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How Gwen Whiting of The Laundress Is Shaking Up Fabric Care

Empowering women is at the core of The Laundress. We are a business created by two women, with an all-female workforce, and our mission is to empower people to take care of yourself, the things you love, and the world we live in. There is a lot of work to be done to achieve gender […]

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Empowering women is at the core of The Laundress. We are a business created by two women, with an all-female workforce, and our mission is to empower people to take care of yourself, the things you love, and the world we live in. There is a lot of work to be done to achieve gender equality and empower all the women and girls in the world.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gwen Whiting.

Gwen spearheads brand creation, including branding and product design, product development, and production. Whether customers are doing their laundry, cleaning their homes, or organizing their belongings, Gwen is obsessed with identifying new and innovative ways to improve their experience of home keeping. Gwen identifies and oversees collaborations with top artisans, textile scientists, and fragrance houses, who help realize the company’s vision. She develops visual and written materials and is also involved in communications across all of The Laundress’ channels. Gwen is dedicated to creating a brand experience that fulfills the company’s commitment to caring for its customers, the things they love, and the planet.

Gwen has over a decade of diverse experience in fashion, retail, editorial and design. Gwen established her career at Ralph Lauren, where she started in Women’s Design before becoming a senior designer for the Ralph Lauren Home Collection, a role she held for five years. She credits her entrepreneurial, creative, and “can-do” spirit to her time spent working, traveling, and living around the world. Passionate since childhood about bespoke craftsmanship, Gwen is devoted to creating exceptional products that stand the test of time.

Thank you so much for doing this with 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 to this particular career path

Inearly 2000, I was in my mid-twenties and a few years out of college. I was working at Ralph Lauren with an amazing boss, co-workers who were friends, and had a corporate Amex that was taking me around the world on hardworking — but glamourous — business trips. I was living in a sixth-floor walkup apartment shared with two girlfriends and living check to check — the dream!

While I was building a wardrobe consisting of sample sale items, my first pair of jeans at a $100 price point, and white T’s that no longer came in a 3-pack, I was struggling with my laundry and dry-cleaning upkeep. My sixth-floor walkup only had a bathroom and kitchen sink (with no room for drying), so my washing was going to a fluff and fold around the corner. I realized my sheets and shirts were beginning to shred, literally in my hands, and knew dry cleaning was an abysmal, unnecessary expense (let alone toxic process). I would haul my loads of “must care for” items on the NJ transit to properly care for them in my mother’s laundry room using a combination of handwashing/line drying and the delicate cycle machine setting.

While I could craft a space for the washing techniques needed to clean my dry clean items, there were no laundry products in the US marketplace that were made specifically for wool & cashmere and silk & delicate synthetics. It also didn’t make sense to me that there wasn’t a start to finish laundry load experience in one cohesive scent — the stain remover, detergent, softener, and starch products each had a different, and frankly unpleasant, fragrance.

I had the idea of creating a consumer-focused fabric care collection and described it to my boss one afternoon while driving around the city; he turned to me and said, “Gwen, it sounds like The Laundress.” From there, I connected with my college friend Lindsey Boyd to see if she was on board to take on the 13-billion-dollar cleaning category with a concept based on the pain points we both shared. The rest, as they say, is history!

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

It is hard to imagine life before anything and everything was just a click away via e Commerce websites like Wholefoods and Amazon. and The Laundress was launched in 2004, long before sustainability was a way of life. We went against the norm at the time by launching The Laundress across US and International boutiques, specialty retailers, and direct to consumer. We overcame the challenge of not having a large national retailer presence by making our product accessible online to everyone who wanted to order.

The Laundress was also radically disrupting the standard detergent and fabric care approach — our goal was to create products that were fabric and care specific vs. the grocery one-size-fits all methodology. On top of that, we were telling people to stop dry cleaning and that they could and should be washing these garments at home. Meanwhile, we were creating eco-friendly, plant derived products that were highly concentrated (8x more compared to the norm at the time) and offered a curated scent experience using fine fragrance blends. The Laundress products were equally supported with our relentless attention to offering how-to information that empowered our customers to clean with confidence. We were eager to do everything in our power to connect with our customers — from written recipes and (now embarrassing) how-to videos, to daily email conversations with our customers @askthelaundress which later evolved to the Clean Talk blog, social media, and quick chat.

We were so determined in our vision that we launched The Laundress with an SBA loan followed by a large collection of credit card debt, and continued to grow the business for 16 years without ever taking external funding. We had bank loans and grew organically by reinvesting money each year into the business until selling to Unilever in early 2019.

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?

I was really blessed with unbelievably supportive bosses — both my boss Calvin Churchman and my Sr. boss Ellen O’Neill at Ralph Lauren. Calvin and Ellen have the rare gift of being creative geniuses along with the savviness for business (although with two very different styles). They have been my mentors since my time at Ralph Lauren and still today; we have our dinner Salons. I was also so lucky to have many friends and resources at Ralph Lauren whose talents I leveraged for the brand. Daniela Kamiliotis, the SVP of Ralph Lauren Women’s Collection, drew our Laundress Lady icon and continues to support us with illustrations for branding. When I needed help renovating our office space and later building our Laundress store, I was able to work with John Hulka from the Polo Store Development team. I always had amazing talent and trusted people that cared and were always happy to help me out and root for our success — that is invaluable. The lesson here is to build and leverage your network; never burn bridges!

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

I don’t have the magic words or were ever given any. Just as our products are tailored to the fabric or surface, I’ve always personally felt that specific, tailored learnings were more helpful than blanket statements or advice.

I do know that I had a strong north star that always lead me to be completely authentic and transparent. I only did what made sense and felt right by creating everything the absolute best it could be — from a formula to brand artwork to relationships with manufacturing partners and employees.

How are you going to shake things up next?

Having crafted a product and built a brand by breaking all the rules, now 18 years since concept, I am really excited to be take the product and brand to the next level. As we we’ve been an eco-conscious collection since the beginning with a sustainability mission that was really ahead of our time, we are excited to continue to take cleaning to the next level. We have re-evaluated all of our packaging — from bottles to e-Commerce shipping — and will be rolling out post-consumer recycled materials. This means changing our bottles to reused plastics (PCR) so our bottles will not be creating any new single-use plastics for the environment. We are also making improvements all the way down the supply chain by using recycled paper for all our product boxes and packaging as well as offsetting our carbon footprint in 2021.

Lastly, I am working on transitioning The Laundress to be a certified B-Corp business. This will ensure that The Laundress will be legally committed to always doing the right thing by putting purpose over profit to drive business as a force for good.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

Now there is an abundance of content, business resources, and paths of connection to so many amazing founders. When I speak to people and lots of entrepreneurs, I always kind of laugh at my process and journey that was at a time when so many of these resources were not accessible. It would have been helpful to have that access back in the days when I needed them most!

I get inspired weekly as I join the Lets Work Speaker Series we sponsored in partnership with The Participation Agency. Each week, empowering and influential women founders join us as guest speakers to share their personal stories and insights on how to navigate these challenging times. The events include a breakout session, where participants are put into randomly selected smaller groups to discuss a topic and share ideas with one another. These breakouts allow women to connect further and enable us to create a stronger online community. The focus of Let’s Work is to create a forum for us to join together and create a strong support system where thoughts and ideas can be shared. Our goal is to reach empowered women and celebrate them on a global scale. This is an opportunity for us to join together to create a space for compelling insights and to share valuable time together. Since the program’s start on April 24th, Let’s Work has seen attendance from 36 states and 25 countries!

I also really enjoyed listening to the founder of Square speak about his theories and new book- https://www.jimmckelvey.com/books/ and I really like how he framed the true definitions of entrepreneurship.

I find that my thinking is most impacted by “time out” from myself. My meditation practice helps me clear space to be inspired. I also take the opportunity to use my jogging time to tune into my church’s Sunday Sermon — I like grounding myself getting out of my orbit with a greater world and power.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Empowering women is at the core of The Laundress. We are a business created by two women, with an all-female workforce, and our mission is to empower people to take care of yourself, the things you love, and the world we live in. There is a lot of work to be done to achieve gender equality and empower all the women and girls in the world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Live with authenticity! It is the only way to be true and when you are true that is the best you can do. The entrepreneur journey is hard, and you have to be willing to do anything in your power at all times with grit and muscle to fight for your vision.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@gwenlwhiting

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