Go to market and test and learn. Be nimble enough to pivot if needed. As my brand is growing and throughout COVID-19, we were able to survive because we adapted quickly to the changing marketplace, making facemasks at our sock manufacturer, creating at-home workouts with our fitness influencers, creating safe-shopping pop-up experiences and investing more in our D2C channel.
As part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Very Successful Lifestyle Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Suzanne McKenzie, founder and CEO of Able Made, an active lifestyle brand that inspires healthy living and combines bold design with responsible manufacturing and giving back. An award-winning creative director/designer by trade, she is passionate about using design and collaboration to make the world a better place.
In 2015, Suzanne was selected to attend President Obama’s Global Emerging Entrepreneurs event at the White House, and also is a Sappi Ideas that Matter Grant recipient. Suzanne teaches Design and Social Entrepreneurship at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and runs the Ucal McKenzie Breakaway Foundation, a nonprofit that gives city youth access top soccer and health education in collaboration with Whole Foods, MLS, CrossFit, We Got Soccer and WPS.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I grew up in a small town 30 minutes outside of Portland, Maine. Starting in first grade, I began playing sports and little did I know how much that would impact me later as an adult. I am passionate about wellness and building resilience because of my time I spent with my teammates on those courts and fields. I blend that love of sports with my career in design to help build and empower communities.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
My background is as a Designer/Chief Creative Officer, with over two decades of experience working on brands including Timberland, Tom Ford, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and more. After losing my husband to sudden cardiac arrest while playing the game he loved, I leaned on my deign experience and network to create a youth soccer foundation in his honor and followed with my fashion brand Able Made to support it. Since launching Able Made in 2012, my vision raises and resets standards by weaving circularity, regenerative agriculture, quality, and authenticity into purposeful collections that are gentler on the planet, generate local jobs, create healthier communities, and give back.
Each product is locally made to love, last, and make a difference — extending beyond my own Ucal McKenzie Breakaway Foundation, our Able Made collections and designer collaborations have raised awareness, loyalty, and support for Pencils of Promise, VH1 Save the Music Foundation, CFDA Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, The Guggenheim Museum, The Met, The High Line, and other amazing nonprofits.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
At the beginning of my career, one memorable piece of advice received when I worked in advertising at Arnold Worldwide helped me grow. My Design Group Head gave me feedback to get out from behind my computer. At first, I was confused, since I was always so dedicated to my work, ha! But he explained the importance of observation and being out in the world, and how that can positively impact the work and my health. I still try to implement that thinking today, even if it’s just something simple like getting out for a walk or run at lunchtime.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
One of my best friends gifted me Joan Didion’s “A Year of Magical Thinking”. It was one of the only pieces I read that really resonated with my own experience of grief after the sudden loss of my husband, Ucal.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love the Japanese Proverb: “Nana korobi ya oki”, which means fall down 7 times, get up 8. That speaks to resilience and never giving up, which is so important in life and in entrepreneurship.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, let’s define our terms. How do you define a Lifestyle Brand? How is a Lifestyle Brand different from a normal, typical brand?
A lifestyle brand embodies values, aspirations, interests, and attitudes of consumers. In short, it’s not what brand of clothes a customer puts on in the morning, it’s connecting with their way of life, and their aspirations. For example, home fitness company Peloton connects with idea of aspiring towards a healthy, community-driven lifestyle.
What are the benefits of creating a lifestyle brand?
Lifestyle is a way of life and such a great way to build your relationship with your customer. You are aligning and connecting with people’s hopes and dreams, vs just a transactional relationship trying to motivate them to buy.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved Lifestyle Brand? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
Electric car company Tesla connects with idea of aspiring towards a healthy, well-designed lifestyle. I love how Elon Musk and his team have created a beautifully designed line-up of vehicles that are also eco-friendly. I’m impressed with how Elon is fearless in the business categories he enters into. He was never in the car industry but was the main person to help disrupt it. To replicate, be brave, take risks, don’t be afraid to ask. I always say, “if you don’t ask, the answer is always no”.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a lifestyle brand that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
I believe strongly you have to identify who you are as a brand first, and what your mission is. Everything needs to align with why you are doing what you do, and who your customer is. Then you can design experiences for your customer that aligns with both the customer and your service or product.
What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a lifestyle brand? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Raising capital too early before testing your proof of concept is something, I’m seeing a lot of. I’m a big believer in going to market first lean to test and learn, and then scaling with money to support.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a lifestyle brand that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
It is critical to be yourself and be authentic. I believe strongly you have to identify who you are as a brand first, and what your mission is. Everything needs to align with why you are doing what you do, and who your customer is. Then you can design experiences for your customer that aligns with both the customer and your service or product.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need to Know To Create A Very Successful Lifestyle Brand” and why?
1) Be authentic. People can see through BS if you aren’t being real. With Able Made, we ground ourselves in the reason we started the brand–our foundation and the children we serve. Because of this, the materials we chose, product assortment, and how we manufacture all leads back to the healthy lifestyle we teach our kids. We honor them and name our products after them because they inspire all that we are.
2) Begin with a strong strategy. We have a strategy and creative brief that guides all of our Able Made output. It grounds us and makes sure we’re messaging stays core to who we are.
3) Go to market and test and learn. Be nimble enough to pivot if needed. As my brand is growing and throughout COVID-19, we were able to survive because we adapted quickly to the changing marketplace, making facemasks at our sock manufacturer, creating at-home workouts with our fitness influencers, creating safe-shopping pop-up experiences and investing more in our D2C channel.
4) Be inclusive. Encourage and welcome people from all walks of life, backgrounds, cultures and ages to join your team. Everything you do will be better for it, period. From our investors, to our management team, to who we cast as model talent, inclusivity has been part of our brand DNA since day one.
5) Better, better, better. Always look to improve, but also celebrate in the areas you are excelling in. In 2020, we learned that we were already on the right track with our inclusive culture, commitment to sustainability, and focused collections. It’s time to double down.
Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are an inspiration to a great many people. 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.
My overall goal is always to help empower city-youth through the magic made when everyone pitches in with ideas, content and volunteerism.
Through Able Made I want to inspire a movement to create healthier and more connected communities. Through our non-profit, have a lot of partnerships now including Puma, Jaden Smith’s JUST Water, MSL teams, Whole Foods and more in Boston, Hartford, and New York City.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I love women who support women. I so admire Natalie Portman, Kara Nortman, Julie Uhrman, and Mia Hamm for helping bring the 11th team to the National Women’s Soccer League. I would love a conversation with any one of them!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.