Interview with an Entrepreneur: Colleen Monroe from Untucked Workwear
Colleen Monroe hails from the Midwest but has pursued her dreams all over the states, from film school in San Diego to costume design in New York City. She is passionate about quality clothing products and is a tried and true rider of public transit. Now based outside of Los Angeles, she has begun a new journey creating her own company, Untucked Workwear, for women like her who crave apparel that is both durable and functional to keep up with the changing way we work and live in our cities. Devon and I sat down with her in a coffee shop on a street corner in Pasadena to learn more about her creative process and talk about the entrepreneurial lifestyle.
Jane Roberts: We wanted to start off by asking, what does the word ‘entrepreneur’ mean to you?
Colleen Monroe: I’ve been thinking a lot about this and one word that definitely comes to mind is freedom. One of the questions that has come up amongst my entrepreneurial friends is “what could be.” We’re always filling in the “dot dot dot” part of that. I really love the idea of designing the future. Initially it’s going to be hard and you’re probably going to be juggling different jobs [but] I think ultimately we’re doing it because we want something better for ourselves. We are designing our own lifestyle that we see down the road and we want freedom to live a life that we love and can enjoy and celebrate. If I ever want to have a family or travel and see things, I want a lifestyle that is conducive for that. I want to love what I’m doing, but I’m also a daughter, sister, niece, friend, neighbor, and many other things, and I want to be present for all of the wonderful people in my life now and those who will cross my path in the future. While it’s challenging, there’s flexibility and freedom in an entrepreneurial life.
JR: Was there a specific moment, or was it more of a gradual realization that brought about Untucked?
CM: Untucked clothing is all about intentional design and durability. I love how menswear is constructed. I like the reinforced pockets, stitching, tailoring, structure, and especially the durability. And I didn’t really see that in the women’s world so much. I’ve lived in New York and now I’m living in Los Angeles, and I think the idea really came to me last summer when I sold my car and I started biking to work. It was like 16 miles round trip—I was biking from the East Side to Koreatown, taking the metro and always climbing stairs. I carry so many bags! I was working in an office and I had different projects going on [in between]. I wasn’t allowed to wear jeans in the office, so I had to have a new set of clothes to go to my next job, where I would be on my feet for like five hours and working with my hands. My clothes were just falling apart. When I headed out in the morning, I packed everything that I needed for the day. And the extra stuff made it difficult for me to focus on the goals I wanted to accomplish that day. There’s such a ‘gig’ culture in LA, and people are used to juggling a variety of different jobs, but our wardrobes are not conducive for that. I want to combine the kind of durability that can endure city living with polished class. New York meets LA. Kind of like the alternative to jeans. And I was like, what does that look like?
JR: What’s your creative process? Are you sketching a lot of the time? Testing out materials?
CM: There are so many pieces to starting an apparel company! I am [currently] prototyping a pair of pairs of pants, called Transit Trousers. Right now, I’m in the midst of sourcing fabric. That consumes a lot of my time because I really want these pants to be the best product I can put out there and I want transparency for my customers so they know where the textiles are from and how they are manufactured. It requires a lot of investigation, research, phone calls, and emails. Designing and sketching definitely take time too, because after I prototype, I go back to the drawing board to refine and improve the design. And [because] Untucked is a lifestyle brand, I also want to create something that is going to resonate with urban-living women. And so marketing and building relationships with people in the city is important because that is influencing how I design too. I can’t just lock myself in a room all day and sketch up ideas out of my head. I’m informed by the ideas that I see everyday and I get inspired by being in the metro and walking down the street, you know? I’m also writing. I feel like I’m trying to reach a wider audience beyond LA. It’s really neat to be able to write articles about my experiences living in the city, because, again, this is not just about a pair of pants, it’s about creating a community of urban women who support one another, and improving their lifestyles.
Devon Johnson: I’m curious, do you try to thrash your clothes in order to test out fabrics? Do you get to go on a ‘demo day’ or something like that?
CM: I wear my pants out and I’ll show them to friends, neighbors, and even people I meet on the street and ask them what they think. I’ll bike in them, I’ll wash them—I want to know how they will keep up. This helps me figure out what is working and what isn’t so I can make my next prototype better. So yeah, I’m all about show n’ tell in the early design process and thrashing them up in the city so they can really live the life they are being designed for. In fact, yesterday, I was talking to my neighbor downstairs at my apartment and we were both sharing stories on the struggles of finding pants that fit our curves. I asked, “Can I show you my prototype and my sketches?” and she got all excited and then went on to give me some really good feedback that I’m going to use in my next prototype.
JR: With your background in costuming, what are you looking to communicate with your clothing?
CM: I love costume design, not [just for] the clothes, because it’s more than that. It’s about the stories and the people and the characters I am helping to create through the clothes. When I approach fashion design, again, I’m coming up with a character and a story for my clothes and that story is being built by the people that I’m interacting with on a daily basis and through my own experiences. Costume design has been such a part of my life and my design process and I think its essence is at the root of Untucked. I’m excited about the conversation we are having as a global community about more thoughtful, ethical design, and I want to be part of that change. For me, it starts with approaching fashion design more like an anthropologist or a psychologist and understanding design from a more holistic perspective rather than [just viewing it as] another commodity to sell. I want to create something that respects the wearer and the world. By putting the individual at the forefront of our conversation when we are designing, we are inevitably going to create something that is needed and wanted and beautiful.
JR: What kind of advice do you try to seek out for yourself? Do you look for people who are doing this already or do you look to people who are in the same stage that you are at with starting a business?
CM: I look for different kinds of support—moral support, business support, support from people who don’t necessarily work in the fashion industry. I talk to family, I talk to friends. I think the biggest thing for me is not being afraid to ask for help. [It’s important for me] to take time to think through the challenges that I’m working through because I value people’s time and I’m nervous about reaching out to them so I kind of do my due diligence and go, okay, what is the actual challenge that I’m dealing with? Then I really try to hone in on who might be able to help me or maybe point me in the right direction. And I’m trying to reciprocate that too, you know, by being a good friend. Asking for help and advice has built some wonderful friendships. I think the way that business meet ups are conducted these days is [very fluid]. If it’s something you are super passionate about, a lot of your work bleeds over into your personal life so everything becomes interconnected. As an entrepreneur, it’s scary, but I get really excited that other people celebrate and encourage me and when I put myself out there I am so affirmed by people wanting to help.
JR: In the vein of process, what would you say helps you when you feel overwhelmed or discouraged in your work?
CM: Well, I think I have to get out of my head. I journal and read a lot. I love the outdoors, and living in California is great because I do lots of hiking and running. Having quiet is also so important to me too. I need time to think and connect dots and really understand what it is that I’m designing and how it will be constructed. Creativity just needs time to simmer. And then sometimes I need to walk away. I need to be okay with the challenges, like mental blocks. I’m big on not forcing things. I take that as a sign that I need to go and read a novel or hit the trails. Also, every time I go out into the city, I gain a new perspective. It’s kind of sobering when I’m going through the city and navigating it and experiencing all of these different worlds, pockets of diverse neighborhoods with their own triumphs and challenges. Any time I get caught up in my design bubble, I find it helpful to just be out amongst the hard-working people of the city, from the construction workers to the street vendors to the corporate execs. There is a whir of movement that kind of wakes you up and draws you out of yourself.
JR: What would you say to someone considering creating their own business?
CM: I think the thing is to treat it like an experiment. We get so caught up in our ideas and we want them to succeed—as we should, we should put in 110%. But don’t put so much pressure on yourself that if things don’t turn out the way you want them to, you can’t be open to change and flexibility. Be willing to test your idea, talk to people about it, and don’t rush it. We need to be gentle with our ideas. And don’t keep it to yourself. Share your idea before you do anything drastic with it. We are communal, we’re social creatures. We need to respect that about ourselves. Take your idea and shop it around. Push it, poke it, bend it. Play around with it! I think you also need to take advice with a grain of salt. You know you, and you know what you want. Be confident in your perspective and why you started this because you’ll start to doubt yourself the further you get down the line. Surround yourself with some really awesome mentors, and touch base with them. They actually want you to talk to them and they want to see your progress. You are going to need a team and a community. You can’t do it on your own. But again, I think the biggest thing is not to take your idea too seriously right away.
You can follow Colleen and her process by connecting on her site for Untucked Workwear. The photos from this interview were taken by Devon Johnson.