Interview by Rose Wednesday
Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Fran Dunaway, co-founder and CEO of Tomboy Exchange, a company that makes menswear-inspired and androgynous clothes for women. Fran and her partner Naomi founded TomboyExchange in response to a need they saw in the clothing industry, and have recently branched out into making masculine-styled boxers and briefs. Fran generously agreed to an interview. Check out our conversation about the false distinction between butch and femme, the hurdles of launching a clothing line, and the tomboy ethos:
Fran Dunaway, CEO and co-founder of TomboyExchange. Photo courtesy of tomboyx.com
Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself, and about TomboyX?
Naomi and I started this company in March of 2013 and paid for our first production run with the funds raised in a Kickstarter campaign. Our original goal had been to make cool shirts and blazers for women who wanted the quality, style and attention to detail typically found in menswear. We have fun bits of contrasting fabrics in the collar and cuffs, added some extra hidden buttons to keep shirts from gaping and make them with quality fabric and excellent construction.
TomboyX is a clothing and accessories company for tomboys. We feel that in the fashion industry there is a white space between menswear and women's wear and we want to fill that space with cool, classic clothing that is menswear inspired but made for a woman's body. Think Katherine Hepburn or Amelia Earhart. Clothing for the unconventional woman who wants to express who she is and feel comfortable in her own skin. That being said, our customers make wear our designs along the entire spectrum of expression - from ultra feminine to masculine. That's part of the fun of the brand, because TomboyX is ultimately about confidence, independence with some bad assery thrown in for good measure.
How did you arrive at “tomboy” as a name and a concept for your brand?
It's funny, several people tried to talk us out of the name. They thought it had some negative connotations or that it was code for lesbian. We've found just the opposite to be true. Timing is everything and we are loving the resurgence of feminism and how that is empowering women. So many women are embracing their inner tomboy and remembering how good it felt as a kid to be climbing trees, outrunning a boy or wearing their favorite sports' team colors. There's a certain playfulness to it but also a real sense of strength and confidence. Every woman has a little bit of tomboy inside. As we like to say about the TomboyX brand: Own it.
Perennial Bluestockings favorite, the "Good Carma Boxer Briefs" in Red. Available in S-4X, tomboyx.com.
I know we’re all happy you branched out into underwear. But how did you arrive at that decision?
We quickly realized that women worldwide were identifying with the brand and wanted to proudly show off their tomboy side. So we looked for items that we could brand without having to manufacture ourselves: t-shirts, hats, tank tops. We found these adorable underwear for women that had a boyish look, so we thought we'd brand them and see how they sold. Well, they quickly became a best seller. Then we had a friend ask when we were going to start making boxer briefs for women. After a bit of research we realized that no one was making them. Women were borrowing from their brothers, husbands or buying from the mens department. Obviously, there are fit issues and extra fabric that make them less than ideal for a woman's body. So we thought, why not? We wanted comfortable, quality made boxers that had a size run to include XS and up to 4X. We started with the waistband - finding one that was silky soft and made well enough to last as long as the underwear. After several samples and fittings with tomboys of every shape and size, we found a pattern we were happy with. The 5 star reviews we are getting are proof that we got it right.
What challenges did you face in design and production of TomboyX? Were any items particularly difficult to design or manufacture?
We are a start up company, not a big name brand with lots of resources, so we have to really stay on top of things to make sure we don't run out of our inventory before we can get more items made. We are lucky to have partnered with a woman owned factory in Canada to produce our current run of boxer briefs. Anna has been extremely accommodating to us, recognizing that we are filling a need and she believes in our potential. And we have a very experienced and savvy Production Manager on our team who stays on top of quality assurance, deadlines and future projections. There are always issues that come up that can set you back, so having someone like Julie on top of the details makes all the difference in the world.
What are some of your design influences?
Katherine Hepburn, Amelia Earhart - we like their looks. Robert Graham, Ben Sherman. We often browse the menswear department for inspiration. We have a folder full of images that we've taken and look forward to having the resources available to get all of our designs into production. We've already got patterns ready to go for some really cool items that every tomboy will want in her closet.
What do you think of traditional distinctions like “butch” and “femme”, and is “tomboy” something different than either of these?
I think that butch and femme are about external expressions of a person's internal identity. We like to think of tomboy as something more like an attitude, something that every woman has to varying degrees. It's about being comfortable and confident in your own skin. That being said, we are making clothes for tomboys but our customers run the gamut from butch to femme and everything in between. We want TomboyX to be a place where you are comfortable just being yourself and for your experience to be one of feeling seen and heard. We are the brand that celebrates the masculine side of all women. And we find it super sexy.
What’s your proudest accomplishment as a brand?
That women in 29 countries see themselves in our brand.
What’s next for TomboyX?
We've got so many styles ready to go into production. All of them we are so excited about. And of course we'll be adding a tomboy cut brief. So stay tuned!