“I wouldn’t have this business if I couldn’t do it in a way that felt good.”
When Kristi Soomer founded her Toronto-based athleisure brand, Encircled, in late 2012, the guiding design concept was led by her experience as a management consultant who racked up thousands of kilometres in travel a year. “I really wanted pieces that were comfortable and versatile and stylish,” she recalls. Eventually, she set out to create pieces that would speak to her life in a suitcase, figuring that others had the same needs and wants as well.
She was right. The first product Encircled launched was the Chrysalis Cardi, so named for its ability to morph into multiple ways of being worn; and since then, the brand has developed an array of easy-to-wear garments that come in limited runs and are initially launched as pre-orders to minimize the volume of pieces being created. “We try to find that perfect intersection of comfort, style, ethics and sustainability,” Soomer says of the brand’s approach; it’s one that has led to Encircled receiving B Corp certification thanks to practices like having its own ethical supplier checklist above and beyond the points regulated by the federal government, and working with local partners to manufacture its goods.
Encircled’s new Fair Jogger Set is one such example of its Canadian-crafted products; it includes a hoodie and pair of relaxed-fit pants both fashioned from a bamboo fleece-based material that’s Oeko-Tex® Standard 100 certified. The duo is a timely offering considering how many of us are seeking cozy pieces to sport at home. “We started to focus on the idea of building a curated, minimalist wardrobe,” says Soomer, adding that, “It’s going to be hard to get people back into uncomfortable pants. Once you’ve lived in leggings and sweatpants for months and months, it’ll be a hard transition to go back to that.”
Regardless of where the Fair Jogger set is being rocked, customers can take extra comfort in learning more about what’s involved in producing their purchase than they normally would from other brands. Encircled’s website features several components of information about fabrics, manufacturing and more, all with the goal to be as transparent as possible.
“I wanted to build a business where I was super aligned with its values,” says Soomer, noting that even though she doesn’t have a background in fashion design, as a consumer she always saw the industry as a shadowy, secretive one. She addresses the biggest objection consumers have to Encircled’s pieces–their cost–by reiterating that better materials and on-shore manufacturing come with a higher, and definitely worthy, price. “We want people to understand what goes into the process of making a garment,” she says. “And we want to show how a customer’s dollars impacts the community.”
And community is something that’s been imperative to Encircled’s success. “We’re a customer-centric organization,” Soomer says. “Most of our designs come from their ideas, and we work with them directly to refine those ideas.” The brand posts about prototypes to gain its audience’s feedback, sharing updated iterations with the aim of delivering the best possible end product.
Recently the brand launched a Facebook group, and Soomer says it’s not only ideal as a platform for Encircled to communicate information about new designs and accumulate reactions to its offerings. “It’s a zone where people can buy, sell and trade Encircled pieces,” she says. “It’s a great way to keep the fashion lifecycle going without landfilling clothing.”
The group’s activities certainly speak to Soomer’s mantra of “progress over perfection”, as well as being a nod to the idea of “honouring the planet and people on the planet” that she takes so much to heart. In speaking about being the CEO of a brand during the ongoing civil rights movement here and around the world, she notes that, “We fully acknowledge that we’re not perfect–I don’t think any brand is. We’ve been focused on doing what we can, and being open and transparent with everything we do.”
This includes taking the 15% Pledge, and starting a company-wide book club; every Friday this summer they’ve met to discuss Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist. And Encircled is also currently accepting submissions until mid-September for the Impact Fund, a $5,000 grant aimed at uplifting a female-identifying founder-led business.
Such a boost would definitely assist an emerging business trying to endure through the COVID-19 crisis, and Soomer isn’t shy when it comes to sharing her personal journey during the experience. “Entrepreneurship in itself is always a roller coaster,” she says. “I don’t think anybody can ever prepare anybody for the emotions that go into running a business, [nevermind] during a pandemic.
“At the beginning, it was difficult to function,” she goes on. “There were a couple of weeks there where I wasn’t at my best.” But Soomer came to realize that adopting a routine–one that includes walking her dog, eating a healthy breakfast and spending some time on her Peloton–results in a noticeable shift in her mindset. “I think the worst thing you can do when you’re going through a challenging time is just sit there and wallow in it,” she says, identifying herself as a big planner. “Making a plan and taking action, even if it’s small steps forward, can make a big difference.”