As a group of women working towards common goals for STYLE Canada‘s brand and business, we understand the value of peer support in the workplace. So, after our last Supper Club at Soho House, we decided to bring like-minded women in business together and feature them in an ongoing series: #LeadingLadies. Learn more about #LeadingLady Emma May below.
Emma May – Entrepreneur and founder of Calgary-based womenswear label SophieGrace
SC: If you were introducing yourself to a group of people for the first time, what would you tell them?
EM: I would ask them what it was that they found interesting and see if we could find a common connection. You can’t connect without learning more about each other.
SC: You’re a busy entrepreneur, activist, and real estate business leader, but in a former life, you were a lawyer and political staffer. What was that like? Who did you work for?
EM: I was a lawyer with a big firm in Vancouver, Farris LLP, and then I was an in-house entertainment lawyer. I helped put together the business and financing packages on several productions. I worked with an incredible group of women and it was one of my favourite work environments.
Several years later, I had been doing community work following the floods of 2013 and Jim Prentice, the former Premier of Alberta, tapped me to be the Executive Director of the Office of the Premier, Southern Alberta. It was a fantastic job where I was able to get a bird’s eye view on the integrations of government, business and non-profit and how these pieces can all work together to create great communities. Working for Premier Prentice was a pleasure. He was open to many different perspectives and was always all class.
SC: How did you come up with the idea for your business?
EM: My life isn’t siloed. Like many women, I run between board meetings and kids’ sporting events and social time with my friends. So, my go-to pieces were never ‘suits’ – they were mix and match essentials that could take me through the day. And I found that I couldn’t find those basics in one brand that I could rely on to keep the colour palette consistent. That’s how I came up with the concept of SophieGrace – a brand built on those basics that feel amazing and keep you coming back for more because our pieces will always match.
SC: What’s the story behind your brand’s name?
EM: I named it after my daughter and my great grandmother – we have a legacy of some pretty strong women in the family. I love that it is soft and feminine and yet a reflection of strength.
SC: Who is your style inspiration?
EM: Oh boy – I love Emmanualle Alt. Great blazers and pants. I also love Victoria Beckham. Donna Karan always designed for a woman’s body. I absolutely love the high/low look. I always need to have a piece that grounds me. If it is a t-shirt under a blazer, or a sneaker with a dress – I am that person. I can’t seem to go all in on either sloppy or dressy – that is why I love separates so much!
SC: What influences your designs?
EM: Our customer. I want to create pieces that she feels amazing in. I want her to feel comfortable and confident and ready for anything without having to put too much thought into what she is doing. I want to give her timeless, elevated clothes that allow her to shine. Is the fabric comfortable? Is it is easy to care for? Does it work with other pieces in our collection? Can she wear this in multiple ways? Versatility is huge.
SC: In addition to cutting down on the time and confusion that dressing for work causes, why is using sustainable fabrics an important design factor to you?
EM: I have a motto of continuous improvement. I want to ensure that we are doing our part to make this world a better place. If we can use fabrics that are sustainable and meet our standards, we will. We are not fast fashion. We are moving much of our production on shore to our Vancouver factory. We are building a company that is as much for our employees as it is for our shareholders. We aren’t perfect – and perfection will always stand in the way of progress – but we are committed to a path forward that is better for ourselves, our community and our environment.
SC: How has COVID-19 affected your business, especially since most people are working from home?
EM: Well, it was an interesting year. We have had a lot of people tell us they would love to buy but they aren’t in the office. It made me realize that my original vision for the brand was already about building a collection that wasn’t for the silos of your life. Our pants feel like sweats – they just look infinitely better!
SC: What obstacles have you overcome to get to where you are today?
EM: Well, every day is a new challenge. I knew nothing about creating a fashion line two years ago. Every step has been about learning and finding incredible people who know more than I do and bringing them onto the team and listening to them. My job is to direct the vision, fund the process and get out of the way of my experts. My favourite part of building a team is collecting people who are way smarter than I am. That is where growth happens.
SC: Inspired by strong, successful women, each SophieGrace piece is named after iconic women including Rosa Parks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Audrey Hepburn. What influenced this decision?
EM: I love icons. I want to be reminded of the women who paved a path for all of us every day. The search for who to name our next pieces after is easy now – the decision making is harder.
SHOP IT: SophieGrace, $150
SC: Which female leader has been a strong influence on you and why?
EM: My mom, who was a formidable litigator, and my friend Susannah Pierce who was just named President of Shell Canada. We have been friends since we were in high school and she found a way to navigate a corporate culture while still being incredibly true to herself. It was fascinating to me because I was building my own worlds and she was making an intact structure work for her.
SC: What are your goals for SophieGrace?
EM: I want to become a platform that women gravitate to for all their work/life basics – beautiful, elevated blazers, shirts, dresses, knits that all go together forever and ever. I want to continue to build a community of women who have each other’s backs. In December, we donated 10 per cent of sales to a female entrepreneur micro finance program. I am deeply committed to issues related to women’s workplace challenges — childcare, access to capital, equal pay — and when we solve these problems women will have more freedom to truly self-determine.
SC: What is your greatest achievement over the past decade?
EM: I quit drinking 3 years ago. It held me back for decades. I drank to push down frustration and anger. Now I face it head on and get stuff done.
SC: If there’s one message you want your brand to send, would what it be?
EM: Self-determination is possible but it is never a solo endeavour. Working together, women can achieve so much.
SC: We’ve got to know – what’s your favourite piece?
EM: I am a pants person and I love The Katherine Trouser. I love a good power pant with pockets and a long sleek leg. I also love The Ruth Long Sleeve Blouse in black. Button it all the way for some killer boardroom vibes or braless and unbuttoned on a date night. And The Violet Blazer is the perfect everyday blazer. Washable and cozy but lends an air of business.
SHOP IT: SophieGrace, $180