean X has been used for and means so many things. It means good, it means bad, it’s just anything! So, so really what does your X equal? We think it’s a cool logo. The equal is not exactly equal, it’s a little off, because we’re not all equal yet. There’s a lot of meaning and a lot of thought that went into that particular logo.
REDDY-BEST: You mean the, I’m just looking at it right now. The font size for X is a little bit bigger?
DUNAWAY: Well the equal sign is itself not complete, not perfectly parallel. So, I mean it’s got a dip in it.
REDDY-BEST: Now I get it.
GONZALEZ: We actually had a customer that bought the X= shirt once and wrote in, was like, ” I need to return this. It seems like your screen printer might have had a mistake happen during the printing process, it’s not equal.” [Laughing]
REDDY-BEST: How do you think about the models represented in your imagery? Or how do you choose then? Or why would you choose some folks over other folks or not include people in them?
DUNAWAY: We try to be all-inclusive and it’s a challenge because we don’t pay any models anything to speak of, I think 50 bucks an hour or something?
GONZALEZ: For fit models.
DUNAWAY: Oh, for fit models, right. Really our art director goes out and finds people that are living the X and that are representative of us. She just recently did a really cool shoot with some disabled rowers that’s on our blog. Just really focusing telling stories about people living their lives in a powerful way. We intentionally chose not to show our underwear on the body because, again, we don’t want to be about being sexy and that whole like, Calvin Klein thing where the men are always doing something really powerful in their underwear and the women are always lying on a bed.
GONZALEZ: And I want to clarify that on the product pages we don’t show our products on models, but on social media.
DUNAWAY: Well on social media it’s all user-generated content, except for the blogs for which we will go out and do some shoots and show people doing different things. We are breaking from that mold a little bit more, more recently. It’s a real challenge marketing-wise to be a gender-neutral underwear company because it’s just so engraved in our minds that it’s either boy or girl. And so, we think it’s going to take some time. We have a lot of male customers, we have a lot of trans customers, our customer base is just really across the spectrum. We’re trying to be all-inclusive. I wouldn’t say that we’re exclusive. It’s not like we sit around and talk about who we shouldn’t choose. It’s about, how do we find somebody to tell the next cool story about.