Setting goals: You have had a year to think about what you want to do next. Setting goals keeps you motivated, excited, and looking forward to the next day. This feeling of setting goals already makes you feel better, but when you accomplish them, the feeling you have is indescribable. Goals can be different for everyone.
Courtney Denton-Tsang is the Co-Founder and CEO of McKee Performance Wear. A sustainable and ethical activewear brand for today’s youth — made in the United States. After her husband was deployed overseas in February 2020, she decided it was time to make her dreams a reality. She founded and launched this new brand that’s mission is to give back to local kids and communities across the U.S. all while navigating the unknowns of 2020 and the Covid-19 Pandemic.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
McKee Performance Wear was always a dream, a goal written down a million times, and an idea that I never imagined coming to life.
As a young girl, I grew up living next door to my grandparents (every child’s dream). My grandma “Gram” was an avid sewer, seamstress, and wizard of quilting. She had an entire floor of her home filled with sewing machines, quilting machines, piles of fabrics, and walls full of color-coordinated thread. Every day, I would catch the school bus from my Gram’s house and would come straight back after school ended, before gymnastics practice.
The time I spent at my grandparents’ house was spent ironing fabric and playing “Joann’s.” For those of you who don’t know, Joann Fabrics is a store my Gram and I visited weekly. There, we would pick out new fabrics for fun projects and I would stand there in awe of how precisely they would cut the fabric and fold it so neatly before handing it over to be purchased. At home, I would iron the fabric, eliminating every crease and line, and then strategically fold the fabric in the same way as Joann’s employees before handing it over to Gram to be sewn.
I learned how to sew from my grandmother, Patti Mackie. As I grew up, I would sketch little designs and spend weekends with her coming up with the patterns and sewing them together. As the years passed, and it was time to head to college, I made the decision to continue my studies at Saint Mary’s College of California, despite wanting to be in the fashion world. My parents and I decided it was best to get a degree that wouldn’t hold me to one career path and once I graduated, I could get my master’s in Fashion. So, while I was an undergrad in Moraga, California, I studied Communications and Politics.
After my first semester of undergrad, I enrolled in summer school at Parsons the New School of Design in New York City. I spent the summer in different sewing rooms (factories), gallivanting across the city purchasing fabric for projects and connecting with my dream mentor, Joan Duncan, fashion merchandiser extraordinaire and Parsons’s professor.
After my summer in the city, I headed back to the Bay Area and landed my dream job in the athleisure market. After two years of being immersed in the athleisure world, I moved back to NYC for a great opportunity with a different brand while transferring to a new location to continue my athleisure job. This was the summer that determined what I was meant to do — to be in fashion.
Every day, I would walk back from the subway to my apartment talking to my gram about what crazy event I got to be a part of that night, how my photo was used in a Domino Magazine article, and how every single day was basically a dream — straight out of the Devil Wears Prada (except I loved my boss).
As I finished my senior year of undergrad, I was invited to Savannah College of Art and Design for an in-person interview for a master’s program with the potential of early admissions. This was my long-term goal and soon became a reality. As soon as my time in undergrad ended, I jetted off to Savannah, Georgia to receive my master’s in Luxury and Fashion Management.
Before I headed across the country to continue to pursue my dreams, Gram passed away. She was my rock, my world, and my biggest fan.
Fast forward to 2020, I had already graduated a year early with my Masters in Luxury and Fashion Management, gotten married, and worked a little over five years in the athleisure world. I had moved four times in the last year #armywifelife and needless to say, I was ready to make my dreams a reality.
McKee was born in February 2020, named after my grandparents, The Mackies. McKee phonetically sounded the same and was an ode to their Scottish heritage. McKee means fire and quickly contributed to our tagline: Fuel Your Fire. Our logo was then created out of my grandfather’s farming brand that dates back a hundred years. Just as I grew up surrounded by family, it only made sense that the entire essence of McKee became family-oriented as well.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?
It sounds cliche to say this, but honestly, the most interesting thing that happened since I started McKee was the Covid-19 Pandemic and the world being shut down.
We were in Los Angeles just 2 or 3 days before the lockdown at a fabric convention where we were meeting with vendors from all over the world. We were shaking hands with people from Australia, Europe, India, etc. not knowing it may be years before we shook hands with anyone else again — we had no idea what was about to happen.
Obviously, our entire journey was affected and changed many times along the way due to the pandemic. However, what I learned from creating and launching a business in the year 2020 was that nothing can stand in your way if you truly believe in yourself and what you are doing. There were many times we thought, how is this even possible, this can’t actually work out, but there are people out there who are good and who want success for others and not just themselves. In the time of panic and confusion, we came across people who were kind and generous and wanted nothing more than to help us through it. I learned that when you come together with others, you can create more than if you were to just do it by yourself.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I can’t recall a big mistake that I have made along the way. It has been more so little mistakes here and there that come with learning the business. I had this professor at SCAD, Alessandro Cannata, and without his classes and the plethora of information I left SCAD with I would have made many more mistakes.
I had so many books I would reference before making any decisions and if I didn’t have a book for it, I would lean on google and my mentors. For me it was more of misunderstanding production timelines, and how to navigate the stopping and going of production. Which lead to mistaking an end date of production and creating a launch around it, which obviously had to change and be worked around. Another small mistake was understanding how much yardage of fabric I really should be buying after accidentally calculating the yields wrong.
The only big mistake I can think of wasn’t necessarily a mistake, but miscommunication because of the language barrier and lack of opportunity to be there in person with the pause on travel during 2020. I was trying to buy zippers for two different designs. You can imagine how hard it is to describe what kind of zippers you wanted over the phone. There was a lot of texting and emailing back and forth between us for weeks. Once I finally felt like we were on the same page, I received the wrong-colored zippers and the wrong lengths of the other ones. It turns out, he was also working with another Courtney and got us confused. I am sure she ended up with our zippers as we ordered the same in slightly different color variations. I called our production manager as soon as I noticed they were wrong and out of pure luck, our shorts with the zipper and our joggers with the zipper were the last two patterns to not have been cut. We pulled the zippers out of the design and we were able to continue. Had they already been cut; we would have had to buy all new fabric and start over. Everything would have been a loss. At that point, due to the pandemic, there was a zipper shortage, and I wouldn’t have been able to get new ones.
While mistakes are assumed to be consistently made when starting a business and even throughout the years of maintaining a business, I like to look at them as learnings, not mistakes. Mistakes tend to give a negative connotation to what has happened, but actually, it’s a blessing in disguise because without that you wouldn’t have learned what to do in the future.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
They say it takes a village to raise a kid, while I don’t have any kids, McKee is my baby, and to say I had a village of people who have supported me, guided me, and cheered me on is an understatement.
On the day my husband left on his deployment overseas in 2020, I had lunch with my parents and confided in them that as an Army Wife, I didn’t think I would be able to ever have my dream job. I graduated with my master’s in Luxury and Fashion Management from Savannah College of Art and Design and not use that education was something that was extremely challenging for me. By the end of that lunch, the idea of McKee was created, and by the end of the week, we had the business license, designs for our first launch and we dove headfirst into it. Without my parent’s support and encouragement, I would have never let a dream like this come to reality.
Growing up I was always told to find a mentor and they will be an integral part of your future successes, and I never felt like I could find one. I never searched for a mentor, but my mentors naturally became a part of my life and journey. Joan Duncan, a professor from Parsons the New School of Design, showed me that my love for the fashion industry could actually become a career and encouraged me to get my master’s from SCAD. She is always a phone call away and no matter what direction I go, she will always be there.
In 2017, I moved to New York City for the summer to intern for the infamous Molly Guy at Stone Fox Bride. It was my dream job, and I was set on being a digital media intern, however, after my second day I quickly realized how important it is to understand the entire business and to be able to accomplish any task outside of my “title.” I would not understand the business I am currently in without the direction I was pushed to by Molly or the knowledge that came from her Director of Operations, Desiree Wichmann. Today Desiree is my lifeline and secret weapon. Her views of the market and supply chain have been imperative to my successes and in some cases, I would not have had the confidence to continue in the direction I was aiming to go.
When starting a business, there are so many pieces that can get lost along the way. Luckily, I had my husband who built my website while overseas, and Bo Metz from Bomme Studios who believed in me enough to keep up with me throughout the pandemic, creating my samples and fulfilling my production so that this dream wouldn’t be impacted by the unruly COVID-19.
Needless to say, from day one, there has been an army of people behind me who all still play an integral part in McKee and where I am at today. I wouldn’t consider myself successful, yet, but I am achieving these little milestones on my way to what I believe success really is.
Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
When we started McKee Performance Wear in February 2020, we wanted to be able to give back in a big way, we wanted it to be about more than McKee. McKee was intended to be more than trendy, sustainable, and ethical athleisure wear, but a company that stands for giving back and supporting others, so we created the following programs.
McKee Again Program
Providing an opportunity for everyone to give back. With our McKee Again program, we give you the option of sending back your gently used McKee Wear products, which we will donate to athletes and kids in need throughout our surrounding communities, and in return, you may receive 25% off your next purchase.
- McKee Scholarship Foundation
The McKee Scholarship Foundation is supported by a percentage of each McKee item sold. This foundation was established to support our athletes, artists, and entrepreneurs in need with the monetary funds to participate in the same opportunities as their peers. Kids can nominate themselves or be nominated by someone else who could use the support of our foundation. Whether or not it helps with the team uniform fees, travel fees of a club team, fees to create a college recruitment video, or even to just attend a camp or clinic. Our goal is to support our athletes, artists, and entrepreneurs in every way we can. Throughout our first year, we have been building our foundation and hope to start supporting the youth throughout our community at the beginning of 2022. As a brand, we wanted to make a real impact and support as many kids a year as we can, so this first year has been crucial for us to build out this foundation and we are so excited to see it in action!
- Supporting our Military and First Responders
My husband was deployed in February 2020, the day before I created McKee and as an Army Wife, it was important to me to help support other military and first responder families as well.
While our Military and First Responders continuously support us and our community, we want to show our support to them and their families. We offer a Military & First Responder program offering a continual discount for their kids and little loved ones as a thank you for all they do. For more information regarding our Military and First Responders discount please email us at [email protected] with the subject line Military and First Responder Program.
Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.
- Get Up and Get Out! After this last year, I found myself incredibly comfortable staying inside and being in my own bubble at home. It wasn’t until we got a puppy this past January that I really made an effort to leave. Being outside, in the fresh air just brings a peace of mind and calmness that was lost after spending a year inside.
- Establish Human Connection: After spending so much time alone, or with the same family members for such a long time, it is imperative to safely connect with others. Whether that be creating a zoom group with your closest friends and meet weekly, or bi-weekly. Or even safely finding a few friends to create a pod with. Maybe even volunteer in your community. This past year has limited our ability to interact with others which is such a big part of our well-being.
- Sweat once a Day: Find something active that you love to do and make a point to try to do it every day. It doesn’t have to be crazy cardio workouts or yoga if you are not a cardio-loving yogi. It could be going on a walk every day or finding an online class that ranges from 15–45 minutes. Anything to get your heart rate up a little allows you to start your day feeling your best.
- Making a Schedule: From the beginning of the shutdown, you could find me sitting on the couch with my laptop, working and binge-watching show after show. Pre-Covid, I used to be obsessed with my planner, it was color coordinated and I always popped in a few stickers here and there. During the beginning of the pandemic, I felt like there was no need to create a schedule or plan because there was nothing I could do. However, making a schedule holds you accountable and keeps you going. I also scheduled a time, every day, that is specifically for self-care. Self-care can look different for everyone. It could be going to get your favorite coffee from the coffee shop down the street, it could be reading a book for an hour each day, or it could be sitting in the bath with a candle and a face mask at the end of your day. Making a schedule is one thing but making time for you is incredibly important for your wellbeing.
- Setting goals: You have had a year to think about what you want to do next. Setting goals keeps you motivated, excited, and looking forward to the next day. This feeling of setting goals already makes you feel better, but when you accomplish them, the feeling you have is indescribable. Goals can be different for everyone. They can be physical goals, mental and emotional goals or it could even be a goal to cook 3 times a week or write in a journal nightly. Goals can be little or big, but the outcome is still the same. It benefits your overall mental health and gives you something to strive for.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
McKee was designed for today’s youth in mind and if you think about what it was like to be a young kid, a teenager, I am sure you can think of a few roadblocks that were in your way.
If I could start a movement, I would create one surrounding today’s youth and create a program that proactively creates a bubble for inspiration, empowerment, and support. From free programs and talks for young adults, teens, and kids to tune into on a digital media platform surrounding topics such as: loving yourself, creating positive body images, how to find what you love and go for it, supporting each other, living in possibility, etc.
It would be available to schools and afterschool programs, so all kids have access to it with the intention that at a young age, they learn how to not only love and support one another but to love and support themselves. Can you imagine a world where kids actually support each other instead of competing against one another and a world where it doesn’t matter how much you have; you are still able to participate in the program? I can only imagine a world where these kids who are immersed in this program grow up to be leaders, who change the world for the better.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Covid is Coming: I would have loved to have a heads up that covid was coming in a bigger way than we ever could have imagined. Having started McKee in February, we never would have thought that the world was going to shut down a month later and our access to vendors and production would be limited.
- No Sporting Events in 2020: Our business plan was initially surrounded by sporting events for young adults. We were going to be doing McKee Pop-Ups throughout the West Coast, Midwest, and East Coast regions, and without sporting events or even people allowed to shop indoors we were limited to only selling online and marketing only through social media.
- Kids Were Not Going Back to School: Our goal was to launch McKee for Back-to-School season and unfortunately, most kids didn’t physically go back to school, therefore they didn’t need to buy new clothes. We had to re-evaluate our launch strategy and plan for a new date that made sense in the times we were living.
- L. A Would Close Again: It was important to us that all production of McKee products was done in the United States. We were extremely lucky at the beginning of the Shutdown, as we were still slowly able to continue production. Just as we were making momentum, the capacity for essential businesses was limited even more, which increased the length of production time, pushing us to change our launch date and strategy again.
- The Election Would Stop Production: With the presidential election, downtown Los Angeles businesses were forced to shut down for a minimum of 7 days with no reopening date in mind. They were giving businesses time to close up and board up from potential riots, however at that point in time, our production was doing two a day, so we lost 14 days of production and we were launching on Black Friday. At this point in time, we could no longer push our launch date back again, so we launched with what we had and added pre-order options, hoping our products would be finished in time.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
Personally, I believe all these topics are extremely important, however as a small business owner, sustainability is at the top of my priority list. I am personally responsible for the environmental impacts my company has on the world and I chose to have sustainability be at the center of McKee production. We do not use any plastic at any point in our production or packaging. We fill orders using a custom sustainable tote bag, where we wrap your purchased products in eco-friendly, biodegradable tissue paper and that is all sent in a plant-based, compostable mailer. Our McKee Again program is another form of sustainability. We offer free shipping, to send your gently used McKee Wear back to us and donate it to kids in need. We designed our clothes to last and even though you grow out of them, or are ready for a new design or color, they can still be loved by someone else in need. On top of that, anytime we have leftover pieces from production, they are finished and donated to those in our surrounding communities — we have donated many t-shirts and tank tops this year.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Readers can follow my personal Instagram account @c_denton or McKee Performance Wear’s account @mckeewear
Thank you for these fantastic insights!