Britt: I'm so excited to be chatting with one of my superheroes and her name is Kristi Soomer. Hey there Kristi, how's it going?
Kristi: Hi I'm good. How are you?
Britt: I'm good! So we have Kristi here today. She's the founder and CEO of Encircled, the slow fashion brand that specializes in travel-friendly, women's fashion made without compromise. She has 14 years of retail consulting and consumer packaged goods industry experience, and the passion for using business as a force for good, just like us. And so we are so happy to have you here Kristi.
Kristi: Thank you so much for having me. Yeah, I'm really excited. I love the vibe when I came into the live. The music was playing, and I was like, okay. We're setting a vibe here, that's cool.
Britt: Yeah, of course. You got it. You are in Toronto yourself, correct?
Kristi: Yeah, yeah, in Toronto, Canada.
Britt: Yeah. You know, I love doing this at around 7:30 on a Tuesday night, it's a really nice way to end the day - with good and inspiration conversations and I'm so happy to have you here. You have had an adventure of a career path over the last couple of years that has led you to this beautiful place that is Encircled. And I'd love for you to take the floor and let us know a little bit about your journey.
Kristi: Sure. So, I'll try and give you the short story of it. So I'm Kristi, the founder of Encircled, the slow fashion brand that does it all. I did not go to design school, fashion school, I can barely sew, even to this day. But I'm very passionate about creating really innovative fashion, sustainable fashion and fashion that honours people in the process of making the clothes as well. Originally, I started Encircled because I was super passionate about traveling light. So in my previous career, I was a Management Consultant that basically required me to fly from client site to client site and live out of a really tiny suitcase because that was the most efficient way to travel. And I got pretty frustrated with the lack of stylish and sustainable clothing. I really wanted pieces that were comfortable to sit around on a plane for four, five hours, but would look presentable if I had to go meet with a client, or go out for dinner, or something like that. So I was truly inspired to create it originally, because I was packing for a yoga retreat in Costa Rica, back in 2012. And my suitcase broke, and I had to smush everything into this super tiny bag. I was going on my first yoga retreat ever. I had no idea what to bring, so I was way over packing and then I just started questioning, why am I bringing so much stuff? What if I just had one piece that could do a few different things really, really well? And that one piece eventually became our Chrysalis Cardi, which is essentially like an 8-in-1 and one of the best sellers in our collection today. It's a gown, a dress, a cardigan, a tunic, and it's just a piece that can really take you around the world and back again.
Britt: For sure. I actually own the Chrysalis Cardi.
Kristi: Oh you do? Oh, cool.
Britt: Yes, I do. I honestly was gonna wear it tonight, and then I realized that I lent it out to somebody to experience the magic for themselves. But they're so soft, so versatile. You can definitely feel that the material is long-lasting, and it's one of the things that attracts me to Encircled to begin with. And then I learned more about the sustainable practices that you dedicate yourself to today in terms of your manufacturing and sourcing. But it's a really cool story. Costa Rica, it's one of the places that we go as a travel company. And it is one of those funny places where you're just really, oh my god, the weather kinda looks different everyday It says it's gonna rain, it’s not gonna rain. Like sometimes it's cold at night, sometimes it's hot, sometimes it's humid. So it's one of those places where you're like, “I really wish that I had one thing that could work multiple ways.” Because I am a self-proclaimed over packer. So, I'm very happy that you created your brand. And so, the sustainable aspect of it, using business as a force for good, how did you get there? Why does it matter?
Kristi: So, I got there from the beginning. I'm like a lot of brands where I think, in the last couple of years, has started seeing this awakening to really make a more sustainable world, and that's become almost trendy. So a lot of fashion brands are launching Conscious Collections. Or you know, the eco-friendly fabric collection, etc. For Encircled we started that way. So we've always had sustainability at our foundation, as well as ethics. So everything is 100% made in Toronto, Canada. So locally to where you are. We also knit about half our fabric locally, and dye it locally as well. And we use exclusively sustainable fabrics. And that's something that just became important to me over the years, as I was building my career. As a kid, I was very much an animal activist and I was actually a vegetarian from age 10, or 11 onwards. And this is like the 90s - it was not trendy to be a vegetarian back then. So I felt like I was really on the front of things, and I was really passionate about the environment and stuff like that. So it's always been with me. But I felt like, when I chose a corporate career, I have to give that part of me up. So it was almost like, when I was working in corporate for almost 10 years, I had two different personalities. And I don't know if people can relate to this, but I had work Kristi, who was super corporate. Probably wore these glasses, and wore a pantsuit and she’s all buttoned up. Then I had Kristi at home who's wearing a bun, or leggings, doing yoga, drinking green juice, eating kale, protesting and supporting GreenPeace. So I had these two different worlds and I felt like, to build a fulfilling life, I really had to figure out a way to bring them together. And I had to figure out a way to mesh business, which is something that I really love. But do it in a way that felt really good, and really implement those principles of conscious capitalism into business.
Britt: For sure. And isn't it so strange that we have two different people? I am also a product of an urge to combine those worlds. I spent so many hours of my days at this desk, working for this business, and I can't be me 100%. I can't work my passions into my day-to-day. And you know, in creating our sustainable travel company, I totally get this element that your product is just better when all the hands that it touches, and all the lives that it touches are benefiting equally and sustainably and ethically from the way that you go out delivering your product. And I've just seen those good vibrations flow, just as they flow through your fabric, flow through the experience. And I think that that's really, really cool. And I think a lot of businesses are catching on to this idea that this is the way to go. I think the last year has put into perspective that we have one world. We should probably take care of it. Probably take care of the people in our world too. Everybody's lives are connected in some way or another. So you're finding a lot of these brains jumping onto the eco-friendly, sustainable lines. And it's kind of just like, “Oh, they have this collection that's sustainable.” So what is greenwashing? And as a consumer, how can we keep an eye out for that and understand how to shop sustainably?
Kristi: Greenwashing is such a big topic. I feel like I could talk about that for half an hour probably. But some of it really just comes down to misleading consumers down a path that is not actually sustainable. So, I'm all for big businesses shifting, and becoming more sustainable. I think that is great. The more fashion brands we have that are buying certified organic cotton, or certified Tencel Modal - the supply of that will go up and the cost will come down. It's better for the planet. It's kind of a win-win situation. What I'm not for is when brands take messages and distort them to manipulate consumers into thinking they're buying something more sustainable that it is. And you see that a lot, especially in beauty. Fashion as well. And fashion's even worse I think, because it's even less regulated than a beauty product, where you would have to get stuff through, like the FDA, or whatever to be able to make certain claims. So, essentially, it's just the same things that aren't true. And it's very rampant. Because there could be half-truths in there. Historically were taught that cotton is the best fabric for example but that's not really true. The cotton industry has a huge panel of lobbyists who pay the government a lot of money to put out commercials and talk about cotton being the fabric of your life, etc. But there's a lot of negative aspects to a fabric, like cotton, if it's not properly harvested, if it's over irrigating the land, if there's pesticides used on it, it can have really negative impacts both on human and animal and plant life. So there's a lot of considerations there as well. The tough thing I think about sustainability from a consumer perspective, is that it's not black and white. There's a lot of grey areas there. So it's really about becoming more curious, as a consumer. Starting to ask questions of the brand. So if you're not sure, ask them, “Why do you think that t-shirt is a sustainable t-shirt?” And I think a great example of a collection - the H&M has a Conscious Collection. And basically in the fine print, it says "Our commitment is to have 50% of the materials" or something, sustainable? Like that's not really that conscious, if you're not doing it 100%. And also you're not paying a living wage. Because sustainability goes beyond just the materials you're using. It's like, are you craving a sustainable livelihood for people throughout the supply chain as well? So I think consumers are really smart these days. I don't think a lot gets by them. So it's just about being curious and holding the brands accountable. Because unfortunately, what we've seen the government regulators, and stuff like that, don't really care about this as much right now. It's not an urgent problem to them in terms of the scale of climate change and the greenwashing in the fashion industry is pretty low down there. It’s really about us being more active and educating as well.
Britt: Very cool and that's some great feedback. As a brand who also recognizes that there's so much money that circulated around the world for fashion. There's so much money that's circulating around the world for travel. And it's just like, making those simple conscious decisions about where the money in your pocket is ending up at the end of the today, could have immense, immense differences, like life-changing impacts on people down the line, who are part of the production process, or part of the experience-making process. And I think that it's, I personally say in the travel industry, because travel's on halt, globally. Nobody knows what to do. We're trying to figure it out here. But it seems that there's an emerging topic of this idea of regenerative travel. How do we go back into the world and use travel as a force to restart economies? And I think that I'm also worried about businesses just slapping this, “I'm doing a good job, like travel for good, sustainable, authentic.” All of these words have been taken, and I'm worried about seeing that as well. So I'm gonna be working on my own and to try and embrace some consumer awareness about that. But I love what you're doing in that respect. So, in terms of the product lines that you offer, what's a capsule wardrobe?
Kristi: So capsule wardrobe - there's technical ways of describing it. I think a few people say it's 33 key pieces in your wardrobe. But you don't have to put a number against it. It's essentially having a refined, curated set of wardrobe items, pieces of clothing that you reach for over and over again that really mix and match super well. So when you think about it, when we travel, oftentimes we're pretty good at editing, how much we need in our suitcases, and planning outfits based on where we're going and what we're gonna wear. But when it comes to our closets, we have a tendency to only wear about 20% of our closet items. So really, we've got all this excess stuff in our closets. So that is 80% of your closet you're not wearing and you could be spending that money on travel or investing it in better made clothing, and more ethical options versus just having loads and loads of stuff you're not often wearing. So I'm a big proponent of outfit repeating. That is one of my favorite things to do when I travel is to repeat my outfits all day, every day. I've learned some tricks and tips over the years for sure of things what not to pack and what to pack, etc. So it's essentially just having a refined wardrobe where you're really selective about what comes in and goes out of your wardrobe. And you make really intentional, conscious choices about what you're buying.
Britt: Very cool. For me, the sarong is essential - I could wear it as like, a top, a skirt, a beach travel wrap. It's gonna be my beach towel, also my shower towel. It was one of those things I have to pack, because it can serve me in so many ways. So it's so cool that you also offer that. So that's part of what so much I appreciate about what you do. I know that you did various things before you started Encircled. But, starting a business takes guts. Can you tell us about a time that you were pushed outside of your comfort zone and learned something valuable that shapes your day-to-day thinking about your business, or the way that you approach life? And it could have happened locally, or something on your travels?
Kristi: I don't think anybody has ever asked me that question. So, number one, bravo on a great question. Wow. There's been so many things I think, being an entrepreneur, that pushes you outside of your comfort zone. At the end of the day, if you're the founder of a business, you're accountable for pretty much everything. That goes from how your orders are shipped to the fabrics that you buy, to experiences online. And there's all kinds of mistakes we've made over the years. And we still continue to make them. Ideally, not the same mistakes, but it's a small business, so we're all learning as we go. So I think as long as we learn something from that process, it's really valuable. I think for me, probably, the biggest out of my comfort zone was probably hiring a team. Because in my corporate career, I definitely had direct reports and I had a team and stuff like that, but it's very different when you're recruiting for yourself. And you're also involved actively in the recruitment process whereas, when you work in corporate, you just show up and there's a new person on your team. You're like, great, how did you get here? That's neat. But the actual process of defining who you need on your team, what your values are as a brand and finding somebody that aligns with those values as well, I think really pushed me out of my comfort zone to think about what is really important brand, what matters. And what kind of people do we want to have working at this brand that would bring the same kind of joy to it that I like to bring to the brand every single day. And you know, it's your baby so you love it so much. But I'm every lucky to have an amazing team. We have about 14 people right now, plus two summer interns starting next week. So it's just awesome. And they're all very passionate about the business, which is great. But I would say, initially, I was just like, happy to have somebody come work with me. I was like, wow! You want to work for me? Amazing! Great!
Britt: I know. My first hire was Sandra. I think she's on the call. She's the coordinate extraordinaire for Origin Travels. And I remember I just got this, it was in the early days, I guess two years ago. And it was just an email that I got from her being like, "I really like what you're doing, like how can we work together?" And I'm just like, cool? Somebody else thinks this is also so cool. So like, those pieces of validation are very nice. I'm very happy that Sandra is still around. I would say, in terms of anecdote. I might be putting you on the spot here, but as somebody who has spent a lot of time getting on and off planes in your corporate position, can you tell us a favorite travel experience that you had that maybe shaped the way that you saw the world? Because I deeply believe that it's those times where we step outside of our comfort zone, where we're sitting outside of our four walls, and it’s like, we do the real learning. And I'm wondering, if there's any times you can think of on the spot that ended up, to you, being transformational?
Kristi: There was a couple. I'm gonna give a shout out to one, because I just saw her join the live. She actually was the host of the first yoga retreat that I went on. Jackie Savo - she's a yoga instructor in Toronto and she's amazing. And she hosted the first retreat that I ever went on, where I dreamt of the Chrysalis Cardi, so I have to give her a shout out for sure. And we're definitely still in touch, which is amazing. I would say, that was obviously very transformative because that whole experience really gave me space. I have never been to a yoga retreat before. I wasn't sure if I would like it. It gave me space to think and say, do I really want this design idea to be a business? Or am I just playing around here? And it definitely connected the dots for me. And then probably the other most transformative experience, which is ironically also connected to Jackie. I swear I travel with somebody other than Jackie. Like I’m a Jackie Savo advertiser right now. But I went to Bali in, I think it was 2012? She may remember more than me. And we were surfing. We did a surfing lesson in Seminyak, and I love surfing first of all. And am really passionate about it. But I realized that we were surfing in garbage in Seminyak. There was garbage everywhere. And I was like, I just don't understand. And then when I talked to people about it, they were like, "Well, the sewer system in Bali isn't very good. But Bali is seen as this very luxurious, beautiful place. And it definitely is. There's definitely very beautiful parts. But there's also this kind of city side with dump sewage into the ocean or whatever. And I surfed in there. I got really, really sick. I ended up throwing up at the W Hotel in the lobby. And I threw up on my friend. But what I learned from it was, wow. Number one, things aren't always as they seem. And number two, if stuff like this is happening here, just imagine other areas of the world where there are environmental issues. And this was like, eight years ago, almost. So the environmental impact of that just sat with me for a really long time because it was actually something you're swimming in. And you can feel the garbage. It's something I'll never forget. And that was a while ago. I don't know what it's like now. I haven't been back in a while. But yeah, so for me, that just cemented the fact that we need to do more for the environment. Whether it's at home or abroad, we really need to look into initiatives where we could do cleanups and stuff like that and start to change the perception around plastic usage globally. Because it's a really big problem. Because most of what I was swimming in was plastic garbage bags and bottles, and stuff like that.
Britt: And to that point, it's so much about what I blab about sustainable travel. When you think about Bali, everybody knows about Bali. Everybody talks about Bali. It's all over Instagram. All you can see is basically, flower petal baths as far as the eye can see. And it's this idea of this luxurious place, and to your point, it is incredible. I have been there. But then you think about, if everybody I know has been to Bali, if everybody I know has known somebody who has gone to Bali, why is that wealth so concentrated in one area? How much money that you spend in a place is really staying there? This is like a term, that's largely been spoken about and emerging a little bit more, but it's called Tourism Leakage. And it's this idea of how much you spend in a place, actually stays there. And this is really connected to this concept of foreign ownership of businesses. Stay at a Hilton hotel, or you ate in McDonald’s, yes okay. You're physically spending your dollar in Bali, but those dollars, very minimal amounts of it, actually stay there and the most ends up somewhere else. And so, it just really puts into perspective, this whole line of, when your money goes somewhere, it can be transformative for places. Another example is Agra in India... Insane amounts of people who visit there every single day, but it's surrounded by many, many slum communities. It's just, how could that look if we're all just a little bit more mindful of spending money on businesses that actually cared about keeping money in the communities? And it's not about charity. It's about change. It's about working with businesses who actually believe that, when this money goes back to the community, it's better for everybody. And I love that you're being so mindful of that in your day-to-day practices. I'll also just say that my business idea was also born in Costa Rica.
Kristi: It's one of my favorite places in the world, for sure.
Britt: For sure. And I cannot wait to get back. It's definitely my second home. But let's do some rapid fire questions.
Kristi: Sure. Yeah.
Britt: So, what is one item of clothing you need to pack for every trip?
Kristi: My dressy sweatpants, probably.
Britt: Dressy sweatpants? Is that an Encircled piece?
Kristi: That's an Encircled piece, yeah that I designed on a 12-hour plane ride to Brazil where I was sitting in very uncomfortable work pants, and I wanted something stylish. And ironically, this is a pre-pandemic idea. This came out in 2015. So they were really designed as sweatpants you can wear to work, literally.
Britt: That is amazing. You must link me to that.
Kristi: Yeah, definitely.
Britt: And what is something you always put in your carry-on?
Kristi: It's gonna sound ridiculous now. But hand sanitizers. I'm so big on hand sanitizer pre-pandemic too. That's a big one for me, for sure.
Britt: Then you probably were prepared when there were all these shortages. I found myself in New York City on the day that they declared the lockdown, at a Woman's Travel Conference and nobody wanted to shake hands anymore. And everyone's just like, "Where do we find hand sanitizers?" And luckily I was in Chinatown, and there were some small pharmacies there. And I'm just like, do you have hand sanitizers? They're like, "Yes. Here's this tiny palm hand sanitizer for 30 dollars."... much needed. What is your favorite physical souvenir you've ever brought home from a trip?
Kristi: I would say, it's this jewelry box I bought in Spain, in Granada, in Spain? It's got this really beautiful inlay on the top of it, of wood. And it's just really gorgeous. It's one of my favourite pieces.
Britt: I love those types of pieces where you can use forever. But Kristi, thank you so much for joining us tonight. It's lovely to talk to you.
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