This is a conversation series by Donna Kennedy-Glans, a writer and former Alberta cabinet minister, featuring newsmakers and intriguing personalities. This week: entrepreneur Emma May.
Lululemon and Aritzia, fashion brands predominantly for women, are among Canada’s best performing businesses. Both were founded by men. Emma May, a female entrepreneur in Calgary, wants in.
Emma, 51, is a master of rebranding. She’s worked as a lawyer. Founded a high-end real estate business. For a stint she was a top aide to Alberta premiere Jim Prentice. And in 2020, she launched SophieGrace, a new women’s clothing brand named after her own daughter that aims to be Lululemon for the office. Her first product arrived them weeks before the world shut down.
“Thirty-two boxes showed up on my driveway on Feb. 23, 2020. Worst timing on the face of the planet,” Emma laughs.
We’re at SophieGrace’s corporate showroom in Ramsay — a trending neighborhood just east of downtown Calgary — comfortably perched on the mustard-colored velvet couch planted in the middle of the showroom. The couch feels like an island in a sea of mix-and-match jackets, pants, shirts and dresses.
“I remember after leaving politics, I got rid of all my suits. I sold them. I hate them,” Emma says. “And then I needed to dress up for a board meeting and just wanted a pencil skirt and matching blouse.” It’s simple for men, they buy suits, Emma declares, but all the choices are frustrating for women. It was a light-bulb moment: Wouldn’t it be easier for women if they had a collection of pieces they could coordinate?
“When women get dressed for work, they are in a position where they need to be taken seriously — like a premier, like a supreme court justice, like a young intern,” Emma says, they go through mental gymnastics about what to wear. At the mall, everything caters to youth or focuses on fun, sexy, look-hot clothing.
“For the woman who wants to show up and be taken seriously — to be seen for who she is rather than what she’s wearing — there aren’t a ton of options,” Emma reports.
In 2018, after sketching out ideas for her brand, Emma found Lisa MacCarthy, her head of product, who had previously worked at Lululemon; hired a designer; then went to Los Angeles and sourced fabric. All the steps in this entrepreneurial journey were shared by Emma via personalized Instagram posts.
“I took out a $140,000 line of credit in the house and placed the order, wired the money, the first week of January 2020,” says Emma.
We take a spin around the showroom floor. The fabrics feel soft, smooth and stretchy. SophieGrace offers ease to working women who, post-pandemic, are utterly intolerant of discomfort. It’s possible to see how Emma’s updated version of the working woman’s power suit might foreshadow a new normal. We talk about other fashion trend setters: Mary Quant, the mother of the miniskirt, who led the way for a post-war generation of women to turn their backs on corsets and other constraining styles. And today, the Zen designs of America’s Eileen Fisher, originally targeted to mature women, are being snapped up by Gen Z consumers in second-hand and thrift shops.
And it’s not just the styles that evolve. Entrepreneurs breaking into the fashion world are smashing conventional business models. Nordstrom, an American luxury department store, is scheduled to exit Canada in June; corporate execs say they couldn’t make money here. “Their rent profile was insane,” Emma exclaims, and the shopping experience is “visually overwhelming.”
“I loved the main floor in Nordstrom, especially in Vancouver, the shoes and makeup. But when I went upstairs into the clothing area, it was hard to navigate,” Emma describes.
Her approach with SophieGrace is to spend far less on rent and help the customer find what she wants, online or in person, and find it quickly. Pop-ups in places like Toronto and SoHo grab attention. And the larger showroom space works for hosting social events where women can gather, with shopping as a side event. People may not be buying Tupperware but the business model survives.
Bouncing back and forth between a warehouse in Calgary and a retail shop and production facilities in Vancouver requires a founder with boundless energy. Emma is also smart enough to hire a talented team to help implement her plan. But she’s discovering that when it comes to accessing capital, it’s the men who still hold the purse strings.
“When you talk to them about women’s fashion, their eyes glaze over,” Emma laments, “and it feels a bit like Housewives of Orange County all of a sudden, like this is some kind of side project that’s really cute.”
“This is no hobby. We are doubling revenue every year,” reports Emma, her adamant voice: “I’m in the middle of a million-dollar financial raise.” SophieGrace is on track to do $4 million in sales this year and $8 million next year. Like the business women she’s dressing, Emma expects to be taken seriously.
Donna Kennedy-Glans is active in the energy business and a multi-generational family farm. Her most recent book is Teaching the Dinosaur to Dance: Moving Beyond Business as Usual (2022).
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Aritzia was founded by a man. Aritzia’s current CEO is Jennifer Wong.
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