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Playing For Keeps: How One Small Business Went All In On Gender Equal Clothing

Despite the pandemic slowing the world down, Play Out Apparel thrived by leaning in on the community built by its brand.

By Darragh Dandurand

Entrepreneur E Leifer wants a stylish world where gender plays little part in how we dress or what we wear. After two decades working in the fashion industry, Leifer co-founded Play Out Apparel, serving as its Chief Design Officer and fashioning the future of “gender equal clothing.” Mission-driven beyond their product lines, Leifer and team aim to be intersectional in the communities they elevate, having made it a point since day one to donate 20% of their net profits to Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ non-profits.

Like most businesses, Play Out Apparel took a hit in March of 2020, when the pandemic shut down most of the world. With clothing production and orders slowed to a halt, Leifer and co. had to rethink their ways of doing business and reprioritize what doing business meant to them. Bustle recently talked with Leifer about what it’s been like running their own fashion line during a turbulent year, what keeps them inspired, and how Play Out Apparel got back to business thanks to the brand’s fiercely loyal consumer base.

Why do you do the work you do?

Coming from a long career in fashion, I have seen this industry exclude, marginalize, and belittle people who just want to have stylish clothes available in a broad size range and see themselves represented in advertising. People don’t want to feel like they need to be “someone else” to wear a certain brand. I shop my values and see my spending dollars as a means of power. Play Out Apparel is a company that doesn’t “other” people. We built a company that stands for equality, representation, and individuality at its very core. Meeting this need is what drives me as a person and a designer, and it’s what drives our Founder and CEO, Abby Sugar, as well.

What was it like to do business before vs. during the pandemic?

The biggest difference before the pandemic was that we could be more “hands on” with our customers and our brand promotion. We were able to do “pop-up” shops, in-person events at stores that carried our products, we even had a beach volleyball team we sponsored every summer. Product shoots with models coming together and interacting is also really important to us and that was put on hold during the pandemic, so we had to be creative with ways we were communicating products on our websites and social media.

During Covid-19, did you have any "lightbulb moments" occur because of the challenges you faced as a small fashion business owner?

As a small business, physically being away from each other during shelter-in-place and being unable to order or receive new products made us reimagine, reinvent, and reschedule our entire marketing and production trajectories for 2020. This year, we took what we learned and realized we could “level up” going forward. We saw that we could be more agile about employee locations, team communication, and we incorporated apps that gave us the flexibility to get all the content we could, from all over the world.

How did you maintain a positive and productive outlook in the past year?

We have always maintained a commitment to agility as a team and a business, but we never thought it would come in as handy as it did in 2020. Early in, we knew we were going to have to roll with the punches and stay true to our long-term vision, no matter what. We felt that if we could get through this, we could get through almost anything. We took every small win we could get and just kept putting one foot in front of the other. Our mission to serve and support our community really helped us to stay positive as well.

What technologies or innovations have you leveraged to navigate Covid-19 and beyond?

So many amazing platforms have come into their own during this time. We’ve moved our influencer relationship management to Influence.co so we have everything in one place and have access to thousands of ambassadors and influencers who align with our brand values.

We’ve streamed events on Twitch, hosted panels on Zoom, been on panels in Clubhouse, integrated apps on our Shopify store, really branched out on TikTok, and are constantly investigating every new platform, device, and plugin that we hear about. The days of only relying on Facebook paid ads are obviously gone and entirely new, global communities are slowly taking its place.

What were your big losses and your big wins from the past year?

Our biggest loss was time, production, and supply chain delivery windows, and not having creative control over the content we were relying on to sell products due to not being able to work directly with models on shoots. We had to reinvent the entire year that had been mapped out in Q1. Yet in the end, our wins far outweighed those losses.

We were able to launch two new collections and work to expand our team virtually. Most notably, we were able to virtually court our current COO – former H&M country manager of Mexico, John Lackner – and bring him on as a partner last September. Also, just knowing that we as a team can withstand the level of pressure and uncertainty that 2020 provided is a big win. 2020, in terms of our business, was a defining moment, and the lessons we learned about what we can overcome and drive through will be ones we utilize far into the future.

What's your advice for small business owners still trying to get on their feet?

Owning a business is a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it when you see your mission connecting to your audience. Don’t be afraid to take risks, but always remember your “why.” Remembering why you started a business will fuel you when things are overwhelming or roadblocks occur. Don’t be afraid to talk yourself up either. Let everyone know your mission and be clear about what you need so that you can connect and collaborate with people to help move your business forward.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.