Gigi Kitei & Liz Cook of Free Reign: “Invest in understanding your customers”

Invest in understanding your customers. How are they experiencing the problem you are trying to solve? What is their feedback after wear-testing your prototype? How do they speak about their own experience and the solution you are offering? These insights are critical for product development and messaging. As a part of our series about women […]

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Invest in understanding your customers. How are they experiencing the problem you are trying to solve? What is their feedback after wear-testing your prototype? How do they speak about their own experience and the solution you are offering? These insights are critical for product development and messaging.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gigi Kitei & Liz Cook, Co-Founders of Free Reign.

Gigi Kitei and Liz Cook, longtime industry professionals and childhood friends, launched Free Reign in 2020 to fill a void in the market for smaller-chested women. As women with A cups, they found bra’s to be overly constructed, insufficient and uncomfortable, forcing them to spend most days bra-less.

Queue their first fashion functional staple, The EveryDay Tank, a modern take on the classic ‘Bra Top’. Its seamless and versatile design sustainably integrates buttery soft, custom-molded cups that provide just the right amount of coverage and contour. Say goodbye to your bra forever with The Everyday Tank, one of the only tank tops that blends the best in activewear, intimates AND stylish everyday-wear, no matter you’re headed — yoga, work, dinner, vacation, and more!

After just over a year of continued success and an increase in sales, from women with both smaller and larger cup sizes, the brand is working to further expand their line into larger cup offerings to serve women sizes A-D so they can reign free like the queens they are!

Thank you so much for joining us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you both to this particular career path?

We met when we were seven years old — before we ever knew the purpose of a bra — and have been best friends ever since. Across the decades, we tumbled around as tomboys confided through love and career choices and served as each other’s wedding witnesses. We also grumbled a ton about how hard it was to find a good bra.

As smaller-busted women, all we asked for was a comfortable bra with a little support and coverage. What we got was push-ups, padding, and underwire to be someone we were not.

Feeling completely misunderstood and underserved inspired us to create Free Reign — a line of modern, ultra-comfortable wardrobe essentials for women who are tired of wearing uncomfortable bras. Our first product is the Everyday Tank Top with Built-in Bra, and we have plans to introduce a cami and crop top with our signature built-in-bra in the future.

Prior to Free Reign, Liz had a track record of funding, launching, and executing mission-driven global environmental initiatives. She serves on the Board of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. These experiences inform Free Reign’s commitment to environmental sustainability. Gigi is a third-generation apparel business owner. She has a background in marketing and successfully developed and sold a business start-up.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

What Spanx did for the girdle, Free Reign has done for the bra top. We have taken an outdated and uncomfortable product that served a function women wanted and remade it with a modern, innovative design.

Traditional versions of bra tops were a great idea but poorly designed. They either have a flimsy shelf bra with an elastic chest band, an extra layer of fabric that offers no coverage and reveals the headlights, or, they have one-size-fits-all removable foam cups that frustratingly fall out in the wash, fold over, and dimple. And, unless your size is right in the middle, the one-size-fits-all removable foam cups often provide insufficient support for larger-busted women or leave gaping pockets of air for women who are at the smaller end of the spectrum. These tops — and similar activewear variations — are typically made from polyester blends that have a slippery synthetic feel.

At Free Reign, our disruptive impact has been to reengineer the bra top into a sophisticated and versatile piece through a focus on innovation and fit. We saw what was happening with revolutions in activewear and wire-free intimates and blended these with sustainable yarns into high-quality everyday wear. The outer tank is seamless, and the integrated bra cups are buttery soft and custom-molded, providing just the right amount of coverage and shape. In addition, Free Reign is uniquely made from Tencel TM yarns that have a soft hand and a polished look and are made from the pulp of sustainably grown trees.

Free Reign is sized for a woman’s cup and band size for a perfect fit. Our launch range includes sizes 32, 34, and 36 with A and B cups. Size 36B can also accommodate C cups.

With the comfort of a sports bra and a sleek look, women are wearing Free Reign at home lounging, while working, when going out in the evening — and for a yoga practice in between. Best of all, no bra is needed!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistakes you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

An early mistake was to think it would be easy to find a factory that could make a seamless knit bra top with the sustainable yarns we specified and a more custom-fitting inner bra than what was available in the market — especially one that would fill the size void we experienced as smaller-busted women.

When one of us traveled to the factory that was making our initial prototype, it was revealing of the challenges ahead and comical. Yes, they were able to knit the garment on a circular knitting machine to create a seamless top in the yarns we wanted, but the bra cup was gigantic and far off from the smaller volume we specified. The factory explained this was the smallest cup size they could source “off the shelf” and it was the best they could do. It was both funny and depressing at the same time, as our mission was to do better than what was on the shelf!

We realized then that we would need to find a factory that could custom mold our bra cups. We found a factory in Germany that could do this for us, but they soon went out of business. The great unlock that enabled Free Reign to come to market was to find a company with deep experience making bra components for the intimate’s market. They have the skill to make the most technical part of our product — the innovative inner bra — and they were also willing to take on the final garment construction. We sourced the tank top from a different factory that has seamless knitting capability, but we are not asking them to do something they don’t have the skills to do — in this case, creating an innovative inner bra.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Our mentors have included Jason Kibbey, who co-founded the organic underwear company Pact and was the first Executive Director of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition; Dana Donofree, who founded AnaOno a lingerie brand for women who have had breast reconstructive surgery; and Laura Dixon, Free Reign’s founding designer who was a product innovation design director at Lululemon.

Jason Kibbey coached us past the insurmountable barrier of trying to do too many product design innovations at one time. He explained that the combined challenge of each requirement — seamless, sustainable, custom-molded, made in the USA — was making the puzzle substantially more complex to solve.

Jason helped us understand that if you try to do everything at once in your product design, you can get stuck and do nothing at all. It is okay to give up on one or two dimensions if it means getting a “minimum viable product” into the marketplace that you can continue to improve with customer feedback.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey

  • Invest in understanding your customers. How are they experiencing the problem you are trying to solve? What is their feedback after wear-testing your prototype? How do they speak about their own experience and the solution you are offering? These insights are critical for product development and messaging.
  • Define and lean into your unique offer and distinction. Articulate the problem you are solving, how the customer is underserved, and what your product uniquely offers others don’t.
  • Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the very good. We would obsess over every detail and want to correct every design imperfection — to the point that we would never have gone into production had we not let go of some details. Our designer, Laura, helped us realize that humans are forgiving of very small details, if the overall look and feel is pleasing. She made us pull out our favorite articles of clothing to prove the point.

How are you planning to shake things up next?

While originally inspired for A and B-cup women, fuller-busted gals are loving the support and bra-free feeling of Free Reign. Many C-cup women are swapping their bras for the 2- in-1 Everyday Tank. Free Reign’s next move is to expand our sizing, so more women can reign free like the queens they are!

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Women have always been disrupters. The question is, what has stood in the way of them turning their disruptive ideas into enterprises — whether for-profit or non-profit.

Historically, barriers have been the division of labor in households where women have been assumed to take on more of the responsibilities for child-rearing, forcing them to divide their attention between their family and the intense effort it takes to pursue their disruptive ideas. Access to finance — especially venture capital — has traditionally favored male entrepreneurs over women.

We started Free Reign as second acts in our careers — one of us when our children had grown and the other without children, so the need to focus on child-rearing was not a barrier we had to face. We have, however, self-financed this business and this requires one of us to keep her day job to earn an income while building the start-up which has hampered our pace.

The greatest challenge for us, however, is disrupting traditional notions around standards of beauty for women that are connected to bust size and expectations that women need to wear a bra. Conveying this alternative vision to factories that are largely owned by men — while having the small initial production requirements of a start-up — threw large barriers in our way. This — in addition to launching a product where incumbent brands in the space have large budgets and well-established supply chains — makes disruption hard to profitably execute.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking?

We are continually inspired by Guy Raz and the entrepreneurs whose stories he brings to life through his NPR podcast How I Built This.

As with most young brands, creating Free Reign has been a rollercoaster ride. Some moments are thrilling and others can be so anxiety-producing they make your stomach drop.

Listening to the journey of other founders — the barriers they encountered and the pivotal steps they took on their way to success — is an ongoing source of learning for us. The examples are endless and include:

Tyler Haney who built Outdoor Voices by building a community with the women for whom she designed her activewear clothing.

Lara Merriken, the founder of Larabar, who took a job at Whole Foods to learn the natural food retail business and doggedly sought out the chain’s regional buyer, which led to her first big break; and

Raegan Moya-Jones who co-founded Aden + Anais while keeping her day job to pay the bills and tells a cautionary tale of starting a business with a close friend.

Stories are powerful ways to inspire and teach, and we continue to tune in to Guy Raz as he checks back in with founders to learn how they are creatively adapting their enterprises and supporting their communities in response to COVID-19 in his successor podcast: How I Built Resilience.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

It would be to take this moment when we are recovering from the tragic global pandemic to inspire investment and rebuilding efforts that shift us towards more equitable and environmentally sustainable economic models.

In our small corner of the economy, in the apparel sector, this would mean a greater focus on quality and longevity rather than fast fashion. Many of us realized as we slowed down during COVID that overflowing closets and endless consumption are unnecessary practices.

Free Reign intentionally launched with one high-quality women’s apparel product, a classic, seasonless piece that embodies functionality and simplicity. As eco-driven optimists, we believe that stylish ease-of-wear clothing that offers versatility and value is a trend that could enable the apparel industry to lean more forcefully into sustainability.

So many people around the world have unmet needs. If we want to fulfill their economic development aspirations while reducing pressure on Earth’s precious natural resources, product quality and longevity must become prized qualities.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” and how its relevant to your life?

Several quotes inspire us, but Liz would like to share the inspiration she took this summer from reading Once Life, American professional soccer player, Megan Rapinoe’s memoir, published by Penguin in November 2020. Rapinoe drew the title from poet Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” in which Oliver asks “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Rapinoe’s activism answers that question. In her one life, she takes risks with her professional standing to make our society more just and fairer — including taking a knee during the national anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick over racial injustice and in pursuing litigation to advance equal pay for women in sports.

This essence of this provocative question has guided Liz in her life-long dedication to the environmental movement and both founders as they pursue Free Reign’s mission; “to create ultra-comfortable wardrobe essentials that celebrate a woman’s natural beauty, fit her active lifestyle and make her every day better.”

How can our readers follow you online?

Our website is at Readers can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @freereignstyle.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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