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I first met Mary Going while studying Business at Mills College. Mills is the first women’s college west of the Rocky Mountains. It was founded around the same time California became a state and has garnered a reputation for liberal progressivism; it produces intelligent women in many areas, particularly social justice and civil rights activism.
The Graduate School of Business is no exception: it is housed in a Leeds Certified Green Building that features a living roof, and the program has a strong emphasis on Corporate Social Responsibility and B-Corps (the kinda stuff you hear about in TED Talks). It is an exciting place to be, particularly because you know all the women around you are going to be business leaders of a new kind: not only are they women, but they have well-constructed ideas about how to leverage business to change the world for the better, not exploit people. These are the women who will probably be signing your paycheck someday.
When I first met Mary she had been playing around with the idea for Saint Harridan for a while and was already working on constructing the plan to create her business. In late 2012 she started a Kickstarter campaign asking for $87,000 to turn her idea into a business. She met that goal and surpassed it, raising $137,562– in less than one month.
Saint Harridan had such a successful launch because her business was beyond making a profit—it was about making other people comfortable in their own skin, in a way our current retail climate just doesn’t permit. Every detail of her suits and business operation has deliberate thought and purpose.
I sat down with Mary in her new Fruitvale District studio in Oakland, CA.
ANGELA BACCA: Where did you get the idea for Saint Harridan?
MARY GOING: Well, I was getting married in 2008 and I really wanted to something to wear. I went to Nordstrom’s and Macy’s and J Crew …all those places. All of the suits were too big for me. What I understood was they were too big for me in a way that couldn’t be tailored. I ended up having one custom made at a tailor in San Francisco, Escobar Tailors. It was amazing. I love how I felt and looked in that suit, so then I thought I would like to do it for other people.
While I was in school getting my MBA I researched the possibility of it. I talked to a lot of people, ‘Do you like this idea?’ or ‘Do you like this idea?’
AB: You got married in 2008. That is the year Proposition 8 passed in California, repealing gay marriage, which had been made legal earlier that year through the California Supreme Court. Did the timing of your marriage have anything to do with that volatility of the law?
MG: No, [but we were fortunate to] get married during that short window before Prop 8 passed.
AB: What was it like raising so much money that quickly on Kickstarter?
MG: It was amazing. You know, Kickstarter is a great tool for answering the question “Is this a good market opportunity?” I was able to prove people would be willing to pull out their credit card to pay for it; it wasn’t just that people liked my idea. By the time I launched my Kickstarter 4,000 people were following me on Facebook and I had 2,500 people on an email list. I knew people were excited about it but to say they would pay for it but was another question.
AB: Did that validate your feeling there was a void for this kind of clothing?
MG: I felt like that feeling was already validated for me by myself and other people I knew in my personal life, but seeing it in the dollar figure—it let me know it was not just a void for me but a void in the marketplace.
AB: What is core to the mission of Saint Harridan are unrestricted gender pronouns. Why is that important and why the name ‘Saint Harridan’?
MG: Gender is made up. We have physiological bodies; we have genitalia that we place into categories of male and female, and even that is problematic because there is a lot of ambiguity. Gender, insofar as how a person acts, has been squished together in our culture, many cultures, to be equated with those genitalia. There are many people we can point to that prove that isn’t the case. The more we understand that gender is kind of a performance as opposed to an innate connection, you know, ‘men are like this, women are like that,’ the more you realize its all fake. The more we can release ourselves from that jail cell that says, “I have to be like this because I am a woman.”
What Saint Harridan is doing on purpose is to disconnect those two things by using gender-neutral pronouns; we can refer to someone without ever having to know what would have been their assigned gender.
The name Saint Harridan… I was trying to think of a name for the company and I was listening to NPR one day. I had been through a million names that didn’t work. There was a story about the Wall Street Broads, and I loved the way they reclaimed that word, “broad.” I started thinking of words we could reclaim, but I wanted it to be subtle, so it wasn’t like “broad.”
I spent hours and hours in the Thesaurus looking up words that were derogatory to women and particularly women who venture outside of these expected gender norms. Harridan is such a word. It means, mannish woman or ugly woman or bitch—so I loved that because it is subtle but it’s right out there.
AB: It sounds sophisticated too, especially if you don’t know what it means.
MG: I know!
My friend who was doing brand management for us, Tina Tarr, and who designed the logo, decided it really needed something to balance it a little bit so “Saint” was kinda like the sinner and the saint, you know? But then my friend Thao Nguyen looked up Saint and saw one of the definitions was a “leader of a movement.” We loved it! I love it more the more I research what it means or when other people tell me what it means to them. Having “Saint” be a leader in the movement of people who are pushing gender boundaries or showing how fake gender is, that makes them a leader in the movement. That makes them a Saint.
AB: Tell me more about your models. Who are they and where did you find them?
MG: Our models are not professional models. They are regular people who signed up via our website. We chose them by how they look; we wanted a diverse representation of race, size and gender presentation. We wanted people who could articulate their experience in clothing. All those things added to the selection.
AB: Social media played a huge role in your success. How do you think things would be different without it, without the Internet?
MG: Oh, it wouldn’t have happened. It wouldn’t have been possible to connect people the way the Internet allows us to connect. This is such a niche market and we really needed a tool like the Internet to allow us to find each other in all of our remote locations around the country.
Collectively we are a pretty big bunch. [Without the internet] not only are we isolated but we aren’t able to validate each other. I think our movement is growing because we can see each other and validate each other. In the past, a person might not have even seen themselves as having an identity that connects to us.
Ten years ago, I wanted to wear something to my daughter’s adoption ceremony. I didn’t know what to wear but I knew I wanted to dress up (this was 13 years ago). I ended up wearing a dress. If I had Katie [Mary’s assistant, Mr. Katie] or people like Katie as an example in my life, I might have had the imagination to chose something else. I think our movement is bigger because of the Internet. I think it wouldn’t have happened at all without the Internet.
Kickstarter is a great example of so many ideas, not just Saint Harridan, that couldn’t have happened otherwise.
AB: Coming from the marijuana world, the Internet has propelled us from being a fringe movement to a more mainstreamed movement. People all across the country connect with each other now. That is something I noticed on the Saint Harridan Facebook page: pictures of different people modeling your clothes– they are everywhere. They are in conservative places, the Midwest, the South—it’s really cool to watch but it must be really cool for the people sharing their stories with you. It must be cool for those people to connect with each other, and that is what I have noticed from your web presence: you have been able to connect a lot of people whether or not they are buying your clothes, they are connected through you, your idea and your business.
MG: I am very pleased with how many of us there are out there. People send me letters all the time about how meaningful [Saint Harridan] is to them. This represents hope to them and you know, some stories are really heart wrenching… about parents—the way they treat their children when they want to dress outside their assigned gender. Some are stories of elation from those who have a lot more freedom than others. I got an email from someone in [some other country] who was talking about how unsafe it is to dress like this.
Even in our country it isn’t safe to dress this way—what is it? One trans person is murdered every three days around the world? In the United States, that number is high and it’s murder. We don’t even hear about most bashings but I am not talking about that, I am talking about murder, all the way dead. It’s still quite unsafe to be trans, even in this country.
AB: We met each other at Mills College. Our program was unique because it had a focus on Corporate Social Responsibility. How did you integrate that in your business planning and operation?
MG: Social responsibility is really important to me. Fair and safe labor practices are really important to me.
Before I went to Mills I worked for a company that did source manufacturing in China, mostly paper products. Because we hear a lot of stories about slave labor and sweatshops in China I did a lot of research for this company. I got quite familiar with Chinese labor laws and safety practices.
As I set out to choose a manufacturer for Saint Harridan suits two things were paramount to me: safe labor and fair labor. I don’t mean fair as in “equity” but reasonable. You can’t judge fairness but a reasonable wage, a non-exploitative wage, was important to me.
It is much easier to judge that in the United States than anywhere else because I understand our labor laws and how to check for compliance of them. We are having our suits manufactured in the United States. It’s not like the US has the corner of the market on ethical labor practices or that because something is made here it is made ethically.
AB: You can work your way around any law you can afford to break.
MG: Right. I visited the factory in Massachusetts and North Carolina. I met a lot of the people who will be making the suits. It is a union-backed plant. The women I met outside all said, “we are not garment workers, we are craftspeople.” They are really proud of the work they do. They make an average of $24 an hour on that floor.
I am really proud of not only the social responsibility part, but the quality part too. They are putting years and years of experience into crafting these suits, they are not just hammered out, they are beautifully done.
All the other stuff… you know recycling paper is minimal to the impact we are having choosing this factory as opposed to one in say, Bangladesh, that might collapse and kill people.
I am not saying it is simple though; all that stuff is very complicated.
AB: Which affects the price too, I mean you couldn’t go buy one of your suits just anywhere.
MG: One of our obstacles is we are making suits that have traditionally only been found in the men’s department for bodies that have traditionally only been served in the women’s department. Bodies that have traditionally only been served in the women’s department are used to buying clothes in the women’s department, which are cheaper because they are not constructed as well and the expectation is you wear something different every day.
If you go to Nordstrom’s right now and look at their [men’s] suits, you will think ours are a bargain. In the scheme of what people who shop in the female section of stores are used to, they will think our suits are expensive. It’s about constructing a new mind set. They are highly constructed. There are 163 steps to making a jacket. It’s crafted; it’s an artisan product. It’s not like a woman’s suit, which is made of crap, and you grow out of it because [our bodies change] and you can’t tailor it.