Mary Bemis, 29, used to think “fabric was fabric.” But when she started re-selling some of her used clothes on Poshmark to help finance an expensive Manhattan move in late 2016, she paused when she found herself writing “polyester” over and over in the item descriptions.
“I was really surprised to learn that polyester was essentially a plastic,” said Bemis. “If I’m investing in eating healthier and natural beauty products, why am I still wearing stuff that is kind of toxic and chemical-heavy?”
When she couldn’t find the type of sustainable clothing she wanted to wear, Bemis decided to make her own. As a self-described “super tomboy” who played “just about every sport” growing up in Minneapolis, she decided to begin by creating sustainable activewear since that was the type of clothing she gravitated toward in her daily life. Activewear was also the type of clothing in her closet that contained the most polyester.
The fact that she didn’t have a background in fashion or design didn’t stop Bemis. She took the time to study the industry, found the right mentors and launched a successful Kickstarter campaign that helped her brand, Reprise, get its start.
Doing the research
Bemis began her career in investment banking. Prior to 2016, she had been working long hours, usually leaving the office at midnight or 1 a.m. When she made a transition to the advertising industry, she felt amazed to be ending the workday at 6 p.m.
Now that Bemis had her evenings free, she knew she had the time and energy to devote to building a brand. She enrolled in the sustainable design certificate program from the Fashion Institute of Technology, which was conveniently located across the street from her day job. “I would leave work at 6 p.m. and then run over and take the class from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.,” she said.
Bemis credited the program with giving her the momentum to build Reprise. Bemis said, “Even if I don't have the formal training, I have the support system and the right people to meet. You could just ask one person for one more connection, and you can build from there.”
Bemis set a Kickstarter goal of $18,000 in May 2017, and 183 backers helped her achieve it. She officially launched her brand online in May 2018.
Finding “clean” fabric
Bemis zeroed in on Tencel, a tree-based fiber, to create her activewear. It’s a mix of beechwood, pine trees, and eucalyptus. But Bemis went beyond just fabric choice to create a sustainable product.
She purchased Tencel from Lenzing, an Austrian-based company, because of their production process. “All of the trees are grown without insecticides or pesticides; it’s all organic farming,” Bemis said. The company combines wood chips with a solvent that makes them dissolve into a silky fiber that is woven to create the fabric.
“What's cool about Lenzing is that all of those materials used to break down the wood into the fiber are reused again and again—at a 99.9 percent rate. It's a really nice, closed loop process that's super clean. Other sustainable fibers, like bamboo, are chemically intensive to break down because they’re so strong. Lenzing’s Tencel is clean in the sense that it's made from plants and also because the chemical process isn’t really heavy,” Bemis explained.
In addition to feeling good about the process used to create this fabric, it’s also known to be extremely soft and comfortable, which is often the first thing mentioned in customer reviews.
Standing out from the crowd
Athleticwear, of course, is a crowded field with many big companies starting to become more sustainable. But overall, their products are still made from plastic, maintained Bemis.
“When companies advertise ‘recycled activewear,’ they are often taking plastic bottles and turning them into fabric. I don’t want to knock any improvement efforts, but it’s still a plastic-based fiber sitting on your skin,” Bemis said.
She also pointed out that all clothing sheds microscopic fibers when it’s washed; when plastic-based fabric is washed, tiny bits of plastic end up in our waterways. She said, “The benefit of using a natural fiber is when it sheds into the water, it will biodegrade.”
Bemis had expected mainly younger, eco-conscious customers to appreciate and support Reprise. She has been surprised, however, by the amount of new mothers who turn to Reprise on a mission to eliminate chemicals from their homes.
Withstanding setbacks and celebrating growth
The past year was a roller coaster of a year for Reprise. Bemis initially saw an uptick in sales last April when people started staying home and investing in loungewear. Soon after, however, the factories that had been making her products either closed due to Covid-19 fallout or switched to manufacturing PPE. Bemis herself donated extra fabric she had on hand to the PPE effort.
Once factories started opening up again in the summer, Bemis was able to introduce her bestselling leggings in two new colors. And in the fall, she ended up tripling her best sales ever.
Bemis is looking forward to launching new products this spring, including a bike short and a legging with pockets. And she’s thrilled to team up with a sustainably-made, size-inclusive brand, Poppy Row, on products with extended sizing.
In regard to the highs and lows of the past year, Bemis said, “I’m just thankful to still be in business and provide something that people are finding of comfort when they’re at home.”
To other aspiring female entrepreneurs, Bemis said: "Just keep remembering your 'why' and don't give up. Entrepreneurship is an incredible lesson in personal growth and development as much as it is about solving a business problem."