We had the good fortune of connecting with Karen Poirier and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Karen, can you walk us through the thought-process of starting your business?
It was a slow, organic process that started 10 years ago. I was searching for a certain type of clothing that could meet my needs and that didn’t exist. As an overscheduled, uber-busy woman juggling a career, a household, a family with growing kids and aging parents, I wanted something to wear that was easy, comfortable, and versatile that would take me throughout the many roles in my day while also giving some support and shape to my full bust. If I’m honest, I’m lazy when it comes to clothes. And I wanted something I could wear all day, for anything, that didn’t require me to groggily strap on a full-support underwire bra at 6 a.m. (one of life’s greatest NON-pleasures) or to change outfits (and bras) every time I changed my activity. I spent about 5 years searching and when I didn’t find anything like what I wanted, I started designing it myself. It took five more years of prototyping and R&D to perfect the design and find a USA-based maker who could meet the highly-technical requirements. I persisted and ultimately succeeded, and my support system was awarded a patent. Along the journey, I talked to so many women who expressed the same desire that it became a natural idea to create a business. The more I heard their stories, the more it awoke a real passion in me to share my designs and to help other full-busted women who were suffering from the same lack of options.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
For a long time – most of my career–I struggled to find my place. As an art history major, I’d been trained to think critically, visually, and independently. But as an almost-math major, I also had a strong pull to metrics, efficiency, and analytics. So it’s no surprise that I spent most of my career in marketing, which was a natural fit because it combines all of those elements. And during that time, I became fascinated with what drives human feeling, thought, and behavior. (Interestingly, both art and marketing are focused on these things!)
When I was in-house in full-time marketing positions, it was a constant struggle for me, mentally and emotionally, because I felt so out of place. While I loved marketing work, I didn’t love workplace cultures that prioritized politics and status quo over innovation. So when I struck out on my own in 2013 with my first entrepreneurial venture (an independent, virtual marketing agency), it was a giant, scary leap of faith. But as soon as I did it, I felt more at ease and ‘in the flow’ than I ever had before. I wasn’t afraid of the risk because I knew I had the necessary skills and work ethic to succeed. And working with clients across multiple industries gave me perspective and allowed me to identify opportunities and enter new areas. That’s what gave me the confidence to start Embrago.
That said, the fashion industry is a tough one to break into as an outsider. There have been many times I’ve been deeply discouraged and tempted to quit. But the passion — and compassion — I’ve discovered for the thousands of underrepresented women who have been suffering in silence, invisible, and underserved in fashion (full-busted and mature-busted women) is what keeps me going.
Now, I’m determined to disrupt the current fashion paradigm that gives women just two choices, bra or no bra, the one that has trained women to think that pain is the price you have to pay to look good. I believe full-busted women deserve a new choice: to look well-dressed and elegant without having to wear a bra. Ultimately, Embrago is about having compassion for our curves. I believe women deserve clothing that supports her curves securely, beautifully, *and* gently.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
There’d be a lot of focus on good food and interesting places, so it would have to include mornings in the Strip District downtown – authentic Pittsburgh history meets modern epicurean sensibilities – a wide choice of high-quality coffee purveyors, amazing food options, everything from gourmet to quirky Pittsburgh, all while strolling, people-watching, and more Steelers merchandise on street vendor tables than you’ve ever seen. You could eat something different for every meal every day and not run out of options all week.
Pittsburgh is also blessed with some amazing and authentic French bakeries, boulangeries and patisseries, each with a different nuance and each in a different historic neighborhood, so we’d tour the city while eating croissants and macarons all over town, including: Jean-Marc Chatellier in Millvale, La Gourmandine in Lawrenceville, Gaby et Jules in Squirrel Hill. With new ones popping up every year, there are always some still to be discovered!
We also have an embarrassment of art and music options here, so I’d offer an array that would include The Warhol Museum (this is Andy Warhol’s hometown) and Carnegie Museum of Natural History (one of the best dinosaur collections in the country). Maybe a world-class concert by the Pittsburgh Symphony at Heinz Hall if it’s winter, or an outdoor concert in summer, with cheese and wine on a blanket at one of many of our great parks in summer.
For general afternoon fun, exploration, and evening dining, Lawrenceville is the place to be with blocks and blocks of independent shops, galleries, showrooms, restaurants, and lots of art and pop up markets every weekend. It’s also the home of the Beauty Shoppe co-working space [[https://beautyshoppe.co/]], home of fashion accelerator Style412 and lots of independent entrepreneurs and creators.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
So many amazing women-owned businesses have a part in my story. Embrago couldn’t have become a reality without each one of them:
Catherine Batcho of Cut and Sew Studio https://www.linkedin.com/in/catherine-batcho-b8ab6947/ coached me through early design and prototype development.
Jen Rocket Design [[jenrocket.com]] and Why Sew [[whysewworkshop.com]] made small-batch production possible.
Judy Masucci of Levana Bratique [[ levanabratique.com/]] offered advice and support throughout the development process, and helped me gather months of feedback and fit-test data from customers. (Judy is a great example of a woman who loves Embrago’s designs. She says, “As the owner of a bra shop specializing in hard-to-fit sizes, I’m always looking for good options for fuller-busts. Embrago is unique. It really does support large busts as well as a bra, while feeling super comfy and looking great. I wear a large cup size myself and I’ve never been able to go out in public without a full support bra until I found this. I love mine!”)
Visual creators like Terese Jungle (independent artist and a professor of graphic design) [[https://www.linkedin.com/in/teresejungle/]] and Elysia Newman, founder of Style412 in Pittsburgh [[https://www.linkedin.com/in/elysianewman/]] and Kristi Jan Hoover [[http://kjhstudios.com/]] have been instrumental in helping me create an amazing visual identity that reflects the spirit of this brand, which is about compassion for our curves and innovative design combined with beauty and elegance.
Finally, the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship at Chatham University (CWE) in Pittsburgh [[https://www.chatham.edu/cwe/]] shared connections, provided strategic and tactical guidance, and offered needed encouragement at critical points on an uncharted path.
Kristi Jan Hoover Clare Fisher Elysia Newman