fall founders series

Amy Jiang and Showly Wang Couldn't Find Functional Business Clothes. So They Started Pairess

Who knew good pockets were so hard to come by?
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· 7 min read

Welcome to the Fall Founder Series. Every Wednesday until the end of November, I’m devoting a section of Retail Brew to a conversation with an up-and-coming brand’s founders.

First up: Pairess, a direct-to-consumer women’s workwear line.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a high-powered banker or a first-year paralegal: If you work in an office and you’re a woman, you’ve likely noticed some functional gaps in your workwear. Amy Jiang and Showly Wang said they spent too much on dry cleaning too many times to not do something about it—so they started a clothing company.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Retail Brew: Let’s start with your origin story. Where were you before you started Pairess, and what convinced you to make the leap to retail?

Showly Wang: Amy and I originally met while working together at Affirm, which is a fintech company based in San Francisco. Amy comes from a background in management consulting and one of her main frustrations in her work wardrobe was that everything was dry clean only. She didn’t like having to go to the dry cleaner’s often and missing functional pockets in her work clothes.

I came from Neiman Marcus, and more of a background in fashion, but I also had a similar frustration of struggling to find clothes with good pockets, which was just necessary for us both as busy, professional women.

So we started researching and discovered two things: One, on average, women’s pockets, when they even exist in our clothes, are about 50% smaller than men’s pockets, even though women and men both have a need to carry the same things.

An even bigger driver was [learning that] the lack of functional attributes stems from more sexist, historic stereotypes about a woman’s role in society. She wasn’t expected to work or to lead. Her main role was to stay at home. Pockets are sometimes not figure flattering. And so that became a choice from designers to just not include pockets in women’s clothes and assume that she didn’t have a need for functional attributes. We see that same mentality persist today in women’s clothes, where they are designed primarily to be stylish and attractive, whereas men’s clothes also prioritize being functional.

Pairess is a tightly edited brand compared to others out there—the only SKUs are pants and a dress. How did you land on the silhouettes you’re offering?

Amy Jiang: We actually distributed a survey to about 200 professional women and we used the results to guide the focus areas that we were going to incorporate into our clothes. One question that really stood out to us was when respondents were prompted to freely express their frustrations with work clothes, the top responses were they weren’t comfortable, they were dry-clean only, and they didn’t have pockets.

We’re launching with two silhouettes, a pair of pants and a dress, which is also how our name came about. Pairess is a combination of pants and a dress. We chose those two silhouettes for two reasons: One, we think they work well for a wider range of body types, and two, we wanted the silhouettes to be very versatile so that our customers could wear our clothes inside work and outside of work.

Comfort and machine washability are driven by the fabric. This was a huge learning process for us—when we started, we talked to and visited fabric wholesalers in the U.S. and international mills. We’ve ordered and touched hundreds of samples and we repeatedly washed at least 50 of them to make sure that they really lived up to our standards.

As for the pockets side, we discovered that incorporating good pockets was a design challenge that combined fabric, silhouette, and some creativity. And we actually went through many, many sample iterations.

As newcomers to the world of retail, figuring out your supply chain must have been a big challenge. How did you land on the manufacturers you’re using for your launch?

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Amy: Showly and I spent three months in New York over the summer—we were kind of nomading at friends’ and families’ apartments while we were developing the clothes.

Showly: We’re moving to New York full time in mid-October and establishing our headquarters and all of our operations to be there.

I think the time we spent in Manhattan over the summer just really showed us how valuable it is to be right there where your fashion ecosystem and also your supply ecosystem is whenever that’s possible. Manhattan made the most sense because we wanted to prioritize the product quality, inspect the garments in person, and work directly with the factories face-to-face. Our factory partner can turn around samples in just a few days, and then fulfill full orders only in a few weeks. That allowed us to be really smart about how we order inventory and not have to commit to ordering a huge batch up front. And then also knowing that our working conditions are fair and that fair wages are being paid.

In general there’s definitely this willingness to work with small brands, which is something that’s very pleasantly surprising to us. We’re able to find some pretty experienced, established partners who’ve been in the industry for decades, and they’re working at big-name brands but they’re very willing to prioritize a partnership with us as a brand that’s just starting out.

What is your size run at launch? How did you come to that decision?

Showly: We’re launching with size 0 to size 12 for our dress and size XS to XL in our pants. The pant is an elastic waistband pull-on so doing the lettered sizing definitely works out well for that because you can kind of go in between different sizes depending on where weight is distributed. Essentially it’s just standard sizing to start. And we recognize from even the survey and different people we know within our circles that we may very easily continue moving into petite, tall, extended sizes, but we’re going to see where we get the most customer feedback and demand in what we don’t currently offer.

What about price? What informed your pricing strategy?

Showly: The pants are $125 and the dress is $135. We see a gap in affordable workwear options that provide better quality and more utility than mass market brands, while still being considerably more accessible than D2C or contemporary designer peers.

Women do have a lot of existing options in workwear: There are legacy players like J.Crew or Brooks Brothers, new D2C companies like M.M. La Fluer, and rental services like Rent the Runway or Nuuly. How do you plan on scaling in a crowded market?

Amy: In order to differentiate from others, we’re just going to focus on being really, really product and mission focused. We’ve decided that those are the values that we’re going to commit to. We’re holding ourselves to a really high standard for our product and being committed to being as functional and stylish as possible. I don’t think some of these other brands are as committed to these traits as us.

And then from the mission standpoint, we started this company because Showly and I are feminists at heart and we wanted to create a brand that makes our customer feel empowered. So it’s also really critical to us that we incorporate philanthropic elements to our company and make a difference in the world for women outside of our clothes and content. A small portion of sales from our launch will go to Step Up, which is a nonprofit organization that mentors girls in underserved urban communities. As we grow, we’d love to expand into things outside of just donating, like holding workshops and community building. So we hope that if we stay true to these two things, being really focused on product and our mission, that will allow us to succeed and scale.

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.